How to Become a Costume Designer

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From Dorothy’s red ruby slippers to Indiana Jones’ well-worn fedora, costume designers bring our favorite film characters to life through clothes. If you want to do more than just watch great characters on screen, if you’re a go-getter who loves storytelling, collaborating, creating, research, and—of course—clothes, you might be a natural for this essential production job. Read on for everything you need to know about how to get started in costume design and wardrobe. 

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What does a costume designer do?

A costume designer plans and creates the clothing and accessories worn by the characters in a film, series, or theater production.

According to legendary costume designer Edith Head, costume designers “create the illusion of changing actors into what they are not. We ask the public to believe that every time they see a performer on the screen, he’s [or she’s] become a different person.” 

In other words, a costume designer’s job is to visually telegraph who a character is by what they’re wearing. “I am responsible for building the visual identity of the character, from the page to a real-life representation of clothed people,” says costume designer Claire Anderson. “When you look at someone, you know what job they do, you know what they’re like, because we’re all in tribes, we all belong to a group or a class…. you can always sort of tell who people are [by what they wear].”

Costume Designer 101

What does a typical day look like for a costume designer?

A costume designer′s day varies tremendously depending on what point of the production they′re in.

Courtesy HBOThere’s no way around it: pretty much every day as a costume designer is a long, demanding one. It’s all hands on deck from the very start of pre-production, at which point they’re devouring the script, taking notes, analyzing the plot, tone, and setting, to the last days of production. Though the design portion of a costume designer’s job is technically finished once the cameras are rolling, they’re always on standby—and usually on set during production: “Every day you need to use the costume breakdown [to] set out the clothing you have been preparing” for the scenes being shot, says Molly Rogers, costume designer for “Sex and the City,” “Ugly Betty,” and “The Devil Wears Prada.”

(For an hour-by-hour breakdown of a costume designer’s life on set during production, check out Oscar winner Colleen Atwood’s set diary from her time on “Alice in Wonderland: Through the Looking Glass.”)

What’s the process of designing costumes for a film?

Costume designers first analyze the script, talk to the director, research fashion history and trends that are relevant to the production, and put together visual references before designing and assembling the looks.

According to Mary Zophres, the Coen brothers go-to costume designer, the process begins on the page. “[My job] is to read the script, interpret the script…. You’re servicing the script and the director’s vision first and foremost.”

After script analysis, it’s onto research (particularly if the project is set in a certain time period), sketches, and mood boards, all of which are presented to the director. “I work closest with the director and the actors, and then the crew, production design, and cinematography,” says Zophres. “Later in the process, sound comes into play, the locations department.” 

Once their ideas get the go-ahead, it’s time for the costume designers to track down and/or produce every shirt, dress, necklace, and hat worn by every single actor during production—all while ensuring the costumes can help the actors better understand their characters. An actor walks into a fitting, and you are there to help them find the character,” says Oscar-winning costume designer Julian Day. “When they have that moment of ‘I completely understand my character now,’ that is always very complimentary… you want to do that.” 

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How do I get started as a costume designer?

As with anything in the business of show, there’s no better place to start than the bottom.

According to Cristina Spiridakis, costume designer on HBO’s “High Maintenance,” the most important thing you can do is “start as a PA assistant and meet as many costume designers as you can. The experience of being a costume PA—it’s very hard work, it’s a lot of physical labor—but you get out of it what you put in... Put in your time, learn your craft, and work your way up.”

How to Find PA Jobs

Gene Lakin, costume designer and professor of fashion design at Pratt, echoes this sentiment. “It’s lovely to say, ‘Here are 10 things you can do to become a costume designer,’ but it doesn’t work that way. But what I do tell people is, ‘Always say yes.’ If there’s an opportunity that presents itself, grab it, go for it, try it. Otherwise, you’ll never know.”

Courtesy MarvelOr take a page out of Oscar winner Ruth E. Carter’s book and start in theater. “It’s easier to work in the theater, and it gives you a great foundation for characterization, breaking down a script, and understanding the actors,” she says. “You see immediately how [the clothes] affect the audience. You can hear the reaction. In film, I can’t hear people laughing unless I go see it [in theaters]. It’s a great training ground. That’s how I learned. It’s not the glamor of Hollywood, where you have the stars, but I think it’s actually a pure view of the art of costume design.”

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What training and skills do I need to be a costume designer?

On a technical level, you should be skilled in drawing and possess strong creative instincts, with an excellent eye for detail and grasp of color and design. Experience with textiles, sewing, pattern making, and fit are also preferred.

And while there are no specific degrees or credentials required to become a costume designer, many professionals do go to college for design. There are many undergraduate and master’s programs dedicated to costume design, offering technical training, apprenticeships, and opportunities. Some of the more well-regarded institutions include Tisch School of the Arts, USC School of Dramatic Arts, the David C. Copley Center for the Study of Costume Design at UCLA, the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Center for Continuing Professional Studies, and Pratt Institute.

Costume designers also have extensive knowledge of period costumes and all types of costume accessories, including hats, helmets, footwear, watches, and weaponry. Being well-versed in history, film, filmmaking, photography, literature, architecture, writing, character development, and story structure is a major plus as a large chunk of the job is research. You need to be capable of gathering and sifting through an enormous amount of information. 

Less technical but equally important, you must be an indestructible leader, on top of a million different tasks, deadlines, and quick fixes; working under pressure is inevitable. You need to be incredibly organized, well-spoken, descriptive, analytical, trustworthy, non-egotistical, know how to behave on a set, and must get along well with actors as a large percentage of the job consists of close collaborations and in-depth chats about the process with them.

What’s the career path of a costume designer?

There are no specific degrees or credentials required for the job and costume designers generally come into the position with varying educational backgrounds. Many enter the department from other fields in film, theater, and the arts, including fashion, theater design, acting, and graphic design.

“One of the classes that I teach at FIT has to do with career-building,” says Lakin. “The first thing I tell the folks that take the class is that there is no sign-up sheet, there’s no bullet list, there’s no single route that any individual designer takes to get where they are…. every single person comes into it from a different point.”

A common thread for the budding costume designer is to find footing as a hardworking costume assistant or wardrobe trainee and climb the ladder to 2nd assistant costume designer, assistant costume designer, and costume supervisor before landing the top gig. However, a PA job is a great foundation for anybody aspiring to pursue a career in film, especially in costume design.

Where do I find work as a costume designer?

Costume designers can find work through their connections, professional network, and job boards.

While costume designers can find opportunities in many cities, from regional theater to local/independent film productions, the main hubs are New York, Los Angeles, and Toronto. Once you’re there, however, you’ll find it’s an incredibly competitive field, so seek out work in your local theaters, on short films, on job boards (like Backstage!), and through personal connections. Gain as much hands-on experience as possible and never stop networking.

What should I include in my portfolio?

A costume designer’s portfolio should be a collection of their best work.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures Costume portfolios are key to booking work. No matter the job, you’ll be asked to submit your portfolio (bonus points if it’s findable on your personal website), so put together a collection of your best work as a designer, including full-fledged wardrobes, fabric samples, sketches, mood boards, photographs, or video. Be sure to include work at every stage—initial sketches to images of the finished product—to illustrate your process. If possible, include designs across mediums, genres, and time periods to show your versatility, imagination, creativity, and knowledge. 

How much money will I make working in costumes and wardrobe?

Costume designers can make anywhere from $35,000 to $100,000, annually.

The amount of money you can expect to make as a costume designer will depend on several factors: your level of experience, the size and budget of the production, how frequently you work, and your location. According to recent research, below are average annual earnings, based on level of experience:

Costume Assistant: $19,000 - $21,000
2nd Assistant Costume Designer: $21,000 - $26,000
Assistant Costume Designer: $26,000 - $37,000
Costume Supervisor: $37,000-$60,000
Costume Designer: $60,000 - $100,000

(If you’re a member of a union or guild—more on that below—and are working on a union production in television or theater, you can find rate charts here.)

Do I have to join the union to be a costume designer?

As a costume designer, you can join the Costume Designers Guild and the Motion Picture Costumers Union.

If you’re serious about costume design and know you want to pursue it as your career, then the Costume Designers Guild, Motion Picture Costumers union (IATSE 705), or United Scenic Artists (Local USA 829) are worth considering. Representing costume designers, assistant costume designers, and costume illustrators in film, TV, commercials, and theater, they offer medical plans, help negotiate contracts, require fair wages, and promote recognition of the profession.

Do I have to live in L.A. to be a costume designer?

No, you do not need to be in Los Angeles to have a career as a costume designer, but being in a large city or prominent industry market is valuable.

While there are major pros to living in and being around Hollywood, gone are the days of a single region to make filmmaking dreams come true. In recent years, Canada has become a haven for film and TV production as well as the U.K., which has been on the receiving end of investments from major streaming platforms Netflix, Amazon, and Apple. New York is also a particularly thriving spot for costume designers, between indie and feature film shoots, TV tapings, Broadway-proximity, and prominent design schools. With a little magic and camouflage, you can do this anywhere.

For more on how to get work on a film crew, visit Backstage’s crew hub!

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