How to Get Started in Costume Design + Wardrobe

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Photo Source: Courtesy of Marvel, Rollins-Joffe Productions, Twentieth Century Fox, Paramount Pictures

There’s a lot of power in costume design, one of the industry’s most crucial “invisible arts.” Whether the clothes are flashy or subdued, they provide invaluable insight into the characters, their emotions, and their settings. When it’s done right, we’re not watching high-paid actors playing dress-up, but lived-in people we sympathize with and fall in love with. Or lived-in people we love to hate.

The craft also has the ability to shape real-world fashion. In “Annie Hall,” for instance, Diane Keaton in the titular role became a style icon in the late 1970s as she, along with costume designer Ruth Morley, developed what became known, fittingly, as “the Annie Hall look”: a top-buttoned black vest over a men’s dress shirt, a long tie that hangs down over a pair of loose trousers, and a big brimmed-bowler hat. Harkening back to Marlene Dietrich’s gender-bending look in “Morocco,” it was cool and different, while perfectly projecting the character’s “La di da” persona.

From Dorothy’s red ruby slippers to Indiana Jones’ well-worn fedora, costume designers throughout the history of film have brought our favorite film characters to life through clothes. But what if you don’t just want to watch great characters on the big screen? What if you want to help get them there? If you’re a go-getter who loves storytelling, collaborating, reading a lot, and—of course—clothes, then you might be a natural for this essential production job.

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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 (“Sullivan’s Travels,” “All About Eve,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “The Sting”), what a costume designer does “is a cross between magic and camouflage. We 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 main job is to telegraph who a character is by what they′re wearing—before ever speaking. A character′s costume is one of the first visuals that gives viewers an idea of the story that′s about to unfold. 

In order to achieve this, costume designers—who are heads of the wardrobe department and responsible for staffing and managing a teammust also tap into their inner psychologist, sociologist, researcher, historian, and actor. Juggling these roles helps in their task to design, create and/or compile, and fit the most appropriate outfits and accessories for each character in a way that serves the needs of the narrative and the director’s vision.

“We’re sort of the paint, really, with the director being the brushes and the producers and the writers being the canvas,” says Julian Day, who served as the costume designer on “Rocketman” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

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.

Beginning their work at the start of pre-production, costume designers have to first break down and analyze the script, getting a firm grasp of its tone, setting, and how much time the movie spans, all factors in determining wardrobe designs and changes. Most importantly, though, they must excavate the heads of the characters the way a method performer, or a shrink, would in order to figure out who they are so they can convey that to viewers through clothing. As they read through the script, they might ask themselves: What does this person believe in? Are they organized? What’s their financial situation? Where would this person shop?

Upon reading the script and gathering initial thoughts, questions and design ideas, the first of hundreds of conversations with the director start taking place. This intense collaboration is make-or-break levels of vital. 

“I work closest with the director and the actors, and then the crew, production design, and cinematography,” says costume designer Mary Zophres. “Later in the process, sound comes into play, the locations department—ultimately, filmmaking is an extremely collaborative art form. My boss, the person I’m trying to please the most, is the director. But my job is to help the actors feel and inhabit their character, so that’s a very important relationship, as well.”

The next step is to do a deep dive into researching the clothing that fits the time and location of the story. While period pieces, such as 2019’s “Harriet,” require more specific studying to accurately transport and immerse the audience in the past, the research phase for a costume designer knows no bounds, especially when it comes to outer space or distant realms as depicted in sci-fi and fantasy films. The looks of otherworldly dimensions are often pulled from historical architecture and garments (Star Wars comes to mind). With contemporary pieces, the designer must learn about the culture, vibe, and people of whatever the story’s setting is. 

The designer’s research and prep often correlate with the creation of sketches, fabric samples, digital renderings, mood boards, and costume plots, which track the timeline of a character’s story.

The sketches and blueprints are presented to the director and others, such as the cinematographer, production designer, and members of the hair and makeup departments, with whom costume designers discuss any inconsistencies with the larger tapestry of the film: Do the costumes work with the color palette and tone of a specific sequence? Is a certain vibrancy needed for this one moment when our hero falls in love? Sometimes adjustments need to be made to accommodate a budget restriction, or a specific actor, or stunt rigging. It’s an invaluable step in the journey and helps get everybody on the same page.

Once their ideas get the go-ahead, it’s time for the costume designers to track down and/or produce the garb from scratch. (Usually, multiple versions of the same piece of clothing are necessary for production use.) During pre-production, they coordinate daily responsibilities, schedules, and deadlines, and are hands-on during fittings. When production starts, costume designers are generally on set every day, especially when something is worn for the first time and in case alterations or repairs need to be made quickly.

Finally, an actor and a costume designer are trusted allies with the same mission; they’re both trying to “discover the same person,” according to Deborah Lynn Scott, the Oscar-winning costume designer for “Titanic” and “Avatar.”

“An actor walks into a fitting, and you are there to help them find the character; when they have that moment of ‘I completely understand my character now,’ that is always very complimentary and encouraging,” agrees Day.

Cynthia Ann Summers, costume designer for “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” echoes this sentiment, saying, “We illustrate everything first and then I bring in the illustrations when we have a fitting. The first thing Neil Patrick Harris [who plays Count Olaf] does is turn to me in the voice he is going to be using in that particular disguise: ‘I’m going to be talking like this with this guy.’ It just colors completely differently the way I’m looking at what I’m creating...It’s super cohesive.”

What training and education do I need to be a costume designer? What’s the career path of a costume designer?

There are no specific degrees or credentials required to become a costume designer, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to a career path.

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

But that’s not to say there aren’t a lot of undergraduate and master’s programs dedicated specifically to costume design, offering technical training, apprenticeships, and experience 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. 

“One of the classes that I teach at FIT has to do with career building,” says Gene Lakin, costume designer and professor of fashion design at Pratt. “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. To illustrate that, I get other designers to come and visit the class and tell about their experience and their route into the industry because every single person comes into it from a different point. That may be disappointing because 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.”

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. 

Introduce yourself to members of the department, make connections, and keep your eyes and ears open. Just observing a professional costume designer will be an excellent education.

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.”

And at the end of the day, you can always contact two-time Tony-nominated costume designer Toni-Leslie James. “I’m an approachable person, you can write me,” she says. “Anybody who wants to get in the business…. write people and ask if you can come by, if you can look at a fitting, if you can talk to them about their work. I think we’re a lot more accessible than people think we are.”

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 skills do I need to be a costume designer?

Costume designers need to be creative, skilled in drawing, sewing, pattern making and fit, have extensive knowledge of period dress and history, and be organized, descriptive, and communicative.

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. In terms of clothes, you should basically be a bonafide expert when it comes to fabrics, clothing cuts, sewing, pattern making, textiles, texture, and fitting. 

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 should I include in my portfolio?

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

Costume portfolios are key to booking work. Put together a collection of your best work as a designer, including full-fledged wardrobes, fabric samples, intricate sketches, and mood boards. Get in the habit of logging your work, especially any collaborations with other artists or actors. Creating a blog or vlog that details your creative endeavors and progress over time would be a great asset when it comes down to interview with a potential employer. Whoever is meeting with you will want to see that you’re imaginative, original, and varied in the work you’ve done. Including any form of course certification or degree is obviously a plus, as well.

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. 

There’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 costume designer’s job is technically finished once the cameras are rolling, they’re always on standby—and usually on set—in case of any problems or needed alterations. (That can often translate to 15-hour days, six days a week.)

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

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

While there is no fixed number and it all depends on the size of the production, costume designers are typically paid an hourly wage, which can range from $9.47/hour to $29.13/hour, according to Career Explorer. That said, careersinfilm.com states a salary range of $25,000 to $100,000 for costume designers, depending on level and experience.

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 and the Motion Picture Costumers union are worth considering. Representing costume designers, assistant costume designers, and costume illustrators in film, TV, and commercials, they both offer several medical plans, help negotiate contracts, 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. 

To keep it simple, no. 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.

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