When it comes to the practice and history of costume design, there is perhaps a no better expert than Professor Deborah Nadoolman Landis, founding director and chair of the David C. Copley Center for Costume Design at UCLA. Nadoolman Landis’ portfolio is like a greatest hits of iconic American culture, from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Animal House” to the iconic “Thriller” music video.
Since 2008, the Oscar-nominated designer has helmed the Copley Center, the costume-focused wing at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television, and positioned it as a thinktank, archive, and hub for the exploration of costume culture in entertainment. (She’s also the two-term president of IATSE Local 892, the Costume Designers Guild.)
Speaking with Backstage, Nadoolman Landis was keen to discuss the field, the school, and what costume designers should know.
What is your definition of costume designer?
Costume designers bring the people in the screenplay to life. With the showrunner and director, there are three key creative collaborators who control the look of the frame and the arc of the story: the cinematographer [designs] the mood and light, the production designer [designs] the world, and, the costume designer [designs] the people.
What are the largest misconceptions about the costume design profession?
That period costumes are hard to design and that modern costumes are easy to design—and that anyone can do it. That modern films are not “costume” pictures. That the Oscar for Best Costume Design is the “best” when often the “best” costume design is invisible when it disappears into the fabric of the narrative and performance. [And,] that iconic costumes (think “Indiana Jones”) spontaneously combust from the collective unconscious somehow without a costume designer.
How would someone know that a career in costume design is right for them?
If costume design is the culmination of interests including history, making, fashion, literature, and storytelling.
What makes training at UCLA unique?
UCLA is a rigorous program that prepares students for a career in the entertainment industry. We place 100% of our students in theater, film, and television productions.
What questions should applicants ask when considering if a program is the right fit?
Is the applicant ready to fully commit to a full-time program that includes daytime classes and evening productions? [While] we embrace traditional theater training, our curricular focus is on film and television.
What’s the most exciting thing to see in an application or portfolio of a potential student?
Passion for cinema and cultural literacy.
What was the most important lesson you learned about costume design in your own training?
Costume designers design from the inside, out. We are all about the “who.” Who is she? Who is he? Who are they?
The interview has been excerpted for clarity and brevity.
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