Costume Designer

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Costume Designer


You know that scene in your favorite movie where the teenage girls are in poodle skirts and saddle shoes, and the guys are in rolled up jeans and letter sweaters, and they're all out at the drive-in? But then a gang of toughs on motor bikes shows up, in leather jackets and tight white t-shirts, and their hair is greased down tight to their skulls? But just before a fight erupts, an Elvis movie comes on the screen, and everyone calms down to watch the King? Guess what? The film crew did not take a time machine back to 1955 to film this movie. They actually only made it last year, in the middle of a major American city. So how come it looked so much like the fifties? Ask the costume designer!

Costume designers dress the actors and the extras in appropriate clothing for various productions, including plays, dance productions, operas, television shows, commercials, music videos and concerts. Wherever the clothing worn by the players needs to project a certain mood, era, or cultural influence, costume designers have a hand in the project.

Each production will require different kinds of attention. In theater, film, and television, the designer meets with the director, reads the script and develops a plan for each scene in the production. Once they have met with the art director, set designer, and lighting designer, the costume designer can then set about creating sketches of the way each outfit should look. Some are involved in creating futuristic clothing, while others recreate historical events. These outfits require a lot of research, and may need to be handmade. However, if the story or show is set in more recent times, the costume designer might have to do more hunting through second hand shops and flea markets than stitching up bodices. However, even selecting clothes for movies set in 1974 involves a lot of research. Not just any second-hand browsing will do. No matter what era they are exploring, costume designers need to pay attention to details, right down to the type of fabric used by pioneering women in Nebraska, what sort of hairpieces accentuated the Beehive and what would be appropriate underwear for Renaissance nobility.

Costume designers work closely with the production's directors, producers, and actors. They know when they are creating looks for the production to stay within specific budgets, and must measure the performers before the outfits can be selected. They often work with assistants when developing a costume scheme for a production.

Costume designers usually specialize in one type of area. Some enjoy the drama of a life in theater, while others prefer working with television crews on commercials and other advertising initiatives. No matter where they apply their skills, however, all designers are able to strike a balance between creativity and practicality. They know how to recreate moods, eras and entire universes because of their innovative approach to fashion and design.
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  Interests and Skills  
Interested in working as a costume designer? Costume designers are interested in theater, film, and television production, and have a working knowledge of art, theatrical, and fashion history. They must enjoy sewing, and work well and efficiently even under pressure. They need a good understanding of the principles of fashion design, and they must be able to draw, paint and make models. They must also be able to use design programs on the computer. They should be creative and innovative in their designs, as well as practical, precise and organized. Costume designers need to be excellent and diligent researchers, as the historical accuracy of costumes is vital to a production's success. Costume designers also need excellent communication skills, and they must feel comfortable expressing themselves to directors, as well as to large groups of assistants.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Read the script and consult with the various directors
  • Analyze budget, cast size and physical requirements of cast members
  • Research the fashions appropriate to the time period depicted, including shoes, underclothes and accessories
  • Develop sketches
  • Supervise the creation of the costumes
  • Hunt through second hand stores and flea markets for appropriate clothing
  • Attend dress rehearsals to supervise the costumes and make changes as needed
  • May be responsible for costume maintenance
  • Self-promotion duties
  • The typical day for a costume designer will vary, depending on the working environment. Each designer will spend some of each day assessing the script and the actors, outlining ideas for outfits and costumes. They will also spend some of each day researching clothing from relevant eras and cultures. They will meet with lighting designers, architects, directors, actors, and costume assistants. There is lots of opportunity for travel, especially for those designers who are involved with touring productions.
  • A lot of the work is done by freelance designers, who must spend part of their time marketing themselves and making contacts with clients at film, theater, and television production companies.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Costume designers work in a variety of environments, including television studios, on film sets and outdoor film locations, small theaters, and huge concert halls. They design indoor environments at museums, galleries, offices, and public buildings. They can also be found involved with theme parks, restaurants and other commercial venues.
  • They may work as freelancers, on contract to venues, theater companies, governments and film production companies. They may be employed on a permanent basis with theater, television and film production companies.
  • Their hours vary, depending on their employment situation. They can often work long hours, often 15 hour days for a week or more at a time, if they are involved with a touring company or a film crew. They will work more regular hours if they are in the planning--not the production--stage.

  Long Term Career Potential  
Costume designers can find work with large theater companies, or they can open up a freelance costume design business. They can become stage managers, stage directors and camera technicians. They can become fashion designers, fabric designers or get into fashion management in the retail sector. They can teach theatrical design in colleges, universities, private schools, or high schools. They can apply their knowledge of historical costuming to auction houses, historical societies and museums, working as a consultant, a designer, or in repairs.

  Educational Paths  
There is no set path to becoming a costume designer. It is a good idea to volunteer as a designer with a local school theater department or community theater. It is also a good idea to pay attention to the costumes in movies, plays and television shows.Take notice of the props being used, the furniture and how the stage is set up. It is also a good idea to take a few sewing classes.

As for formal training, apiring designers should consider a college diploma or a university degree in fashion design, fine arts, theater technology, art history or theatrical design. They can also pursue a master's degree in fine arts, if they want to advance to highly sought after positions within the field.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition,
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002,

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