Are you dazzled by the glitz and glamour of Hollywood? Have you always dreamed of dressing the stars? Do you spend hours collecting your favorite images of outfits? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, a career as a costume designer for films might be right for you and the team at TomCruise.com is here to help you get started!
Like the previous guides, the TomCruise.com team has gathered information about the most popular professions in the entertainment industry. We have diligently searched for the most useful information to launch your career, including a list of books written by successful costume designers, educational programs to begin your training and a description of some of the most essential skills for the field.
Our Aspiring Film Costume Designer Guide is the latest edition in our ongoing series, a welcome addition to our aspiring actor, director and filmmaker, makeup artist, film editor, producer, screenwriter, stuntman and visual effects artist guides!
From the first moment Obi Wan Kenobi appears on screen cloaked in a hooded plain tunic in Star Wars to the various incarnations of Catwoman’s slinky, form-fitting outfit, many of the most memorable movies feature iconic costumes that convey the mood of the scene and the personality of a character.
“Your work is the first thing the audience sees so you have to be able to tell them who that character is. You have to know how the actor and the director see the character before you can dress them. Once you have an idea of who you’re dressing then you can begin to develop a look that he can portray that character.”
- Walter Peterson, costume designer and author of Out of the Closet: The Life of a Costume/Fashion Designer quoted in New England Film
These magical transformations do not just happen by luck, but through the hard work and talent of a costume designer. After reading through a script, researching the clothes and accessories worn during the time period depicted in the film and determining how the performers will be moving, such as fighting, fencing, swimming or riding horses, a costume designer begins to create outfits that will compliment the set designs, propel the story, adhere to clothing of the time period and give a performer an appropriate amount of movement required by the character. Knowing how to perfectly combine all these elements can result in Academy Award-winning costume designs.
The Guide for Aspiring Costume Designers includes:
- A description of what a costume designer does, including typical skills, glossary of common terms, professional titles and useful apps
- A selection of informational videos
- Books written by industry experts with useful advice, tips and techniques
- Publications available online and/or in print to learn more about working as a costume designer in the entertainment industry, including insider information about the evolving fabrics, technology and tools
- Colleges and universities offering classes, certification or training specifically for aspiring costume designers
- Training programs or vocational schools led by experienced professionals
- Unions, groups and associations for professional costume designers
As always, the TomCruise.com team welcomes your comments, feedback and suggestions. If you have experience in this field and can direct us to any additional information or resources, we’d love to hear it so we can add them to our next update. Please use the hashtag #aspiring2actwritedirect in all your social media responses about these guides.
Beginning in pre-production, a costume designer helps tell the story and define the overall ‘look’ of a film. In addition to designing, creating or acquiring all of the performers’ costumes, the costume designer must adhere to a budget and meet deadlines as well as hire and schedule staff. While some productions require designing original costumes, others may involve purchasing or adapting ready-made outfits.
Like many entertainment careers, the bigger the budget on a production, the more specialized each crew member is. While the smaller the budget on a project, a greater amount of responsibilities is shared among a scaled down crew. Regardless of the size of a film and the number of hats required, a professional film costume designer will need several key skills to successfully complete any project.
Artistic – An ability to apply a knowledge of period garments and accessories along with a creative flair, a sense of color and design skills to create compelling costumes. Knowledge of various types of fabrics, clothing cuts, how to ensure a proper fit, pattern making and sewing should combine with experience designing garments for specific types of facial structures or physiques to bring the characters to life.
Administration and Management – The majority of costume designers are self-employed and must be able to manage budgets, meet deadlines and hire staff. Because you will be dealing with a variety of personalities, the ability to maintain an even temper and communicate effectively is also an important skill. Because the costume department budget may vary greatly from production to production, maintaining accurate financial records is essential. Costume Designers generally supervise fabric research and purchase, are responsible for selecting appropriate vendors and costume makers as well as negotiating their contracts, supervising the costume construction, overseeing fittings and ensuring all necessary garments are completed by the deadlines. On smaller projects, the costume designer may also manage the production schedules for their staff and assistants as well as supervise the breakdown, care and maintenance of the costumes and accessories.
Cultural Knowledge – An awareness and understanding of different time periods, as well as societal and political influences, in regard to fashion, history, art, literature, film and textiles. Cultural knowledge helps to create historically accurate garments and accessories in all aspects, such as selecting the appropriate fabrics, hats, buttons, jewelry and garment closures.
Detail-oriented – Beyond creating an illustrated design of the costumes, a successful costume designer should be able to describe and include even the most minute elements of the garment, such as the thread color, the type of fabric and appropriate undergarments. If the appropriate elements are not included during the costume construction, the designer should not only notice the errors but correct the mistakes.
Perception and Visualization – An ability to predict how movement, lighting, color and body structure may affect the appearance of a garment and applying that knowledge when designing costumes. By imagining how an item will look when various textiles are used or details are rearranged, the costume designer will be able to determine how each item may alter the appearance of a performer. The ability to visualize various looks prior to sketching or presenting the designs can save valuable time in the creative process.
Research – The ability to find and use numerous resources, such as libraries, museums and the Internet to discover the fashion styles, designs, textiles and construction methods appropriate for a film’s time period. In addition, the costume designer may discuss the color palette, set designs, overall film vision, character plots and costume designs with the director, writer, performers, director of photography, production designer and key makeup artist. The designer must be able to seek out, study and interpret information and breakdown the script in order to acquire information, establish facts and form a conclusion, including discovering specific information about the time period of the film, lighting effects, a performer’s coloring, body type and movement required as well as potential weather conditions.
Script and Character Breakdown – During pre-production, the costume designer will read through the script and make detailed notes for each scene to determine how many characters will need to be dressed and the types of costumes that will be required. Continuing the process, the designer develops costume plots for each character, including determining which colors and styles will most effectively convey the emotional journey of a character and ensuring there are no unintentional duplications of costume colors within the same scene. The designer must be able to identify story structure and character arcs to develop costume plots.
Sewing – Knowing how to construct a garment, including how to use patterns, stitching techniques and sewing machines, can only help a costume designer create an effective costume design. During an interview with Clothes on Film, three-time Academy Award-winning costume designer Sandy Powell (Interview with the Vampire, The Aviator, Shakespeare in Love) said, “I would always advise anyone who wants to be a costume designer to learn to sew. I think it is essential to know how a costume is constructed to be able to design properly.”
Sketching and Drawing – The ability to draw a design or render designs with the assistance of computer software is an incredibly useful skill for a designer. While some designers may work closely with a costume illustrator to convey their ideas in two-dimensional sketches, modern advances in technology can help any designer sketch their ideas. Whether you draw old-school style paper sketches or computer-generated images, the ability to create a professional costume presentation is an essential skill for a costume designer.
In order to be a successful film costume designer, you must be able to communicate effectively with the movie crew as well as with the clothing craftspeople. Understanding the terminology of two distinct fields can be a challenge for anyone, which is why the TomCruise.com team has complied a list of common words and phrases to help bridge the gap between the fashion and entertainment industries.
Accessories – Costume props, such as hats, hosiery, gloves, shoes, jewelry, umbrellas and masks, that add visual interest and may help an audience distinguish one character from another.
Balance – Both sides of the components are of equal visual interest. Types of balance include:
- Asymmetrical: Opposing or contrasting elements are effectively combined, resulting in sense of equilibrium in the costume. Crystallographic: The overall pattern has no discernible beginning or end, placing equal emphasis over the entire design.
- Radial: All the elements or details of a garment radiate from a central point.
- Symmetrical: The shapes or lines on one side of the garment are mirrored on the opposite side.
Camera-ready – A performer is physically prepared to be in front of a camera and begin filming, including wearing his full costume and makeup.
Color Schemes – The choice of colors used in a design, including any of the following combinations:
- Analogous: Hues that appear next to each other on a color wheel, including subtle tints, tones and shades, like the colors in a rainbow.
- Complementary: Hues, tints, tones and shades that are opposite each other on a color wheel, such as red and green, purple and yellow. The contrasting colors may create an energetic feel.
- Monochromatic: The various tints, tones and shades of a single hue that may create a soothing feel.
- Triad: Three hues that would form a triangle on a color wheel, such as orange, purple and green.
CGI (Computer-Generated Imagery) – Digitally-rendered visual effects added during post-production. Can be used to change or add details after filming is complete, from simply changing a performer’s eye color to creating an entire ‘costume’ for motion-capture performers who wear a motion-capture suit while shooting, such as the one Andy Serkis used in his role as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy.
Costume – Any clothes and accessories that a performer wears, including contemporary fashions, swimsuits and formal ball gowns. Conveys information to the audience about the time period, culture and economic circumstances the performers inhabit as well as defines the ‘look’ of the film.
Costume Bible – A large binder or file with all of the information relating to the costumes in a production, including sketches, photographs, fabric swatches and receipts.
Costume Breakdown – May refer to either the removal of the performers’ costumes and storing the items after a day’s filming has wrapped or all of the details that comprise each costume, such as the fabrics, trim and accessories used to create the ‘look.’
Costume Construction – Creating the garments and accessories worn by a performer, including making original items or entire outfits from design patterns or adapting existing garments.
Costume Continuity – Monitor and maintain the wardrobe needs of each scene and the necessary evolution of the costumes, such as ensuring the costumes have the appropriate damage or wear because scenes are not shot in chronological order. Also ensure the garments worn by each performer are the ones intended by the designer.
Costume Plot – A system, such as a list or chart, with detailed information about which characters appear in each scene along with the costumes required in order to track the specific costume needs of every performer. Can also be used to identify any potential costume conflicts, such as too many performers wearing similar or contrasting colors.
Distressing – The process of aging a garment so the items no longer look new, such as fading the color of the clothes and softening the fabric. Academy Award-nominated costume designer for True Grit (2010), Mary Zophres told The Los Angeles Times that aging the garments and accessories in the film was an essential part of the process when making costumes for Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and Hailee Steinfeld because “none of these characters would have had new clothes. Once they were made, we had to start beating them up.” She also made different versions of some of the costumes, such as wet, dry and dirty copies of Hailee Steinfeld’s coat.
Design Elements – The building blocks of an outfit or design, including the texture, line, shape, form, light and color.
Final Designs – Full color renderings of the costume designs, including the style, silhouette, textures, details and accessories of each costume.
Hue – A gradation or variety of a color in the spectrum.
Line – The outline of an object that draws the eye from one element to another, either by linear progression that creates and repeats a shape or by gradation which increases or decreases the size of a shape in a regular sequence.
Look Parade – Each character is presented in full costume, hair and makeup for final approval by a film director.
Period (aka Time Period or Period Piece) – The historical era depicted in a film or story.
Realism – A design style based upon or replicating actual clothing worn during a time period.
Script Breakdown – The process of reading through a script scene by scene to identify character arcs, time periods, number of characters and all the necessary wardrobe elements to create the costume designs.
Silhouette – The shape of a person’s body and/or the outline of a garment.
Stylization – Designs that are fantastical, not an accurate depiction of clothing actually worn in real-life.
Swatch – A sample piece of fabric.
Textile Artist – An expert on prints and patterns, including the ability to create fabrics with plant, animal or synthetic fibers.
Trim – Flourishes or details added to garments either by hand or machine, such as braids, buttons, embroidery, lace edgings, piping, ribbons, ruffles or tassels
Undergarments – Items worn under clothing, may include a bodice, chemise, corset, codpiece, leggings, pantaloons or petticoats.
Costumes are an integral part of bringing the characters in a script or screenplay to life and it is the responsibility of the costume/wardrobe department to create the costume designs, ensure the proper fitting, purchase any required materials, manufacture the clothes and accessories if necessary, oversee the continuity of the costumes used in the production and care for all costume items. The term ‘costume’ generally includes any of the clothes that the performers wear, including jewelery, footwear, corsetry, hosiery, millinery and occasionally, wigs. The department staff is usually divided between pre-production, including the design, acquisition of materials and the creation of the costumes; and production, including organizing the wardrobe collection, caring for the costumes and overseeing the continuity of the costumes during filming.
Because the budgets and costume requirements can vary widely from production to production, the responsibilities of the job roles within the costume department may blur, especially the duties of costume design assistants, costume supervisors and wardrobe supervisors. Regardless of the individual titles, the costume department staff must have the costumes available when required, assist the performers with dressing, ensure costume continuity and maintain the costumes when the items are not in use.
Assistant Costume Designer – As the ‘right-hand’ of the costumer designer, the role may encompass a wide range of responsibilities, including contributing to script and costume breakdowns, maintaining the budget, conducting research, scheduling fittings with the cast and managing the costume inventory. During fittings, the individual in this role may also be responsible for taking measurements, making note of any necessary alterations and taking reference photographs. In addition to organizing and overseeing many of the pre-production details, the assistant costume designer may also buy or rent costumes, accessories, equipment, fabric or tools with the approval of the designer.
Costumer – During pre-production, this individual is involved in researching the styles of dress and fabrics appropriate to the time period of the production, as well as sourcing the materials, and continues working until the wardrobe is delivered to the set. Depending on the production, a costumer may also assume the responsibilities of an assistant to the costume designer as well as a those of a buyer, seeking out quotes from vendors and purchasing any necessary materials or costumes. May also assist with costume construction and aging of the fabric as well as wardrobe care and maintenance during pre-production through the end of filming. Additional tasks during production may also include dressing background performers. This entry-level role could lead to advanced positions, such as a set costumer or assistant costume designer.
Costume Buyer (aka Shopper) – On a big-budget production, especially on a film where a lead performer has some creative control over their wardrobe selection, this person is hired specifically to source and purchase fabrics and garments in accordance with the costume designer’s vision.
Costume Designer – An individual who designs the costumes for a film or stage production by collaborating with the director, writer, makeup artist and set designer to create historically accurate garments. As the head of the department, the costume designer oversees both pre-production and on-set staff. Prior to filming, the costume designer breaks down the script and researches the time period of the film to form rough sketches for lead characters, supporting cast and background performers. May work with a costume illustrator to produce detailed drawings with the desired fabrics, color palettes, trim details, such as buttons and fringe, as well as the accessories, such as jewelry, hats and shoes. After supervising the construction of each costume, overseeing the cast fittings and making any necessary design changes, the costumes may be presented to the director for final approval. Once the director has signed off on each costume, the costume designer’s work is usually complete. However, the costume designer may be contacted during filming to consult on major repairs or costume changes.
Costume Illustrator – Brings the director’s, writer’s and costume designer’s ideas to life by creating presentation boards and two-dimensional color illustrations to convey both the costume and the character. Through research and discussion with the costume designer, the costume illustrator produces sketches, capturing the appropriate time period, to illustrate the ‘look’ of the film.
Costume Supervisor – The individual in charge of training, scheduling and overseeing the costume staff as well as preparing the garments for use and ensuring the items adhere to the designs. In addition to overseeing the day-to-day logistics of the department, the costume supervisor may also consult with the costume designer regarding script breakdown, purchases, rentals, returns and maintaining the budget.
Cutter – Sometimes referred to as a fitter, seamstress or tailor, these costume technicians ensure the proper fit of a costume on each performer as well as makes any adjustments necessary. Big budget productions may hire one or more cutters to be available on set throughout filming, especially for period film projects that have complicated or large wardrobe collections.
Key Costumer – Usually only employed on big-budget productions to oversee the lead performers’ wardrobe and manage the set costumers.
Set Costume Supervisor – The set costume supervisor oversees many of the daily preparations during the pre-production period and principal filming, including working in concert with the costume supervisor and costumer designer to assign garments to each character, breaking down the script, maintaining costume continuity, overseeing staff and managing the budget. The individual in this role must keep track of the wardrobe requirements of each scene, the evolution of the costumes and ensure the correct garments are worn and assigned to the correct cast member. In addition to supervising the staff that dress the performers, making any emergency repairs between scenes, ensuring costumes are camera-ready between takes, ordering expendables and equipment necessary, the key costumer may be responsible for submitting weekly expense reports and the department’s payroll.
Like everyone working in the entertainment industry, movie costume designers must be ready to present their portfolio, take a meeting or arrive on set at a moment’s notice. Staying organized, conducting last minute research and being prepared at the drop of a hat is much easier with today’s technology. To help give you an edge over the competition, the TomCruise.com team has gathered a list of several useful apps currently on the market. If you have suggestions for any other costume designer apps, please send us a link in the comments section below or in a social media post with the hashtag #aspiring2actwritedirect.
Costume – Special Exhibitions by The Metropolitan Museum of Art – Listen to nine free audio podcasts via iTunes from The Costume Institute of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Based upon the collection of more than 30,000 costumes and accessories spanning five centuries, The Met audio episodes cover topics such as, Poiret: King of Fashion, a Costume Designers Panel and Superhero Fashion.
History of Costume – Module Vocabulary Lists – The seven free episodes by the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising (FIDM) are available on iTunes. Learn about the artistic, political, religious and technical influences on costumes throughout history.
IMDb: iPhone/iPad | Android – With extensive information about current and past film and television productions, including credits, profiles and awards, the Internet Movie Database is the go-to resource for anyone working in the entertainment industry.
Paper: iPad – The 2012 Apple Design Award Winner provides artists with an easy way to create and capture sketches, diagrams, illustrations, notes or drawings as well as share the images online.
Portfolio for iPad – Showcase your work anywhere, anytime by creating a customized collection of images and files loaded from iPad media, file sharing, URLs, Dropbox or a Mac. Images can be rotated, displayed as a gallery thumbnail or slideshow and sent via email. Set a password for each gallery or a master pass code for the app for additional security.
Scribbeo: iPhone/iPad – Collaborate, comment and view visual content as well as annotate videos or images directly on screen. Email your notes and markups as a PDF file.
ShotList: iPhone/iPad – Break down a script, keep track of all of the details and record your notes for each scene in storyboard frames.
Sketchpad HD: iPad – A convenient tool for artists and filmmakers to visually plan out their film ideas as a storyboard. Users can draw on a variety of paper types, such as yellow, graph or plain, as well as select from a range of colors to draw or take notes. Notes and images can be shared via email.
For a true insider glimpse into the world of a film costume designer, the TomCruise.com team has discovered several video interviews with some of the most respected costume designers working today.
Christine Clark, the Tron: Legacy costume designer, talks to PopSugarTV about the glowing fabrics and styles of the film as well as using costumes to convey the personality of a character. View below.
Among the many challenges a film costume designer faces on a regular basis is the ability to create a compelling costume that is also historically accurate. While there are numerous resources available both online and in print, the TomCruise.com team has compiled a list of books and industry publications written by respected experts in the field to help aspiring and professional costume designers find new sources of inspiration and essential additions to your research library collection as well as keep up the latest industry news, tips and techniques.
100 Dresses: The Costume Institute / The Metropolitan Museum of Art – With an introduction by the Curator in Charge of the Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harold Koda, the stylish coffee table book features an array of dresses ranging from the formal gowns of the late 17th century to the haute couture designs of the early 21st as well as a helpful glossary of terms. Each image is complimented by an informational description and close-up details. Whether you are an aspiring costume designer, a history buff, a film affectionado or budding fashionista, you will be inspired by the Met’s collection of costumes and apparel by world renowned designers, such as Paul Poiret, Coco Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Gianni Versace and Alexander McQueen. See how fashions reflected the culture and artistic influences of the time.
Continue your collection with 100 Shoes: The Costume Institute / The Metropolitan Museum of Art – Edited by Harold Koda and featuring an introduction by Hollywood fashion icon, Sarah Jessica Parker (Sex and the City), the 2011 book showcases 100 shoes from the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum permanent collection. From flats to stilettos, the history of shoes between the 16th to the 21st century is explored through images of the shoes, descriptive text, contemporary photos and portraits of designers, including Manolo Blahnik, Christian Louboutin, Salvatore Ferragamo and Vivienne Westwood.
Costume Design 101 – 2nd edition: The Business and Art of Creating Costumes For Film and Television – by Richard LaMotte. With forty years experience as a film costume designer (The Goonies, Rambo III, The Last of the Mohicans), Richard LaMotte offers a wealth of insider information and helpful tips on breaking into the business. Aspiring costume designers will learn how to market themselves, make a professional costume presentation and conduct interviews as well as essential entertainment industry skills, such as breaking down scripts, managing costume departments, running an on-set production and maintaining a budget. From organizing a school play to running a big-budget film department, costume designers of all levels can gain valuable advice, techniques and basic business skills.
Costume Designer’s Handbook: A Complete Guide for Amateur and Professional Costume Designers and The Costume Technician’s Handbook – 3rd edition both by Rosemary Ingham and Liz Covey A staple of college costume design courses, these two books may be the most essential resources for anyone working in the field. Written by industry veterans, the books are a collection of practical information. The two successful theatre costume designers, Liz Covey has also taught at Barnard College, Columbia University, Marymount Manhattan College and Bennington College. Both books contain numerous illustrations, a comprehensive annotated bibliography and a helpful shopping resource guide. In the Costume Designer’s Handbook, readers will learn how to read and analyze a script, create a plan for the costumes, work with directors and how to delve into historical research as well as learn about the properties of colors and sketching, drawing and drafting techniques. The Costume Technician’s Handbook offers practical advice on setting up a costume shop along with safety requirements, fabric selection, pattern-making, construction, fitting, dyeing as well as information about hair, hats and accessories – everything you need to create unique and artistic costumes. In addition to the books, the authors maintain a companion website, www.heinemanndrama.com/ingham-covey, with extensive lists of useful resources, including shopping guides and publications.
Costume Design in the Movies: An Illustrated Guide to the Work of 157 Great Designers – by Elizabeth Leese If you love the Golden Age of Hollywood and seeing images of beautiful people wearing beautiful clothes, this is the book for you. Go behind the scenes with this collection of photos of famous stars, such as Bette Davis, Norma Shearer, Lana Turner, Joan Crawford and Irene Dunne, wearing the costumes of some of their most iconic roles. Classic film buffs and aspiring costume designers will also learn who designed each outfit along with a brief profile of the designers.
Costuming for Film: The Art and the Craft – by Holly Cole and Kristin M. Burke This illustrated guide offers practical advice to launch and maintain a career as a member of a film costume department. Aspiring costume designers can learn about the various roles and responsibilities in a wardrobe/costume department, breaking down a script, creating a budget, managing a department, designing for specific actors and union regulations.
Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume Design – by Deborah Nadoolman Landis. With an Academy Award nomination (Coming to America), a Ph.D. in the history of costume design from the Royal College of Art, two terms as president of the Hollywood Costume Designers Guild, numerous costume design credits (Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Three Amigos) and a marriage to successful director John Landis, Deborah Nadoolman Landis brings a wealth of knowledge and insider information to provide a unique behind-the-scenes overview of the evolution of the art of costume design. Based on years of research and experience, Landis offers an array of images, sketches and anecdotes covering one hundred years of Hollywood’s most famous costumes. In addition to featuring previously unpublished costume sketches and photographs, the author offers insight into the emergence of costume design as an essential element in the art of cinematic storytelling as well as delving into the future of the industry in the emerging era of computer-generated imagery (CGI).
Hollywood and History: Costume Design in Film – by Edward Maeder, Alicia Annas, Satch Lavalley and Elois Jenssen. A great addition to any costume designer’s library, the book features a detailed review of the costumes worn in the historical epics produced in Hollywood’s Golden Age, as well as a section featuring the science fiction film costumes. Readers will be able to see how makeup, hairstyles and clothes changed over the decades, although since it was published in 1990, many modern movies are not covered.
Costume: The Journal of The Costume Society – Published twice a year by the Costume Society, the journal focuses on both practice and theory of dress studies, including the social significance of clothing, garments worn throughout specific time periods around the world. In addition, the publication features book reviews as well as information about dress exhibitions, new books and recently published articles in the industry. Costume is free to members of the Costume Society.
The Costume Designer – The quarterly publication by the Costume Designer’s Guild is free to the public online. Featuring an insider glimpse into the industry, each edition includes union news, entertainment industry festival information, personality profiles of leading costume designers, a scrapbook of images and feature articles.
Dress: The Journal of The Costume Society of America – Since 1975, The Costume Society of America has published an annual journal. Emphasizing a high level of scholarship, Dress features book and exhibition reviews as well as biographies, conservation reports and feature articles about the historical and cultural context of costumes. Free online access is available to current subscribers and previous issues of the journal are available for purchase from the publisher.
Like many professions in the entertainment industry, formal education and college degrees are not a requirement to become a costume designer. However, experience and connections are key factors in developing a successful career in the industry. Colleges and universities offer plenty of opportunities to cultivate both as well as providing a costume designer certificate or degree. In addition to learning about the history of costume, clothing construction skills and variations in fabrics students enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program will also gain practical skills, hands on experience in the field and learn how to put together a professional portfolio. Many degree programs as well as certificate programs will teach students how to break down a script, analyzing character traits to help determine costuming choices. If you already have a degree, particularly in theatre or fashion design, a short-term certificate program focusing specifically on costume design could be an impressive credential to add to your resume.
Regardless of the educational path you choose, remember to seek out opportunities to work on university-, student- or community-produced plays, summer stock or regional theatre or ideally, a television or film production. Some productions may have a professional costume designer on staff and students will have the opportunity to assist, learning how to design and create as well as facilitate fittings. Many colleges and universities also provide internship opportunities, giving their students a jump start in making professional connections while learning from an experienced costume designer.
Photos, drawings and sketches of your costume work on any of these types of projects would be a welcome addition to your portfolio.
The TomCruise.com team has provided information and links to several of the most well-known universities and training programs, although there are many educational options around the world to help you master the skills required to become a successful costume designer.
American InterContinental University – Based in Atlanta, GA, the Bachelor of Fine Arts in Fashion Marketing and Design (BFA) degree program features a specialization in Costume Design helping students acquire practical skills for both the entertainment and fashion industries. While the majority of coursework is geared toward the knowledge and skills common to fashion professionals, specialization classes include Costume Construction, Historical Costume Design and Advanced Costume Design. Students will also learn how to research trends, create a marketing plan, fashion design and garment construction skills as well as create their own design portfolio.
California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) – Located in the northeast corner of Los Angeles County and offering undergraduate BFA and graduate MFA degree tracks, the CalArts Costume Design Program curriculum focuses on critical thinking and the designer’s role as part of the collaborative process in a production. Students gain hands-on experience by collaborating on theatrical projects as well as additional CalArts productions, such as film and video productions, dance performances and installations. Led by designer Ellen McCartney, the school’s Robert Corrigan Chair in Theater, students are encouraged to develop their own aesthetic voice as well as acquire the practical skills necessary for a professional career in the field. While the core classes include the history of clothing, text analysis, clothing construction, new technologies, management and graphic skills, students are also encouraged to think beyond the traditional theories of costume design to how garments may be used to redefine the physical space of performers.
Depaul University The Theatre School – The Chicago-based university offers a four-year Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree program in Costume Design. The curriculum replicates the creative processes and experiences of a professional costume designer, gradually building a student’s skills over the years until culminating in a graduate showcase and undergraduate degree. Emphasizing theatre costuming, the program features an award-winning faculty of professional designers and artists. Students will have the opportunity to work on productions each year, collaborating with directors, costume technicians, other designers and the university’s professional costume shop staff. In addition to annual student portfolio presentations and exhibits with formal and informal faculty feedback, the curriculum features four-year drawing progression courses, costume technology, history of clothing construction, lighting and scenic design, character analysis, theatrical makeup classes and liberal arts electives. During the fourth year of the program, students may design at least one public production and are placed in a professional internship. Graduating design students are invited to showcase their work during an annual event hosted by the Theatre School. The Graduate Showcase introduces the recent graduates to university alumni as well as present their portfolios to artistic directors and other members of the theatre, film and television industries.
Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising (FIDM) – With classes based on the Los Angeles campus, the heart of the West Coast’s Entertainment and Fashion industries, admission to the Associate of Arts Advanced Study Program in Theatre Costume Design is limited to candidates who already earned a FIDM degree in Fashion Design. Students will further their studies by developing a specialized expertise in costume design, learning how to tell a character’s story in theatre, film, television and video through historically accurate costumes, jewelry and accessories. The program emphasizes the principles and elements of design, analyzing scripts, historical costume and décor research as well as designing and constructing costumes. Students will design a collection to be presented to entertainment industry professional at the annual DEBUT Runway Show & L.A. Fashion Gala.
New York University Tisch School of the Arts – Department of Design for Stage and Film – The renowned NYU Tisch School of the Arts offers a three-year graduate program, MFA Costume Design, focusing on the connection between a text (script) and developing idea of character and clothing design. Students will explore a wide variety of texts, from the classics to musicals, and each project will be critiqued during class. While prior experience in theater or film production is preferred, it is not required. MFA applicants from all disciplines of undergraduate study are welcomed. However, an interview and a portfolio review are required to be accepted into the graduate program and admission is limited to full-time graduate students.
Fashion Institute of Technology State University of New York (FIT) – The NYC university offers a Wardrobe Technician and Costume Design Specialist program designed for experienced stylists, as a specialized study for Fashion Styling certificate students or for those interested in working in wardrobe creation, costume maintenance and supervision wardrobe departments for theatre, film, video or television productions. A minimum of 14 courses are required to complete the program and may include classes such as Wardrobing for Theatre, Film, and TV; Styling Tricks of the Trade: Pinning, Taping, and Clothing Care; Costume Design: Theory and Practice; Fashion in Film and Media; Storyboard Techniques Studio for Costume Designers; Wardrobe and Costume Career Start-up and Costume Design Storyboards and Rendering II
Los Angeles City College – The two-year Professional Certificate for Theatrical Costuming program provides hands-on training and experiential learning in theatre and film. Practical skills are developed during lab time and the course topics include costume design for film, video and theatre; costume styling; breaking down a script; costume history and research; effective production meetings; sketching, swatching and character boards as well as traditional and computer illustration techniques. Students are frequently evaluated throughout the program, from the initial admissions interview through the final portfolio review. An optional third year program offers costume design students the opportunity to concentrate on independent theatre, film and video projects, transitioning into a professional career while continuing to utilize Academy resources.
The highly desirable and competitive entertainment industry is mostly comprised of freelance artists, and film costume designers are no exception. One way artistic and technically skilled individuals can ensure safe working conditions and a reasonable salary rate is to join with others in their field to form a collective bargaining unit, such as a labor union or professional association. Like actors, directors, camera men and makeup artists, costume designers may be eligible to join a labor union and receive assistance with negotiating employment contracts, health benefits, advocates overseeing the working conditions and the opportunity to share knowledge as well as network with other professionals in their field.
The Costume Designers Guild (CDG), Local 892 – Founded in 1953 and affiliated with the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (I.A.T.S.E.) since 1976, the CDG represents professional costume designers, assistant costume designers and costume illustrators working in motion pictures, television and commercials, including animation and videos. In addition to protecting the economic standards and improving working conditions for its members, the Guild promotes research, artistry and technical expertise in the field, including producing an annual awards program to recognize excellence in costume design in commercials, television and motion pictures. Renowned designers may be also inducted into the Costume Designers Guild Hall of Fame. An official application for membership along with a full list of requirements is available on the CDG website.
The Costume Society – The British-based organization promotes the study and preservation of historic and contemporary clothing and textiles. Membership is open to the public and information is available on the official website, including options for individuals, students and organizations. Society members benefits include access to conferences, events, information and the bi-annual journal, Costume. In addition to periodic overseas tours, members may participate in numerous events throughout the United Kingdom, including lectures, study days and symposiums. As a registered charity with an educational mission, the Costume Society also offers several financial awards to students, researchers and trainee museum curators for scholarship and research in the field.
The Costume Society of America – Based in New York, the 501(c)(3) non-profit organization founded in 1973 promotes the global understanding of the various elements of dress and appearance through the scholarship, study and preservation of costumes. Anyone involved in the study, education, collection and preservation of clothing and accessories are encouraged to join and membership is open to individuals, students, institutions and libraries. Member benefits include an invitation to a national symposia as well as access to several publications, including a monthly electronic newsletter, a quarterly newsletter and the annual journal, Dress. The Society also honors students, universities, museums and costume designers with research grants and awards for excellence.
As you can see, a career as a film costume designer involves much more than talent. You must also have the skills and drive to make it in this highly competitive field. If you are trying to break into the business or if you are a professional film costume designer, the TomCruise.com team would love to hear from you! Please share your story or advice in the comments section below and use the hashtag #aspiring2actwritedirect in your social media response. We might even add your contribution to the post!
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