How to Become a Costume Designer

By TACP Staff on June 27, 2019

Do you have a love of clothing and fashion but an equally passionate interest in theatre and film? If so, a career as a costume designer might be the perfect fit for your interests and design talent.

1. Getting Started in Costume Design

Get to Know the Job & the Industry

Costume designers are found most anyplace where actors and actresses perform. This might include stage performances, movies, and videos, just to name a few.  The field of costume design covers more than just dressing actors or actresses. As a designer, you’ll work to make sure that the costume choices not only fit the character but fit and enhance the overall feeling of the scenes involved too. As with many positions in the arts, a specific degree isn’t required. And, some costume designers have degrees from other disciplines which translate well into costume design, such as art, fashion merchandising, or fashion design. However, there are also programs devoted to costume design within many college MFA programs. This course of study can give you the background education you need to excel in the field and make the initial contacts necessary to begin your career.

2. Learn the Basics

costume designer performs a key job in the development of any performance. From the sideline, it may look like all a costume designer does is pick the clothing an actor wears when performing. In truth, the choice of attire is more than just window dressing. Actors and actresses use the costumes chosen by the designer to get into character. A great costume designer will become intricately familiar with the production, story line, era the production takes place, location, etc. Designers might watch multiple rehearsals, watch recordings of the production if it’s shot on location in other cities, read the novel a play was based on, and use any other modes of research available for the task.  As a costume designer, your job is to help actors and actresses fully realize their characters.

Costume design isn’t simply choosing clothing from off a rack either, although that can be a part of the process in certain types of production. The character’s costume encompasses everything they wear or carry and can sometimes include props integral to the story, such as a hat or cane. As a costume designer, you’ll be responsible for insight into the character and the time period, and then working with the production staff to determine the direction of the performance visually. In some cases, this might mean extensive research. For live performances, there will also be considerations for time in-between scenes. The costume designer will take into consideration costume changes that need to be performed quickly and how to best accommodate the look and feel of the piece without compromising the actor’s ability to hit his cues on time.

Actors and actresses will rely on the costume and accessories to help them fully embody the character. In some scenarios, a cumbersome costume might be more accurate to a specific time- period. But considerations need to be made so that actors and actresses can get into character while not hampering their ability to move with agility when the director calls action. Costume designers also realize that the audience cannot be privy to what lies beneath the outward appearance of the costume. They may work with actors and other production staff to realize the look of the piece to varying degrees. In some cases, this might mean complete accuracy to the time-period. In other cases, the costume may just give the effect without including some of the more cumbersome constraints that would be traditionally used during a period piece.

As with most jobs in entertainment or the arts, there are some key abilities all costume designers must have in order to keep the creative juices flowing and not get discouraged. The job can be stressful and you will work under pressure to meet deadlines.  You must have good communication and research skills, be creative and imaginative, and be a great designer. Also, you must have the confidence to motivate a team, break down a script in terms of costume or scene changes, sewing skills, and knowledge of textiles; how they move and feel. It’s also good to have a good understanding of all cultures, stamina for long periods of standing around, and know about era costumes, as well as modern fashion.  Staying on budget and on schedule, and the organization of wardrobes and costumes also play a vital role in a costume designer’s role, so business sense is imperative.

3. Develop Industry Specific Skills

Refine Your Skills & Knowledge Through Professional Development or Higher Education

A costume designer is more than a personal dresser. Your skills will run the gamut from understanding characters in a production’s and intricate research on worlds different from your own to core fashion design. If your passion for design revels in absolute creativity and you can work with others to enhance their vision in the spirit of performance art, this might be the most exciting field you’ll ever enter.

While there’s no bottom line requirement in terms of an education, most costume designers earn a degree. You may enroll in a degree program specific to costume design. You might also have a degree in fashion design or fashion merchandising. Both disciplines will round out your background with the specific skills you’ll need to start in this field. Often, costume designers will also enroll in other continuing education classes to better enhance their ability to create new designs.  Some specific skills costume designers need for a successful career, include:

  • Drawing / Design

    As a costume designer, you’ll need to sketch out your designs prior to creating the costumes. This process will often go through several revisions and may entail choosing fabric and accessories prior to finishing the initial sketches. Often, swatches of fabric are approved prior to construction.

  • Research

    Research includes reading the script and reviewing all materials pertinent to the production. It also includes meeting with the cast and sitting in on rehearsals. Witnessing how actors portray their characters will help you fine-tune your vision. You’ll also need to discuss the look of the characters with other members of the crew, and research can often mean extensive knowledge of the time period and placement of the piece for accuracy.

  • The Ability to Translate Creative Vision

    Your vision for the character’s wardrobe isn’t the only opinion that counts in a performance. One key skill that successful costumer designers must have is the ability to understand the vision of their colleagues and enhance their goals with your design, rather than the other way around. Think of costume design as more of a collaborative creative project, whereas fashion design is often at the sole discretion of the designer.

  • Knowledge of Fabrics / Construction

    Intricate knowledge of fabrics and design basics are necessary in this field. You may not be doing the day-to-day sewing and construction of individual costumes, but it should be part of your base knowledge in order to successfully design each piece.

  • Updated Knowledge on New Technologies

    Costume design may lead you in many different directions, intersecting with special effects and crossing different types of scripts and worlds. As a designer, you’ll want to research new fabrics and possible materials to fully capture the vision and feel you need for a character. This might have you recreating a town full of sixteenth- century citizens, or it could have you creating a never-before-seen world from some far-off planet. Creativity is a must because some costumes will rely on your ability to solve problems outside of the solutions in traditional fashion design.

Because of the intricacies of costume design, it’s highly recommended that aspiring costume designers pursue a postsecondary degree. There are specific degrees in costume design at both the bachelors and master’s levels, but a degree in performing arts, theater design, or fashion design will typically qualify for most jobs. If you’ve already completed a degree in a separate field but have some working knowledge of costume design, you might consider taking a few additional courses in costume design to more fully understand the field before pursuing an internship or applying to an entry level position. It is important to point out that the job of costume designer is not usually an entry-level position.  You will not be hired to design costumes for feature films until you have experience and an established reputation. That said, you can begin your career as an assistant or wardrobe trainee. That way, you get your foot in the door, meet professionals in the field, gain an on-the-job understanding of what it’s like to design costumes for films, stage performances, or videos.  Another path is to gain employment for a large costumier. But, to enter this competitive field, you should gain experience in another area within the TV, theater, or film venues.

You’ll also need to put together a portfolio and show reel of your designs before obtaining an internship or entry level position. The best place to put together your initial portfolio is through your degree program. You can also learn how to put other a professional portfolio through online videos or by taking a community or continuing education class. Portfolios are absolutely necessary in order to gain employment, or even that first interview. You might have a degree and experience, but if you can’t show your work, it’s just your word, and that’s often not enough.

Helpful Organizations & Resources for Costume Designers

Additional Guides