Costume designers: What do they do? What are they paid? How do I become one?

Costume designers are responsible for developing, creating and fitting the costumes for characters in film, television and theatre productions. A costume designer – the head of the wardrobe department – translates the director’s vision by studying the script to create looks that naturally develops and/or represents each character.

3rd August 2018
/ By Sahalie Donaldson

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But what does the day-to-day schedule of a costume designer look like? How is designing costumes for films, television and theatre different? How do you become a costume designer? How do you get costume designer jobs?

Read our Mandy News guide to find out.

What do costume designers do?

Costume designers have a thorough understanding of fashion design, sewing, character development and production. They are interested in the meaning behind costumes and are design experts. To them, clothes aren’t just clothes. They symbolise what a character values, highlights their personality and conveys the character’s emotional journey. Every clothing decision is carefully considered.

At the beginning of a film, TV or theatre production, a costume designer carefully reads the script in order to get a feel for the characters, plot, mood, time period, environment and the director’s intent for the project. After reading the script, costume designers thoroughly research the clothing which might best suit the time and location of the story.

Costume designers assemble their ideas sometimes via sketches, photographs, mood boards or rough designs. Usually, they will create a timeline for major character's storylines which evolves as the story goes on. They also develop costumes for secondary and supporting characters. These ideas are presented to the director and production team and either approved or improved.

Designing the costumes is only the beginning of the job. Once a costume designer’s ideas are approved by the director, they must find the actual products. The clothes can come from anywhere. They can be bought secondhand, purchased online, found in high-end department stores or made from scratch, depending on the demands of the project and budget. Costume designers will often do a combination of all four. Where the clothes come from doesn’t matter nearly as much as it does that they reflect a character’s culture, age, status and personality.

Whether it's a film, stage production or television series, most major characters evolve throughout a storyline. The clothes they wear need to reflect their character arc. Some production storylines take place over the course of several years. The characters in these stories have many wardrobe changes because a lot of development takes place. A thriller that occurs over two days requires far fewer outfits and character developments than a production taking place over three decades.

Costume designers search for the perfect materials to complete a character’s look. Sometimes they will hire a tailor to turn their designs into actual products and other times the costume designer will stitch everything together themselves.

Once production begins, the costume designer is responsible for overseeing fittings and dress rehearsals, if the production is theatre. They fit the actors and actresses, making changes if necessary. It is vital for a costume designer to have everything ready. Repairs and alterations are often needed throughout production, so many costume designers will have multiples prepared in advance. Multiples are also useful for scenes that require many takes. For example, a scene where a character gets injured and their clothes get bloody, wet or dirty. That scene could be shot multiple times and may need to start off unspoiled.

For movie or TV productions, camera tests are often performed to see what is picked up on film or HD sensors. Costume designers work closely with the director, production designer, hair and makeup team, actors and cinematographer to make sure everything fits with the character, camera, overall look of the project and more.


**** Read our interview with The Handmaid's Tale costume designer Ane Crabtree *****


Types of costume designers

Whether it be television, film or theatre, costume designers need the same type of skills and qualifications. The biggest difference between the three mediums are the working conditions, like environment, hours, and deadlines. There is even variation within each section. Not all costume designer film jobs are alike, neither are theatre or television. It always depends on the project and its demands.

Film costume designers often have a shorter story timescale to work with (unless the narrative spans several months, years or decades). Big budget films, in particular, may have two different costume designers that collaborate and work together. They will have a team of assistants working on different costumes depending on the size of the production. Film costume designers often have a decent amount of time to fulfil the director's vision, but will sometimes receive an earlier-than-hoped-for production date and have to do their best in a very short period of time.

Television costume designers usually have more time to develop a character’s evolving style. Television series – unless two-part projects – span the length of many episodes and seasons. Characters can undergo many changes so costume designers evolve their wardrobe as the plot develops. Perhaps, at the beginning of the series, the character starts out as a high school student but by the end become the CEO of a massive company – think Gossip Girl or Pretty Little Liars. Perhaps the character undergoes the death of a loved one or gets a divorce and their state of mind and/or emotion becomes reflected through their clothes. 

Think Friends. The titular character Rachel Green’s style evolves from plaid skirts and turtlenecks to professional dress-pant-blouse combinations. TV productions will sometimes change costume designers mid-way through a series, or from series to series, depending on schedules and availability but traditionally the same costume designer will work on the first season to establish a look.

Theatre costume designers often have fewer costumes to make their point and real-time changes to contend with. Clothes need to be functional and easy to remove, because actors and actresses change from outfit to outfit quickly. The outfits need to be bold enough to be seen from far away, but also fit with the play’s setting. A costume designer for theatre needs to research certain time periods and settings, but also be okay with making accommodations for the actors’ and actresses’ comfort. Most theatre productions have the same costume designer for the entire length of the play and most clothes are custom made.

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Costume designing is fashion, art, history and research

Qualifications

There are no degree requirements for working as a costume designer, however, an HND or postgraduate qualification is highly recommended. Costume design, fashion, theatre design, art, performing arts and fashion merchandising are all complementary areas of study for an aspiring costume designer.

Christine Bean, costume designer for the acclaimed television show The Blacklist says: “I know many costume designers and wardrobe people who have gone to Ivy League schools, or got Masters Degrees in theatre, film or costume design.

”While absolutely useful, don’t let lack of a formal education be a roadblock to this industry. In many ways, the film and television world is a blue collar field. You will need to have the stamina to wake up many hours before the sun rises and work long hours in unusual conditions.”

Costume designers need to have grit. It is often not glamorous and is very hard work. Excellent communication skills are a must because a large part of the job is collaborating with other members on set. Actors, directors and cinematographers will offer their own feedback and a costume designer must take their vision into account while explaining why some choices might be necessary to stick with.

Costume designers are creative and imaginative. They understand all aspects of wardrobe and know how to thoroughly research the gaps in their knowledge. Costume designers work under strict deadlines so they must be organised. A strong desire to learn from, and understand different cultures is essential. Regardless of whether a costume designer makes the clothes themselves, it is important they have extensive design knowledge.


How to become a costume designer?

Costume designing for theatre, film and television is not an entry-level position, so starting at the bottom and work your way up is usual. Schooling is useful and so are apprenticeships like BBC’s Design Training Scheme. Both are great ways to make connections and learn from experienced designers. Writing to costume designers whose work you admire to assist them is also a common route to getting experience.

Organisations like the Society of British Theatre Designers and the Costume Society are powerful groups that can help an aspiring costume designer gain experience and contacts.

Many costume designers rely on a portfolio to impress prospective studios, so it is important to keep an updated one. It can take a vast amount of knowledge and experience to even be noticed by large productions, so it is important to be patient and start working as soon as possible.

After an aspiring costume designer goes through the proper schooling, they usually start out as a costume assistant or wardrobe trainee. Working in the costume department isn’t the only way. Working as a runner, TV trainee or any other position on set can help an aspiring costume designer develop their grasp of plot, character development and production, which are essential for any future designers.

Most aspiring costume designers take jobs when they can. Later in their careers, they have more freedom to specialise in either theatre, film or TV, periods or genres.

Costume designer jobs can be found on industry websites but should not replace making connections through networking events. The only way to get recommended by word-of-mouth is to get out there and start meeting people. Schooling, apprenticeships, organisations, networking events and starter jobs are the only way to do so.


Costume Designer Salary

Entry-level costume designers can expect to make anywhere between £13,000 ($17,087) and £18,000 ($23,659) a year, according to the website Creative Skillset. 

The average annual rate for an experienced costume designer is £28,000 ($36,803). However, as they gain more experience and acclaim that number can increase exponentially.

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