Costume Designer

  • Costume Designer Film

You can tell a lot about a character on the screen before a word of dialogue is uttered—if the costume designer has done a good job. Costumes reflect the character’s personality, culture, lifestyle, and environment; more than just dressing the actor, costumes aid the story and the performer’s immersion into the role. It is up to the costume designer to occupy the character’s psyche and reflect it in the actor’s wardrobe.


As a member of the art department, the costume designer works with the director, production designer, and art director to design wardrobe for every actor, right down to the extras. The design process begins with a script breakdown and costume plot that details who wears what, and when. The garments must reflect the overall aesthetic vision of the production with complementary colors, textures, and styles. Once a plan for each piece of wardrobe is established, with consideration given to which pieces will be constructed and which will be rented or bought, the costumer establishes a budget and hires crew members and specialists.

Think of your favorite film and how the costumes reinforce the time period and location; often the wardrobe is just as identifiable and iconic as the performer wearing it. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who didn’t readily recognize Darth Vader’s helmet from Star Wars, or Mad Men’s 1960s-era sharp, tailored ad execs and curvy secretaries. The costume designer is responsible for supervising his or her staff through pattern-making, construction, and fittings. Everything from earrings to slippers is under the creative management of the costume designer.

Skills & Education

Strong artistic ability and impeccable fashion sense is a must. Costume designers may develop their talents through a formal education in fashion design, film and television production, or theatrical design. A college degree is not required, but you won’t get by with only good taste and great illustrations. In this job, you’ve got to be capable of taking the design from paper to wearable; that means sketching, making patterns, sewing, and everything in between. If you’re attracted to this position, you’re probably already a fashion fanatic, but it’s even more important to be a whiz-bang tailor. The reason that simple jeans-and-T shirt combo looks so perfect on Scarlett Johansson? A great body, yes, but also because it’s been fitted especially for her. You need to know how to make someone look 6 inches taller and 30 pounds lighter—or 6 inches shorter and 30 pounds heavier. It is also important to understand the technical elements associated with costume design for stage and screen: lighting, color theory, the strobing effect of patterns, and chromakey process. If you don’t have one already, get a sewing machine and start experimenting, then dive into every fashion magazine and inspirational source you can get your hands on.

What to Expect

Outrageous fashion statements are not the greater part of costuming, though you need to be able pull off a showstopper when required. The majority of costume designers toil away on sitcoms and contemporary films, pairing together jeans and T-shirts, dresses and suits, that fit in rather than steal the eye. While fitting actors, you will come in close physical contact with the actors; you should always be sure your breath (and underarm area) is fresh, but be ready to overlook it if the actor’s isn’t. And keep in mind that you’ll be seeing people at their most vulnerable—unclothed, struggling into a pair of pantyhose or a girdle (that goes for actors and actresses both), exposing their flaws for you to fix; a reputation for discretion and kindness will make you a favorite and may get you more work.

Like most production jobs, this is generally a freelance career, but opportunities are available for staff positions on television series and within theatrical production companies, among others. It is your highly trained hands that will move you up the ladder, as your first post-assistant job may be as a stitcher, cutter, or tailor. From there advancement will depend on your aptitude for research and imagination, and your ability to interpret and execute the director’s vision.


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