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When you’re watching a great movie or television show, you might not realize that you’re paying close attention to what the characters are wearing. You’ll probably notice more generally that what you’re watching simply looks good! You might observe that what’s on-screen is gorgeous or unique or true to a particular historical period. You might comment on the show or movie’s high production quality. You might even find yourself admiring a specific outfit or costume in a single scene. But what about the overall costume design?
If you’re interested in fashion, design, movies, or television, start paying closer attention to what all of the actors are wearing in the shows and movies you watch. Once you do, you won’t be able to stop paying attention to it. You’ll likely realize that wardrobe plays a huge role in the lasting impression you get of the stories that play out in front of you. It’s up to a costume designer to create that impression. Pretty cool job, huh?
So what does a costume designer do? Keep scrolling to learn more about this career and how to be a costume designer yourself.
A costume designer is responsible for all things wardrobe in a setting that requires costumes, such as on a TV or movie set or in the theater. This individual is responsible for securing, designing, and altering every piece of clothing worn in the production.
There are many elements and skills involved with professional costume designing, not all of which are required for every designing gig. You’ll learn more about the specific tasks included in a costume designer job description below.
It’s easy to assume that a costume designer is effectively the same as a fashion designer, but that’s not the case. While a fashion designer dreams up looks and styles that will fit into a consumer’s daily life—or, sometimes, for special occasions—a costume designer must be mindful of what wardrobe pieces will work best for the narrative being performed on the screen or stage.
This might involve knowledge of styles from various historical periods or geographical regions. It also involves a heavy dose of imagination, since costume designers might be called on to dress characters from fantastical worlds! Practically speaking, they also need to know what will look best in front of the camera or under heavy stage lights and should be prepared to jump in to assist actors with quick scene changes, if necessary.
Here are a few of the responsibilities that most costume designers will take on:
- Read the script and understand the story. Once a costume designer is hired, they’ll be asked to immerse themselves in the story they’re helping to tell. This typically involves a close reading of the script and meetings with other members of the production team.
- Coordinate overall aesthetic. A designer plays a significant role in shaping the overall look of any production. From early on in the production process, they’ll be expected to work with writers, directors, producers, and others to ensure that everyone is on the same page aesthetically.
- Research wardrobe ideas. If the project is a period piece, a costume designer will need to spend time learning about the styles worn in that time period. Even for contemporary stories, they will need to spend time learning about what characters who live in certain places, work certain jobs, or participate in certain activities would wear.
- Source wardrobe pieces. There is plenty of design work involved in costuming, but a costume designer must also organize and bring in clothing pieces that have already been made by other designers. In the process, they’ll have to keep an eye on the budget!
- Designing costumes. Here’s where those design skills come in! A costume designer has the unique opportunity to let their creativity run wild, putting together one-of-a-kind pieces that actors will wear in the production.
- Manage fittings and alterations. Costumes rarely fit perfectly on the first try. Once sourced and original pieces are finalized for the cast, a costume designer must lead the charge with try-on sessions. With the help of a designer, actors will try on each and every one of their costumes. The designer will assess the fit and make any necessary alterations so that the wardrobes fit the way they’re supposed to when it’s time to perform.
Clearly, there’s never a dull moment in the life of a costume designer!
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There are a few routes that an aspiring costume designer might take in pursuit of their career goals. Regardless of the route you choose, you shouldn’t enter the costume designing field unless you have a passion for design and some natural artistic flair. It’s also helpful to have a working knowledge of design software and experience with sewing and tailoring.
Here are some ways you might cultivate the knowledge and experience necessary to become a costume designer:
Get a Design Degree or Education
A design degree isn’t technically necessary for a job in costume design, but it can certainly help make the path a bit easier. Many colleges and universities offer undergraduate and MFA programs in costume design. Enrolling in this kind of program will not only set you up to learn many of the technical skills required for the industry, but it will also open up opportunities for internships, apprenticeships, and networking.
If a degree in costume design specifically isn’t available to you, you might also consider studying art or graphic design. These kinds of design degrees will help you develop your personal style and artistic eye. They’ll also look good on your resume when it’s time to look for jobs in the field!
Gain Real-World Experience
Whether you have a design degree or not, you’ll need to log some serious time working with more experienced costume designers before you’ll be ready to tackle a production on your own. There are assistant jobs available in nearly every wardrobe department or theatrical costume shop. This kind of experience is absolutely necessary for aspiring costume designers. A local theater is a great place to start looking for it!
According to Salary.com, the average costume designer in the United States makes $39,994 per year. A costume designer salary is determined by many factors, including the designer’s experience level and the type of production they’re working on. A local theater production, for example, is bound to have a much different budget than a blockbuster movie. A costume designer’s pay will vary accordingly.
A qualified costume designer will always be in-demand in many creative environments. It’s important to keep in mind that many costume designers choose to work as freelancers so they can contribute to multiple projects in a shorter period of time. While some designers are employed by theater companies or production houses, it wouldn’t hurt to consider learning the basics of becoming a freelancer if you plan to work in the costume design industry.
Here are a few places where you can find work as a costume designer:
Movies need costumes, which means they need costume designers! Costume designer jobs will be available on every movie set, from local independent films to major Hollywood productions.
If you’re interested in working in the movie biz, you can start gaining experience by inquiring with local colleges and universities to see who you can contact regarding student films. Connect with young filmmakers and offer your services at a discounted rate. You can use these fledgling films as your portfolio when seeking bigger jobs.
Like movies, television requires great costumes. Keep your eyes open for news about shows that might be shooting in your area. Get your foot in the door as an assistant locally and go from there!
Almost every town or city has a local theater. Working in one can be a fantastic way to gain experience as a costume designer! You can use that experience to move on to jobs in television and movies… or you might fall so in love with working in live theater that you decide to stick around. Costuming work in theater productions has a special energy, since it requires designers to assist cast members with quick changes and other challenges associated with performing in front of a live audience.
Reach out to your local theater and see if they are looking for costume design help for any upcoming productions.
Lights, Camera, Costume Design!
Are you all hyped up about the opportunities in the costume design industry? You should be! It’s an exciting world to work in, and if you’re passionate about design, fashion, and performance, it’s pretty much your ideal situation. Any time you’re feeling exhausted in pursuit of your goals, just think how cool it will be to see your work up on the stage or screen. That’s a pretty cool perk of being a costume designer!
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