Costume Designers start working on costumes for TV, theatre and films at the beginning of pre-production. They are in charge of designing, creating, acquiring and hiring all costumes for Actors and extras. This must be achieved within strict budgets, and to tight schedules. Costume Designers' work is integral to defining the overall ‘look' of films, and their role requires a great deal of expertise. Their creative work ranges from designing original costumes, to overseeing the purchase and adaptation of ready-made outfits.
As Head of the Costume Department, Costume Designers are responsible for staffing and for managing a team of skilled personnel. Costume Designers also supervise practical issues, such as departmental budgets and schedules, the organisation of running wardrobes, and costume continuity.
As an important part of the production team, a Costume Designer would be expected to work closely with the Production Designer to make sure the costumes fit in with their overall vision and that they work with the chosen lighting and camera angles. They would also collaborate with the hair and make-up team to make sure these elements complement each other and a cohesive look is created.
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What is the job?
During pre-production Costume Designers break down scripts scene by scene, in order to work out how many characters are involved, and what costumes are required. They then begin the more complex task of developing costume plots for each character. These plots ensure that colours and styles do not mimic each other in the same scene, and highlight the characters' emotional journeys by varying the intensity and depth of colours.
Costume Designers must carry out research into the costume styles, designs and construction methods which are appropriate for the productions' time period, using a number of resources, including libraries, museums and the Internet. They may also discuss costume and character ideas with performers. They deliver initial ideas to Directors about the overall costume vision, character plots and original costume designs, using sketches and fabric samples. They also discuss colour palettes with the Director of Photography and the Production Designer.
Throughout the production process Costume Designers ensure that accurate financial records are kept, and that weekly expenditure reports are produced. They prepare overall production schedules, as well as directing the day-to-day breakdowns of responsibilities. Costume Designers select and hire appropriate suppliers and Costume Makers, negotiating terms with them, and communicating design requirements (on a smaller-scale production a costume designer would be involved in both the design and the making processes). They make sure that fittings for Actors and extras are arranged. They supervise fabric research and purchase, and ensure that garments are completed to deadlines.
Depending on the numbers of costumes to be created, and the scale of budgets, Costume Designers may decide to create a dedicated Costume Workshop. They should be on set whenever a new costume is worn for the first time, to make sure that performers are comfortable, to explain special features, and to oversee any alterations. Once filming is completed, Costume Designers are responsible for the return of hired outfits, and the sale or disposal of any remaining costumes. Durability and washability of garments also needs to be taken into account.
Costume designers may be required to work long hours; evening and weekend work may be involved when working to deadlines.
A typical starting salary for a costume designer may be between £13,000 and £18,000 a year, which could rise to around £28,000 a year with experience. Senior costume designers with considerable experience of the industry may earn over £35,000 a year.
Costume designers can be based in a studio, office or home-based environment when designing and making the garments. Travel to locations for TV and film productions is common and costume designers are often required to attend meetings at theatres or TV/ film production companies.
Typical Career Routes
The role of Costume Designer is not an entry-level position, and practitioners need considerable knowledge and experience in order to design for feature films.
Having first gained qualifications, many Costume Designers begin their careers as Costume Assistants or Wardrobe Trainees and progress through the Costume Department, learning from more experienced colleagues as they work their way up. Alternatively they may start their careers working for one of the large costumiers.
An experienced costume designer could negotiate a consultancy contract on a freelance basis. It is common for a costume designer to work in the areas of theatre, film and TV until they become established and specialise in one area.
Jobs may be advertised in the national press, trade publications and on industry websites but competition is strong and networking and word of mouth is the most common route to employment.
Essential Knowledge & Skills
It would be useful for someone considering a career as a costume designer to have some of the following skills and interests:
- creativity, imagination and excellent design skills
- good communication and organisation skills
- good research skills and knowledge of costume history and modern fashion
- good stamina and the ability to work under pressure to strict deadlines
- highly organised and the confidence to motivate a team
- able to put others at ease (when working closely with actors in a physical sense)
- able to break down scripts in terms of costume plots, and have knowledge of story structure and character arcs
- good garment production skills and knowledge of textiles
- a wide-ranging cultural knowledge base
- a full EU driving licence, as travel is often required
Training and qualifications
To become a costume designer, candidates will need to demonstrate a high level of design skills and practical sewing ability. Many costume designers have a HND, degree or post-graduate qualification in a related subject such as, costume design, fashion, theatre design or performing arts (production).
For more information about degree courses in this area, visit the UCAS website.
Alternatively, some costume designers begin their career as a wardrobe assistant or costume maker and work their way up from there by building contacts and gaining experience.
It may also be possible for a candidate interested in film and TV to begin on an apprenticeship-style training scheme, such as the BBC's Design Training Scheme. For more information visit the BBC's training website.
Further training is usually carried out whilst on the job, by learning from more experienced designers. It may also be possible to join organisations, such as the Society of British Theatre Designers and the Costume Society to gain professional recognition and for networking and training opportunities. Some drama schools, such as RADA and the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, offer vocational training in costume for theatre, film and television.
It is also important for a costume designer to continuously update their portfolio or show reel in order to keep a record of progression.
Practical garment production skills can be also be gained via qualifications such as
- ABC Level 1, 2 or 3 Awards, Certificate or Diploma in Fashion and Textiles
- City & Guilds Level 1, 2 or 3 Award, Certificate or Diploma in Creative Techniques in Textiles
- ABC Level 3 Certificate in Apparel Manufacturing Technology
- ABC Level 3 Diploma in Handcraft Tailoring
- NOCN Level 1,2 and 3 Awards, Certificate and Diploma in Skills for the Fashion Industries and Making it in fashion
- SQA Level 3 SVQ in Kilt Making (SCQF Level 6)
For more information visit the ABC awards website.
For more information visit the NOCN website
For more information visit the City & Guild website
If you are based in Scotland visit the Scottish Qualifications Authority website.
Creative Skillset's network of Film Academies are institutions that it has identified as offering the highest quality of film skills training. Details are available on Skillset Film Academies.
Where to go for more information
Skillset Careers is a specialist creative media careers information service delivering individual career solutions when and how you need them. We also work with partner organisations to deliver a free careers helpline service.
- Society of British Theatre Designers
- The Costume Society
- Design Association/ Chartered Society of Designers
- Design Council
- BBC Training and Development - Design Vision
- The Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU)
- Equity, the performers' union, which also represents Costume Designers
- National Council for Drama Training
- Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA)
- Progression to Art and Design - UCAS
- Performing Arts (CareersUncovered) - Trotman
- Costume: The Journal of the Costume Society - Maney
- Screen International
- The Stage
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Last update 2010.
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