What Does a Costume Designer Do?

Costume designers tell a story through clothing, using the language of fashion to help express aspects of a play or opera's setting, mood, and characters. The job is about much more than putting together a nice outfit, requiring a deep understanding of stage production, a thorough knowledge of fashion and costuming history, and an eye for creating standout visual designs. With each wardrobe element and accessory, costume designers bring the characters and settings to life, and immerse audiences—and actors—in their time period, culture, and world.

Costume designers, who tend to have at least a bachelor's degree and at most a master's in costuming, usually get their start as costume makers.

A costume designer's job on a production generally begins with a close reading of the script—getting to know the roles and relationships of the principal characters—followed by initial meetings with the show's director, set designer, lighting designer, sound designer, and other key figures as they nail down a vision for the show's design and direction. Then, the costume designer begins researching designs, materials, and colors popular in the period, as well as details like how they might signify a character's social class. Designers may have the assistance of a dramaturg in this process, or assign research topics to members of their costuming team.

After completing research, costume designers use a combination of sketches, photos, and digitally altered images to create a costume plot—a visual depiction of each character's costume changes throughout the production—and present it to the director and other members of the design team for feedback. Whether purchasing, creating, or tailoring costume pieces, the costume designer is in charge of the costume team, budget, and time frame for the project. They also schedule fittings with actors and oversee costume alterations and repairs, as well as providing actors and stagehands with guidelines for their proper care.

Costume Designer at a Glance

Career Path

Costume designers, who tend to have at least a bachelor's degree and at most a master's in costuming, usually get their start as costume makers. They might begin by working on college or community productions or interning for university costume departments. From there, they progress to become assistant designers. Successful costume designers might work with prestigious theater companies on big-budget productions, transition into designing costumes for films and TV shows, or lead the design of entire concerts and tours as live show designers.

Finding Work
Most costume designers are freelancers who work on film, television, theater, and dance productions, although some do find full-time positions with large theater or opera companies. Costume designers might also work on music videos, concerts, tours, advertisements, and fashion shows. Due to the freelance nature of the job, networking and self-promotion are essential.
Professional Skills
  • Visual design
  • Machine and hand sewing
  • Tailoring garments
  • Specialized design: cobbling, haberdashery, etc.
  • Broad knowledge of fashion and costuming history
  • Deep knowledge of fabrics and other materials
  • Making design sketches and costume plots
  • Budgeting
  • Leadership
  • Text analysis
  • Time management
Interpersonal Skills

Costume designers are creative, resourceful, observant, and analytical. They have a deep knowledge of and curiosity about fashion and costuming history, and are experts in using clothing and accessories to enhance character and story. Additionally, they must have the attention to detail, leadership, and time management skills to get projects done on time. As for most in the theater business, networking and self-promotion are vital skills for finding work.

Work Life

Costume designers typically begin researching and creating designs for a production months before it's staged, although production cycles can vary greatly. As with many jobs in performing arts, work days tend to grow longer and less predictable the closer it gets to showtime. At times, costume designers may work only a couple of hours per day; at other times, they could work ten-hour days or even all-nighters in the costume shop.