What Does a Costume Designer Do?

Costume designers tell a story with clothing. But the job goes well beyond choosing fashionable outfits, requiring a deep understanding of film, television, or stage production, as well as a keen interest and expertise in the markings of various historical periods. With each wardrobe, accessory, or prop, costume designers help characters portray a particular age, status, culture, and period.

Costume designers should be endlessly curious, with a taste for research and history.

To do this well, they need to begin with a close reading of the script—including an understanding of characters' development and relationships—and work with directors to nail down their vision. Then the research can begin. They learn about specific designs, materials, and colors popular in the time and place in which the production is set. From there, they create a costume plot, which follows each character's costume changes throughout the production. These sketches, photos, or digital images are presented to the director and production team for input or approval—and then it's time to obtain the costumes. Whether purchasing, creating, or tailoring, they manage the team, budget, and time frame under which they've been tasked with creating these works of art. Ultimately, costume designers schedule fittings and oversee alterations, as well as costume organization backstage. 

Costume Designer at a Glance

Finding Work and Advancing

Breaking into costume design usually requires a bachelor's degree in theater, if not costuming. Many costume designers also earn a master's degree. Working on college productions and interning for small productions are good ways to understand the business before being thrown into the deep end. Most costume designers begin their professional careers as assistant designers. Some go on to become costumer supervisors, overseeing the entire costume process in an executive-level role. 

Employers

Film, television, theater, and dance production companies

 

Professional Skills

Design, sketching, painting, color, theater, production, budgeting, management, sewing, tailoring, creativity, organization, stress management, textiles, history, fashion, character development, scheduling, initiative

Interpersonal Skills

This is a job for the creative, resourceful, and observant. Costume designers should be endlessly curious, with a taste for research and history. In this field, paying attention to minutiae counts. An ability to see the big and small pictures also may be an asset.

Work Life

There is no such thing as a typical day for costume designers. Depending on the particulars of a production, budget, and staffing, hours and stress levels will vary considerably. At times, they may work only a couple of hours per day; at other times, they'll be lucky to have time to grab a shower.