Costume makers are essential in the theater and opera industries, where they create and alter costumes for lead actors and ensemble members. Some specialize in a particular area—a certain fashion style, period, or type of garment—but most try to cultivate a diverse skill set including hand sewing, machine sewing, tailoring, haberdashery, and cobbling in a wide range of styles and historical periods. Whatever their specialization, a costume maker's role on a production usually begins after receiving detailed sketches and specifications for all costume pieces under their purview from the show's costume designer(s).
In between theatrical shows, costume makers might construct costumes to be used in music concerts, music videos, advertisements, and fashion shows. Some even specialize in one of these areas.
Once the costume maker receives the costume designs, he or she may begin to research and seek out historically accurate materials for the costumes; alternatively, this information may be passed along by the costume designer or dramaturg. Once they have the designer’s approval for their proposed materials and construction, it’s up to the costume makers to purchase the materials and create a calico toile, or rough version, of each costume. Upon receiving the cast’s measurements they sew the garments accordingly, and continue altering and tailoring the pieces in more in-depth fitting sessions after the basic structures of the costumes are completed. Costume makers are on hand for dress rehearsals and opening nights to educate the cast on any costume peculiarities, and to make last-minute adjustments and fixes.
Costume Maker at a Glance
A college degree isn't necessarily required to work as a costume maker, but a bachelor's degree in fashion or costuming is often preferred—and college productions often serve as valuable initial credits for aspiring costume makers. For those without a college education, working a costuming internship at a local playhouse can fulfill a similar role. First gigs may be as a sewer, tailor, assistant costume maker, or apprentice. Once a costume maker has built a solid portfolio, he or she may be put in charge of costumes for an entire production, score enviable gigs with prestigious productions, or begin transitioning into design work: first as assistant and then as full-fledged costume designer.
Most costume makers are freelancers who work for theater and opera companies on a per-show basis, although some manage to find long-term positions with theater companies, opera companies, or schools. In between theatrical shows, costume makers might construct costumes to be used in music concerts, music videos, advertisements, and fashion shows; some even specialize in these areas. Due to the freelance nature of the job, networking and self-promotion are essential to finding work.
- Knowledge of a wide variety of fabrics
- Broad knowledge of fashion and practical technique
- Hand stitching
- Machine sewing
- Attention to detail
As a kind of craftsperson, most of a costume maker's job is oriented around hard skills. Still, costume makers must possess some interpersonal skills, including knowing how to work effectively as part of a team, performing basic research, and budgeting effectively. Additionally, creativity and resourcefulness are highly prized qualities in this profession—and time management skills are an absolute must.
Costume makers typically begin working on a production a month or two before it's staged, although production cycles can vary greatly. As with many jobs in performing arts, work days grow longer and less predictable the closer it gets to showtime. While most of a costume designer's hard work is done long before opening night, rips, tears, and other unexpected malfunctions usually keep costume makers busy through the run of the show.
After the show is finished, a costume maker may enjoy some hard-won downtime, developing new skills, networking with others in the theater industry, or doing freelance costuming work for non-theatrical clients like music video directors, advertising companies, and fashion shows.