A costume designer designs and produces clothes and costumes for theatre performances, TV shows or motion pictures.
The costume designer is responsible for selecting, designing, obtaining or bespoke-producing outfits for performance art productions. For a TV show, it could be something as simple as engineering a basic look for a popular presenter whereby the costume designer would act in an advisory stylistic role. For theatre and film production, it is a lot more complex. There could be a cast of several hundred people for a multi-million pound production, and every actor that appears on screen, whether a central star or a background extra, will need to be dressed appropriately for the production.
The work becomes incredibly detailed on productions such as wartime dramas or science-fiction. In the former, every period detail must be researched and reproduced in order to convey the required level of authenticity. In the case of more progressive films such as those in the science-fiction or fantasy genres, the production may require long and complex consultation as the clothes are being designed from scratch to fit an imagined universe. Costume design directors will supervise a team of costume makers on a large production.
Salary is paid per production typically, although busy costume design houses (such as those in Hollywood) have large teams of full-time staff who are working on several projects concurrently. This is unusual in the UK market. For small theatrical productions, the designer may be paid over the course of several months whilst the play runs “in season”; salary can be marginal for independent productions, but popular West End musicals can offer around £1750 per month (before tax). According to mysalary.co.uk, the average pay scale ranges from £12,800 (North of England) to £17,440 (London), although this encompasses such a broad range of production types that it should be viewed as indicative only.
- Interpret overall feel, theme and historical period of the production
- Work with internal costume team to prepare and deliver suitable clothes for the performance
- Remain on hand to assist with garment repair and replacement
- Interpret the director’s wishes for changes or modification to costumes
- Source, design or manufacture custom pieces where appropriate
There are no academic barriers to entry. Whilst prospective candidates would imagine that some sort of post-graduate course in fashion design or garment manufacture would be essential, in reality, this is not the case; a large part of the role involves sourcing, buying and hiring appropriate costumes as time and budget restraints on film productions demand that clothes are delivered quickly and in an economical way. In fact, those who undertake post-graduate courses tend to progress from drama or media production courses rather than anything to do with the fashion industry; the two sectors are actually rather polarised, and a degree in fashion design is unlikely to guarantee work in media.
- A keen eye for detailed work
- An appreciation of careful artistic presentation
- An ability to work as part of a large team in order to deliver costumes in the agreed time frame
- Thorough understanding of the aesthetic demands of the director
The costume designer will typically spend most of their time in their own workshop working on creating custom pieces or trying to acquire clothes from other industry sources. However, during pre-production and production periods, the designer will spend a great deal of time on set, working with the Director of Photography to get the look and theme of the visual ‘correct.’ A film set is a hot, time-pressured, ego-sensitive arena of stress and unpredictability, and the same goes for theatre. The costume designer is subject to the same pressures as everyone else who works in performance art production. Some will love it, others will not.
It’s possible to begin in the industry as a hobbyist as the UK benefits from a thriving amateur dramatics scene. It is very easy to get involved with a local production; although this is unlikely to pay any money, it will equip the inexperienced candidate with skills for basic garment design and acquisition. It also gives them something to put on their CV under “successful performances.” The costume designer starting out should also seek to obtain a range of high-resolution digital photographs of all of their creations, as a good showreel is essential in securing further work in the future.
Candidates may find it difficult to progress from a local dramatic scene onto the set of regional television or theatre; it is a competitive industry with many people attacking “showbusiness” from many directions and many backgrounds. It can be about luck as much as judgement, although candidates can improve their chances by attending as many networking events as possible: film previews, local drama performances, film industry networking events, etc. Business cards will help the candidate get started, although they will also typically require sample garments to show potential employers (i.e. independent producers).
Pinewood Studios is the UK’s most renowned media production facility, with its own dedicated costume production department. There are several independent garment producers for film and television in the UK. Candidates should consult an industry oracle such as the stage for further details.
Also known as…
- Costume supervisor
- Costume maker
- Casting director
- Storyboard artist
What’s it really like?
Forrest Mallard specialises in producing and procuring high-quality dresses and accessories for drag performers of a strong international reputation. His designs are very popular with performance artists in the United States.
What made you decide or choose to get into this sort of career?
I have worked in all aspects of theatre and special event production for over 11 years on and around Broadway. I’ve worked production on major international sporting events as well as many televised awards shows. As a freelance producer (which is what I was doing before), your career is usually not very focused on one specific type of production. You can take jobs in theatres, in TV studios, on cruise ships, at the Olympic Games and at hotels and casinos. My last production job brought me to Bangkok, Thailand, where I was producing theatre and events for a very famous nightclub. Whilst there, I learned what an amazing resource Bangkok has for producing hand-beaded theatrical costumes. Recognising that this was a niche market that was previously non-existent, I began my company, Drag Addict, and begin marketing these sparkly, fully-beaded gowns and costumes to drag queens worldwide. Since that time, the scope of the company has expanded to include Drag Couture, Burlesque and Exotic Dance Costumes, Theatrical Costumes, Prom Dresses and young girls’ Pageant Gowns and Dance costumes. I still do production on the side, but Drag Addict is my baby.
Do you have a standard day or a standard type of ‘exercise’?
Marketing and building client relationships.
What is the most common type of problem/call-out/enquiry to which you must attend?
I’m always either too busy, or not busy enough. There is rarely a moment in between. When it rains, it POURS. When it is not raining, there is nothing going on, and that is when I start thinking of new ways to market the company.
What do you like most about the job?
Most of my clients are professional touring drag queens. They are some of the most colourful, creative, crazy people in the world. Not only is it fun to work with them and be inspired by them, but it also makes the job one of the ultimate fashion challenges anyone could ever have. I have to design, produce and market costumes in almost a ‘shock and awe’ manner. I always have to have a few items that will get their attention and then they may stick around to look at the rest of the catalogue. So the answer is a great combination of fun, inspiration and challenge.
What do you like least about the job?
While highly creative people are a joy to work with because they are fun and inspiring, at the same time, these people are often the most frustrating because they can be indecisive, prone to exaggeration and sometimes they simply disappear and stop communicating just as you are about to close a deal. Much of the time, creative people come up with questions only because they are curious as to whether I can get something produced. For example “Can you make a children’s ballerina costume in an XXL size 24 dress with an ostrich feather tutu and long flesh-coloured sleeves to hide the fat in my arms?” After doing a quick design in my head and figuring out a price, it turns out that often these are just questions of curiosity. And while this is regularly a lot of fruitless work, it keeps me on my toes and often inspires my creativity to try something new.
What are the key responsibilities?
Staying in touch with clients who are more than likely in a completely opposite time zone, working out new orders with clients and helping them design custom pieces, working with the costume shops throughout Asia, taking photos of new designs to post online, putting together a weekly newsletter, and making sure all the items are being produced on schedule as many clients need their costumes for specific events.
What about academic requirements? Any formal demands, e.g. A Levels?
The best education you can have for a job like this is to know your industry. What is the target market which would potentially buy my clothes? How do I reach them and keep them interested in my products? Having the ability to identify niche markets that are much less competitive and not as saturated with similar products is the key to success.
What is the starting salary, and how does this increase over time with promotion?
The starting salary is zero. I lived and breathed the company for the first year and everything I made went back into the company. I’ve just begun my second year and will soon be taking a modest salary.
What advice do you have for someone who is looking to get into this as a career?
In the beginning, be obsessed with learning everything you can about the market. Find local/national/international celebrities in your target market whom you might eventually be able to get a product endorsement from. If you are short on start-up cash like I was, learn everything you can about guerrilla marketing, social marketing and buzz marketing. Get creative and think BIG!
What are the most important qualities an applicant must and should possess?
The passion to work in this field is the most important thing, as there will be no salary to start with; you will often work yourself to exhaustion and there will be so many challenges that pop up, it will seem as if the universe wants you to fail. If you don’t have true passion and love for this job, you will not make it.
Any closing questions, comments or additional advice?
There is a well-known saying, “Do what you love. Eventually, the money will follow.” It is true. No matter what you do, do it with passion.