Costume Designer

  • Costume Designer Live

A costume designer must have an inherent talent for visual presentation and drop-dead wardrobe flair. Whether you are creating a show-stopping leather number for a pop star’s tour or taking a stab at recreating Audrey 2 for Little Shop of Horrors, your looks must gain favor with the audience, or risk damaging their impression of the production.


Duties

The process begins with the phone call. Once the costume designer has been contracted to work on a production, he or she gets to work reading the script and attending early rehearsals to get a sense of the actors who will wear the clothes. Understanding the actors’ movements is important—will they be dancing, or flying, or fencing? In addition to addressing the need for freedom of motion, the costume designer must take into account how the garment will look from the front row and from the back of the balcony. After meeting with the director and production designer, the designer begins rough sketches for lead characters, supporting cast, and the chorus and background players. When a final iteration has been decided upon, the costume designer produces detailed drawings illustrating fabric choices, color palettes, examples of trim like buttons and fringe, and accessories like jewelry and headpieces. All information concerning costuming is kept in the “bible,” which is a large binder that catalogues all sketches, photographs, sales receipts, and swatches—everything the designer needs to re-create the show’s wardrobe for future productions. When necessary, the costume designer will consult with a textile artist on prints and patterns. The designer also supervises the construction of each costume and will lead fittings with cast, making design changes if necessary. When the director has signed off on each costume at the “look parade” (like a fashion show to present each character in each look with full costume, hair, and make-up), the costume designer’s work is done. If needed, the designer will be contacted during the run of the show to make any necessary changes or consult on major repairs and replacements.

Skills & Education

This job requires a college degree in fine art or theatrical production with a concentration in costume design. As an artist, you must have a trained eye and ability to create illustrations that accurately convey your vision. Also important is proficiency with hand and machine sewing, patternmaking, and the techniques of complex garment construction. More than just dreaming up an elegant dress or sharp suit, the costume designer must understand the human form and how fabric conforms and moves with the body. Experience in textile printing and tailoring is valuable, as is a thorough study of modern and historic fashion. What cannot be trained is taste.

What to Expect

Unlike designing costumes for film—in which the cast may wear pieces for only one day or a week of shooting—stage actors rely on their costumes for eight show per week for several months. This presents a particularly difficult challenge for the costume designer. Garments are constructed in several layers with thick lining to prevent damage from sweat or tearing during a quick change. Consideration must be given to not only the aesthetic quality, but also the sturdiness of the design.

Most costume designers work on a freelance basis and are contracted for one production at a time. However, positions do exist to work full-time for a regional theater company. These artists are eligible to become members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the union that represents production crews in film, television, and live entertainment.  Apprenticeships exist within IATSE to prepare experienced artists for work as a costume designer, and you can work your way toward this senior role through credits as an assistant costume designer or costume sketch artist.

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