What does a costume designer do? (Job duties and skills)
Updated 12 May 2023
Costume designers research, design and create costumes for TV, film, theatre and dance productions, and work at the discretion of the director and producers. Some costume designers may specialise in particular genres or periods, while others work on general costuming. If you're interested in a career in costume design, understanding what this role entails and what skills a career in costume design requires is necessary. In this article, we explore the role of a costume designer, answering questions like 'What does a costume designer do?' and 'What is it like to be a costume designer?'.
What does a costume designer do?
If you're wondering 'What does a costume designer do?', it is necessary to first understand the purpose of a costume designer's role. A costume designer designs costumes and is responsible for the wardrobe department in movies, TV shows, theatre productions and dance companies. Costume designers may also work for historical re-enactment groups and other creative companies. The purpose of this role is to create clothing for actors and performers that meet the period, style, tone and design of the production. For example, costume designers often create historically appropriate costumes for period dramas.
Some costume designers may also design stage sets and props used on stage or film productions, while others may concentrate solely on designing costumes for specific characters within the production. Costume designers work closely with directors, producers and actors to ensure their designs meet the requirements of all involved parties. When designing costumes for particular productions, costume designers may spend a lot of time conducting research, drafting designs and editing designs based on feedback from actors and directors.
Costume designer responsibilities
Costume designers play an important role in film, television and theatre productions. They create all the clothing used by actors during performances or filming, including historical costumes, such as period dresses and modern-day suits. As a costume designer, you work with the director and actors of the production to ensure each character looks like they belong in their setting. You might also be responsible for choosing costumes based on research into historical accuracy or to tell a story within your chosen style. Some of the typical responsibilities of a costume designer include:
reading scripts to understand the tone and direction of a production
liaising with actors, directors and producers to discuss costume ideas
researching historical dress or traditional dress from a particular region
researching styles, materials, colours and patterns
creating costume plots which include costume changes as the production progresses
sketching costume ideas and features
creating computerised costume designs
presenting costume designs to directors and production teams
working with suppliers and tailors to source materials and create costumes
supervising dress fittings and dress rehearsals
Who do costume designers work for?
Costume designers work in a variety of settings, including local theatre groups and Hollywood studios. They work for movie producers, theatre directors, TV show creators and dance directors to create clothes for casts. They could also work for film marketing departments, where they develop marketing campaigns that include posters and other promotional materials featuring the actors' costumes. Entry-level costume designers may also work for high schools and historical groups locally.
Examples of different types of costume design include period drama historical costumes, fantasy and sci-fi costumes, theatre costumes, dancing costumes and dresses and contemporary costume design. Alongside designing elaborate historical outfits for period dramas and dance productions, costume designers also work with everyday clothing, like jeans and T-shirts, to create costumes for contemporary TV shows and films.
What is it like to be a costume designer?
Costume design is a creative career path that involves spending a lot of time working in a design studio, liaising with other members of a production team and conducting research on your designs and ideas. Costume designers work on sets and in studios and travel to film locations and venues. As a costume designer, you may travel for meetings, and overnight stays may be necessary if you're working on a production that is filming far away. Costume design careers involve long periods of working with other people, including other designers and production staff.
Costume designer qualifications
There are numerous different routes to becoming a film or theatre costume designer, with some costume designers earning qualifications and others starting out in entry-level roles. The costume designer job role requires both an understanding of contemporary and historical fashion and a natural talent for art and design. Below are some of the most common qualifications for costume designers:
Many costume designers have a degree at the undergraduate or postgraduate level in costume design, fashion, theatre design or performing arts production. Other degrees, like art and design and history of art, also help you develop a sense of colour and style and learn more about clothing and fashion in history. Postgraduate degrees in costume design are open to graduates who have undergraduate degrees in art and design subjects.
You may choose to study courses at college that could help you to secure your first role in costume design. These qualifications give you the skills and knowledge you require to become a costume assistant in a local theatre. Alongside modules on costume design and fashion, these courses may offer modules on practical skills, like sewing and dressmaking. Relevant college qualifications include:
Level 2 Certificate in Fashion and Textiles (with a specialism in subjects like tailoring or sewing and textiles)
Level 2 Certificate in Theatre Support - Costume and Wardrobe
Level 3 Certificate in Theatre Support - Costume and Wardrobe
If you'd rather work while you study, you could look for costume design apprenticeships. Apprenticeships are open to applicants with at least four to five GCSEs in grades 9 to 4 (A* to C), sometimes including maths and English. Relevant apprenticeships for a career in costume design include:
Level 3 Costume performance technician
Level 3 Fashion studio assistant
Level 5 Bespoke tailor and cutter
Costume designer skills
Alongside knowing what a costume designer does, it's also important to understand what skills enable costume designers to carry out their roles effectively. Costumers designers have an artistic eye for colour, texture and style plus an understanding of different fabrics and how they help to create different looks. Below are some of the most essential skills for costume designers:
Creativity and artistic flair
Creativity is key for costume designers. Costume designers want to create costumes that are historically or culturally accurate but still distinctive and unique. Being able to add your own unique style to your costumes allows you to stand out from other designers and earn a strong reputation within the industry.
Related: How to write a creative CV
Costume designers have excellent communication skills because they work with directors, actors and other production staff closely every day. It's important that costume designers are able to listen well and ask the right questions to understand what a project requires. They may also present costume designs and ideas to stakeholders and directors, which requires excellent verbal communication skills.
Costume designers require patience, especially when working to tight deadlines. Designing intricate costumes takes time, and it's usually a multi-step process. Costumes may require alterations if they don't fit properly at first and you may end up making adjustments or changes to costumes all the way up to the final deadline. This might include short notice changes because of actors' requests or script changes.
Costume designers working in high-pressure environments like film and TV studios are resilient and independent employees. To be a costume designer, it's important that you're able to accept criticism of your work and make changes to designs even when you disagree. Part of your work involves ensuring that both directors and actors are happy with costumes, and this may involve diplomacy and self-restraint.
Attention to detail
The most successful costume designs include small details that make these costumes unique compared to others. Costume designers require excellent attention to detail so they're able to incorporate detailed designs into their work. Attention to detail also helps designers identify small mistakes, snags or continuity errors during filming.
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