A costume designer is a fashion professional who is responsible for creating the look and mood for actors and actresses in film, television and stage productions. The costume designer does this through designing, sewing, researching and purchasing actual clothing and costumes worn by those on stage and by selecting or designing the accessories and props which help to define each character.
A costume designer must be an expert in beauty and style. He/she must have a thorough understanding of film, production, theatre, marketing and fashion design as well as the ability and desire to research and continually learn about scenarios, cultures and periods of history which help demonstrate the director's vision. The costume designer and his/her team must ensure individual props and wardrobes reflect the story being told and portray the character's personalities, cultures, ages, status and relationships. Many costumes may be required for each character as costumes define the attitude and feel which may change with every new scene, setting or development.
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Each costume design job begins with the designer carefully reading through the script. It is important that the costume designer has a good feel for the overall plot, the director's focus and intent as well as the personalities, roles and relationships various characters have throughout the production.
Once the costume designer has a good feel for the direction of the production, he/she may research clothing, designs and materials indicative of the particular location or time period. Next, the costume designer will create a costume plot which follows characters through the progression of the production, changing their attire when appropriate. This plot can include sketches, photographs or computerized images that are presented to the director and production team.
Once approved, the costume designer begins the hunt for necessary costumes and props. In some situations, entire costumes may be purchased either new or from second hand stores. Other costumes will be drawn and sewn either by a tailor in close coordination with the costume designer or by the costume designer himself/herself. Other costumes will be a combination of these two options. The costume designer is also responsible for supervising fittings and dress rehearsals. It is the costume designer's responsibility to ensure that every costume is ready by the specified deadline.
It is imperative that all costume designers have good fashion sense, extensive knowledge of the fashion world, and bring imagination, creativity and drive to the table. Being knowledgeable in theatre and film production is a definite plus.
Although you may have a strong sense of fashion and are an accomplished seamstress, in order to work as a costume designer you must also receive formal education in costume or fashion design. There are both two and four year programs which meet the minimum requirements for employment but more advanced skills such as those acquired in a four year program will improve your chances of being hired. Many costume designers have master's degrees which include a focus on theatre, broadcasting, costume design, literature or marketing. Although an advanced degree is not a hard requirement, the greater experience and knowledge you have, the more marketable you are.
Any opportunity to work as an intern will provide invaluable experience and this combined with your formal education will help to develop your portfolio while also showing your drive. The best way to ensure future work as a costume designer is to take advantage of every opportunity presented to you to work, even if it is for free and as an apprentice.
Costume designers are employed in every city in the United States, Canada and internationally, though production hubs like Los Angeles, New York and Toronto employ a much higher number of designers. Costume designers work on films, television, stage productions, theatre, and even at festivals. The more experience a designer has, the greater his/her chance of being hired for movies.
Most costume designers get their start with university or regional theatres and work their way toward off-Broadway and Broadway productions, then television and film. Whether a novice or experienced costume designer, hours are often long and demanding. From the moment the designer first reads the script until the show begins, the costume designer is always on the go. Once a production begins, the costume designer's job is basically complete, though he/she may assist in the event problems occur with costumes during production.
The salary for a costume designer varies widely. Because most designers begin with little to no experience, any job which gives experience is worthwhile. Work as an intern is often unpaid but provides invaluable experience which makes a designer more marketable. Entry level jobs often pay around $500.00 for the entire production; designers may be paid an hourly salary which can vary from about $8.00 to $35.00 per hour in Canada and the U.S., but payment per production is the norm. As a costume designer gains experience, his/her salary increases as well, with an experienced costume designer making up to $20,000.00 for a single production. Top level designers who work in the film industry can make $150,000.00 per production.