Costume Designer

    If you are wondering how to become a costume designer, below are tips and advice on training for and beginning careers in this area of the design industry, as well as job prospects in the UK.

    The Job Description
    Costume designers are responsible for the overall look of the clothes and costumes in theatre, film or television productions. They research and design costumes, and lead a team that may include a design assistant, wardrobe supervisor, wardrobe assistants and costume and wig makers.

    As a designer on a large production, you would create the costume ideas and delegate the practical work to others in the costume department.

    Typical responsibilities:

    study scripts
    discuss ideas with the production designer, director, and make-up, set and lighting designers
    create costume ideas to fit the production’s design concept and budget
    research suitable costume styles, fabrics and designs
    sketch costume designs
    work closely with a team of costume makers, who would turn your sketches into wearable garments.

    On smaller productions, you might also carry out some of the practical tasks, such as:

    managing the costume/wardrobe budget
    buying or hiring outfits
    fitting, altering and adapting costumes
    cleaning, ironing and mending
    making sure that wardrobe items are available at the right time
    managing continuity of costumes.

    Person Specification
    The key personal attributes of good costume designers include:

    creativity, imagination and problem-solving ability
    excellent design skills
    good communication and ‘people skills’
    leadership ability
    organisational skills and awareness of budgets
    a good eye for detail
    the ability to work under pressure and meet deadlines
    good research skills, with a knowledge of costume history and modern fashion
    a flexible and adaptable attitude
    knowledge of the production process, including technical aspects such as lighting and sound.

    How to become a costume designer
    To train as a costume designer you will need a high level of design skill and creative vision, as well as practical sewing skills. In practice, many costume designers have a BTEC HND, degree or postgraduate qualification in costume design, fashion, theatre design or performing arts (production). Check with colleges or universities for exact entry requirements.

    Alternatively, you could start as a wardrobe assistant or costume maker and work your way up to designer as you build experience and contacts in the industry.

    Whatever your qualifications, you should find practical work experience and build a good portfolio or ‘showreel’ of your design work to show to potential employers. You can get relevant experience through:

    student theatre and film productions
    amateur theatre
    working as a costume ‘daily’ (a temporary helper) on TV or film sets
    casual wardrobe work in theatres
    working for a theatrical costume hire company.
    You may be able to start in the film and TV industry through a training scheme for new entrants, such as Film and Television Freelance Training (FT2) Design First, an apprenticeship-style programme for trainees in the wardrobe, art, props and make-up/hair departments.

    Places on the scheme are limited and the selection process is tough. To apply, you should be aged 18 or over and be prepared to live in London during training. See FT2’s website for more details.

    Major broadcasters and regional screen agencies sometimes run their own new entrant training schemes – contact Skillset Careers for more information.

    Training and Development
    Most of your training would be on the job, starting as a design assistant or wardrobe assistant and learning from experienced designers.

    You should continue to build your portfolio/showreel and develop your skills and contacts throughout your career. You may find it useful to join organisations like the Society of British Theatre Designers and the Costume Society, for professional recognition, networking and training opportunities.

    You could also take short courses in skills such as computer aided design (CAD) or pattern cutting.

    The Pay (a rough guide)
    Freelance rates can vary widely. You could negotiate fees based on the type of production and your experience and track record, or you may be paid according to Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU) or Equity guidelines.

    Earnings in film and television can be higher than in theatre.

    Job Prospects
    You would be most likely to work on freelance contracts for film and television production companies, theatres and touring theatre companies. You could also be employed by design consultancies that specialise in theatre design.

    Some jobs are advertised in industry publications and websites like The Stage and Broadcast, but it is also common to find work through networking and contacts.

    Competition for work is strong, there may be gaps between jobs, and pay can be low when you are starting out. Career success will depend on your reputation and track record. You would tend to specialise in theatre or in film/TV, but you could cross over once you are established.

    Useful design resources:
    Guild House
    Upper St Martin’s Lane
    WC2H 9EG
    Tel: 020 7379 6000

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