Costume Designer

The Job and What's Involved

Costume designers design, create and source costumes for theatre, film or television productions. They organise and provide everything that is worn by the performers and help to realise the director's vision by creating the right look for the characters and setting.

The costume designer first reads the script to gain an understanding of the style, period or culture of the production. They then break the script down scene by scene to work out the number of costumes required. The designer carries out research, using the internet, libraries and specialist sources, such as museums. They then present initial ideas to the director, using pictures, sketches and fabric samples.

The costume designer leads the costume and wardrobe team. Their tasks may include:

  • Supervising the making, purchase or hire of costumes, including accessories.
  • Overseeing alterations and other adaptations, such as dyeing and distressing of fabrics.
  • Managing the costume team and budget.
  • Contracting specialist staff, such as embroiderers and milliners.
  • Organising fittings and schedules and ensuring that costumes are ready on time.
  • Checking continuity (for film and television).
  • Overseeing the maintenance of costumes.
  • Overseeing the sale, return or disposal of costumes at the end of the production.

The designer works closely with other members of the creative and technical teams to ensure that costumes are in line with the overall design. In film this might involve test shoots.

A key part of the designer's job is working with the performers, putting them at ease and making sure that costumes and accessories are comfortable. They may consider the performers' own ideas about what their characters would wear.

The size of the wardrobe team depends on the production and the budget. The costume designer may work alone or have a large team, including assistants, makers and other specialist staff.

Most costume designers are freelance. Hours can be long and unpredictable and often include evenings and weekends. Designers working on film and television productions have to arrive before the performers, sometimes very early in the morning.

Costume designers work in production offices, studios, theatre wardrobes or from home. They may have to travel to different locations in the UK or sometimes overseas. A driving licence is useful.

The work can involve a lot of standing. Some costumes are very heavy to lift and carry. Shopping for costumes may involve carrying heavy bags. Design work and making samples may involve sitting at a desk or sewing machine for long periods.

New costume designers may earn around £18,000 a year. Recommended minimum rates for freelance costume designers in film and television are around £721 for a forty hour week.

Most costume designers are freelance and negotiate a fee, which depends on their track record and the production budget available. Equity and the Broadcast, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU) can advise on rates.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

Costume designers work in theatres and with film and television companies. Some are employed by wardrobe departments, but most are freelance, working on fixed-term contracts.

Most work is in London and larger cities such as Manchester, Bristol and Birmingham. There may also be opportunities in regional, fringe, and touring theatre or with regional production companies. Competition is fierce and costume designers need a strong portfolio and good contacts. Networking and self-marketing is essential.

Very few jobs are advertised. Costume designers may be recommended for work or hear of opportunities through their contacts. Some are represented by agents who take a commission. Jobs may be listed in The Stage and occasionally in newspapers. Details of forthcoming productions may be found in Screen International and Production and Casting Report www.pcrnewsletter.com/pcr/ which is available on subscription.

Education and Training

Most costume designers have a qualification in a subject such as art and design, costume design, fashion, theatre design or performing arts (production).

Relevant qualifications include:

  • City & Guilds Certificate in design and craft - theatre costume (Levels 2 and 3).
  • Foundation degrees.
  • Degrees.
  • Postgraduate diplomas or degrees.

Applicants should check with colleges and universities for exact entry requirements. Many students take a one-year foundation course in art and design before applying for a degree to give them a chance to build up a portfolio.

Costume design is a practical job so applicants should make sure that this is reflected in course content. Work placements may be available for students on degree or diploma courses, with theatre companies or with costumiers.

Vocational diplomas in costume are available at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA).

Apprenticeships and Advanced Apprenticeships provide structured training with an employer. As an apprentice you must be paid at least £95 per week; you may well be paid more. A recent survey found that the average wage for apprentices was £170 a week. Your pay will depend on the sector in which you work, your age, the area where you live and the stage at which you have arrived in the Apprenticeship.

Entry to Employment (e2e) can help to prepare those who are not yet ready for an Apprenticeship. In addition, Young Apprenticeships may be available for 14- to 16-year-olds. More information is available from a Connexions personal adviser or at www.apprenticeships.org.uk.

There are different arrangements for Apprenticeships in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

For further information visit My World of Work www.myworldofwork.co.uk/modernapprenticeships, Careers Wales www.careerswales.com; and for Northern Ireland contact www.careersserviceni.com.

There are some training schemes available for new entrants, including:

  • FT2 - Film and Television Freelance Training - wardrobe assistant.
  • The BBC Design Trainee Scheme - costume design.

Entry is fiercely competitive.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Training is on the job as it is essential to build up wide practical experience.

Costume designers may also take specialised courses, in skills such as pattern cutting or computer software packages such as Photoshop and CAD.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A costume designer should:

  • Be creative and imaginative.
  • Have a strong sense of design and colour and an eye for detail.
  • Be able to draw or use a computer design programme.
  • Have good planning, budgeting and organisational skills.
  • Be able to manage and communicate with a team.
  • Like working with people.
  • Understand production processes and the needs of other departments.
  • Have research skills.
  • Be flexible, resourceful and able to meet deadlines, often under pressure.
  • Understand Health and Safety regulations.

Your Long Term Prospects

Some costume designers progress into senior roles such as department head with larger organisations such as the BBC or to head of wardrobe in a major theatre.

Progress for freelance costume designers means becoming established in the profession and having more choice in the work they do.

Get Further Information

BBC Training and Development - Design Vision,
221 Marylebone High Street, London W1U 4AA
Tel: 020 7208 9469
Website: www.bbc.co.uk/design

BECTU (Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union),
373-377 Clapham Road, London SW9 9BT
Tel: 020 7346 0900
Website: www.bectu.org.uk

The Costume Society
Website: www.costumesociety.org.uk

Creative and Cultural Skills, 4th Floor, Lafone House,
The Leathermarket, Weston Street, London SE1 3HN
Tel: 020 7015 1800
Website: www.creative-choices.co.uk

Equity, Guild House,
Upper St Martins Lane, London WC2H 9EG
Tel: 020 7379 6000
Website: www.equity.org.uk

FT2 - Film & Television Freelance Training,
3rd Floor, 18-20 Southwark Street, London SE1 1TJ
Tel: 020 7407 0344
Website: www.ft2.org.uk

Get Into Theatre
Website: www.getintotheatre.org

Skillset, Focus Point,
21 Caledonian Road, London N1 9GB
Free careers helpline: 08080 300 900
Website: www.skillset.org/careers

The Society of British Theatre Designers,
Fourth Floor, 55 Farringdon Road, London EC1M 3JB
Tel: 020 7242 9200
Website: www.theatredesign.org.uk

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