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Journey of a Costume Designer

by H Farrell 12 months ago in industry

From day one to a finished film

Journey of a Costume Designer
Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Graceful dresses in jewel tone taffeta shine in Anna Karenina, while perfectly distressed fatigues set the stage in Saving Private Ryan. These two very different films have one thing in common: a talented costume designer. A costume designer analyzes the script, gets inspiration from historical documents or contemporary fashion designers, creates a team of sewers, assistants, and buyers, oversees the making and altering of costumes, and finally works tirelessly during the shooting of the film or television series. This process can take anywhere from two months to a year to create every article of clothing seen in a film or television show. Costume designing is a demanding career filled with challenges that pay off in creative satisfaction. A designer reaps the rewards of their hard work with their coworkers at the film’s premier- usually a chance to wear a great dress or tux and celebrate.

Starting at the beginning, most costume designers earn at least an undergraduate degree in costume design. The best schools in the US for a Bachelor of Fine Arts in costume design include Savannah School of Art and Design, New York University, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Missouri Kansas City. Many costume designers also get a Masters of Fine Arts. Throughout their education, students create and design costumes for stage and film. It takes at least four years for a student to get an undergraduate, and sometimes more than two for a master’s degree. The programs equip graduates to enter their field, whether film or theatre, in an entry level position.

After working for a while as assistants and filling various crew positions, you might be offered a job as a head designer on a film, and that is where the real fun begins. Usually, a designer will find the job through someone they have worked with before, and they will put the new designer in touch with the director and producers. When the job is offered, many people will negotiate the rate of pay. Hopefully, they all agree. After that, there are a few legal things to be done, like signing non-disclosure agreements saying you won’t tell anyone what happens on the set of the film until after the film has been released, and signing contracts. Once the paperwork is settled, the real fun begins.

If the designer is working on a project with a large enough budget, this is when they will begin to hire their crew. Crew members can include stitchers, embroiderers, armorers, dyers, printers, milliners to make hats, finishers to put the garments in their final forms by breaking them down to show wear, laundry assistants, and wardrobe workers. The crew positions that are nearly always filled are a designer, an assistant designer, a wardrobe supervisor, a key costumer, and a few costume assistants. A wardrobe supervisor takes care of the costumes while they are not on the actor, which includes laundry and mending. A key costumer takes care of the costume while it is on the actor on set, including any emergency repairs or stains. A small crew can be three or four people, while a large crew, like Michele Clapton heads on the show “Game of Thrones” can have between 70 and 100 workers at any given time.

During the same time period where the designer is hiring their crew, they are also reading the script and forming concepts for the costumes. After the first reading of the script, the designer comes up with the early concepts of what they would like the costumes to look like. This is when the designer and director usually schedule their first meeting. These meetings are rather informal, and usually over coffee or drinks. They exchange ideas and make sure that the vision the director has is cohesive with the inspiration the costume designer has drawn. If they are on the same wavelength, the designer delegates an essential task to the wardrobe supervisor. Next, the wardrobe supervisor goes through the script and creates a script breakdown. This document, or more commonly, a spreadsheet, details when in the script each character wears each costume. Shows that are very costume light might have 10-20 principal costumes, while very large ones can have between 100-200 principal costumes. Keeping track of when every character wears what costume is a full time job.

Once these two crucial steps happen, the designer will go wild with drawings, collages, and picture references to create each costume. If the show is a period, or science fiction, or fantasy genre, the designer will rely heavily on drawings to convey the look. If the show is contemporary, more commonly the designer will rely on pictures and make collages showing contemporary fashions.

Hopefully, by this time casting will be complete and the designer and their assistant designer can begin the purchasing portion of the project. Without the measurements of the actors, the designer can’t do anything. Casting changes frequently on larger budget films, so sometimes it can be hard to get names at this stage. Purchasing takes two different paths: the first is the purchasing of raw materials like fabric to construct costumes, and the second is to buy garments ready made to be altered to fit the character. Costume designers will frequently have a person on their team whose whole job is to be the buyer. Once the items are purchased, the receipts are catalogued and the items sorted into which character they are for.

After the buying for a character's wardrobe is complete, fittings begin. The first fitting consists of the actor meeting with the designer and a tailor and trying on every possible costume. Over-buying is the most common practice in film, which means if the character needs four costumes, the buyer will purchase ten costumes and they will all be photographed on the actor to be decided upon later. When the first fitting has been done, the costume designer and the director have another meeting. The designer has put the pictures taken into a slideshow to show the director. Together, the director and the designer choose the final looks from the costumes presented. Now, the next part of the job falls to the tailor and costume production assistant. The tailors fit the garment perfectly to the actor’s body and make any adjustments that the director and costume designer request. The costume production assistant is now in charge of returning all of the unneeded items, either to the stores or shipped back to where they were ordered from.

Finally we have made it to the last few weeks of pre-production. This is the time where the whole crew is on the job and they are able to meet for a full scale production meeting. The production meetings are usually held at the production office, which is where administrative work happens. During production meetings, department heads (like the costume designer, director of photography, art director, and visual designer) give status reports on how their work is going, and request help from other departments if needed. Production meetings usually have food, which is a major plus. There might be two production meetings per week for the last two weeks, just to make sure everything is running smoothly. During this time, a table reading of the script is scheduled. Once all of the actors are in town, if they have travelled for this job, the cast and crew gather for a meal followed by reading the script out loud. This is good not only for the actors to meet who they are working with, but many times, designers will notice they have made a mistake in their work and are now able to fix it before shooting begins.

At last, it is the last week of pre-production, second and third fittings with actors will occur to make sure that every costume is perfect. This is also the time where the costume department packs up their studio space and goes mobile. Large vehicles are outfitted to store costumes. Usually these vehicles are converted semi-truck trailers. Hanging racks line the walls with special securing bars to keep the costumes from falling during transit. In nice trailers, there is a washer and dryer as well as a microwave and mini-fridge for the convenience of the crew. This is a mobile sewing station as well if repairs need to be made. When you’re finally loaded into the trailer, you can breathe a sigh of relief; pre-production is over!

After all that work, it is time to start shooting! Most everyone is on set now, and ready to work. Some actors work fewer days than others, so you may not see them every day. Hours are very long for a costume designer now; usually film crews work a 12-hour minimum day. For a costume designer or other head of department, this means that if the call time is 7:00 in the morning, they should be on set around 6:00 to make sure everything is ready for the day. The first thing that happens every day is breakfast. This is a provided and catered cast and crew meal. It is a time for the cast and crew to bond with each other outside of the very stressful job we are doing. During breakfast, production assistants hand out “sides”. The sides are copies of the scenes that are being shot that day. They are usually half size pages stapled together with the call sheet in the front. The call sheet gives out information on how the day will progress, and which actors will be on set that day. After breakfast, it's go time.

The first shot of the day usually takes the longest to set up, so this is when preparations for the actors take place. The key costumer and costume production assistants prepare the costumes for each actor by steaming and pressing them, and making sure that they have all the required items- even socks, undershirts, and sometimes underwear. The key costumer stays with the actors in their holding area until they are called to set. The costume designer moves to what is called video village when the scene is ready to be shot. Video village is a place near or on set with a monitor that shows what the main camera is recording. The costume designer, director, producer, and art director have assigned chairs in the village, and it is very important that they have a clear view of the monitor. This is where any possible problems with the shot will be discovered and fixed. Video village is where the costume designer can be found most times. If there is a problem, one of the crew that is on set like the key costumer or the costume assistants will fix it. It is the job of the costume designer to establish each costume on camera, and take pictures of each costume after it has been seen for the first time to make sure it looks the exact same every time.

Sometimes, if the costume designer has a very special director, costumes will be asked for on the fly- costumes that were not requested during pre-production. A savvy costume designer will be able to make the costume requests happen, and an even savvier costume designer will know when to tell the director it's not possible. Setting boundaries with the executive team is an important part of the costume designer’s job.

Six hours into the day, lunch is called. This meal is called lunch regardless of what time of day or night it is held. The mood of the day is always evident during lunch- if everyone is having a good time and socializing, the day is going well. The opposite is also true. There are constant opportunities to eat and drink coffee on set because while working this kind of very active, high stress job for as many hours as they do, having snacks improves morale very much.

The best sound a crew member can hear is the assistant director calling “Abbey Shot”. The abbey shot is the second to last shot of the day. This is the cue to start cleaning up to be ready for the next day. Your crew should be pretty much packed up back into the trailers by the time the assistant director calls “martini shot”, or the last shot of the day. The lore behind why these shots are called these things is mutable and mostly lost. “Martini Shot” usually brings shouts of joy among the crew.

A costume designer has a complex and difficult job, but it is not without its rewards. During the opening credits, the costume designer is listed with the producer, director, art director, and director of photography. When a film is watched, people are consistently influenced by the creations of the costume designer. Many epic films have an article of clothing that acts as almost another character- think Scarlett O’Hara’s drapery dress, Neo’s long black coat in the Matrix, and Dorothy’s ruby slippers. It’s not a job for everyone, but those who attain the position experience a work environment like no other. Martini!


H Farrell

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