Do you know what can bump me from a movie or TV show's story? Bad clothes on film.
What a character wears makes them authentic and adds an aura of believability. That's why making costumes for movies and TV shows is one of the most important jobs on set. Costume designers are crucial to the worldbuilding of any project. But what exactly do costume designers do? And how much do they make? And how can you become a costume designer?
If you have a lot of questions about this job and other jobs inside the film crew, you've come to the right place. Today, we're going to define a costume designer, research some famous costume designers, and get to the bottom of their responsibilities in movies and TV. We even have some tips from pro film and TV costume designers.
So, let's get started with the most basic of questions.
What Is a Costume Designer?
A costume designer is a person tasked with creating the costumes for a film or TV show. They envision and create the characters' outfits or costumes and make sure they have a balance on camera and reflect the personalities and aesthetics within the movie.
Costume Designer Job Description
The costume designer works with the director, writer, cinematographer, and set designers (as well as other creative personnel) to capture the look and feel of the movie or show.
They make sure the clothing every character wears feels like it belongs in the story and gives them some personality. They will also not just pick clothing off a rack. Many times, costume designers must create these clothes from scratch. That means sketching out images and experimenting with different colors and patterns until they are camera ready.
'Marie Antoinette'Credit: Columbia Pictures
What Does a Costume Designer Do?
A costume designer is responsible for everything worn by the cast in a movie or TV show. They sketch and create the things characters wear in movies and TV shows. They work in tandem with the creative team to make sure all the costumes look good on camera and make alterations on the fly. They're there to create a consistent look and to help build the world of the story. They bring authenticity forward.
Costume Designer Tools
When it comes to the tools of the trade, you're going to want to start with a sketchbook and some colored pens or pencils, so you can give a rough estimate of what the final costume will look like. Nowadays, much of this is done with a stylus and a tablet, so images are easily shared. Aside from that, you want some costume-specific tools, like a tape measure, scissors, tailor's chalk, pearl headpins, a dressmaker dummy, and a sewing machine and thread.
'Mad Max: Fury Road'Credit: Warner Bros.
The Types of Costume Designers
There are three main types of people who do costumes for film and TV. Remember, costume designers are the secret heroes of cinema.
- Freelance Costume Designers—these people jump from different productions, working for hire. They get paid in three installments: the initial hire, the delivery, and after the final tweaks. They tend to bounce around on multiple projects a year. Networking is very important to their business.
- Residential Costume Designers—they are employed by a big company or studio to work on ongoing projects consistently. They might be on a multi-season television show or working for a place like Marvel, where costuming needs to be the same over many movies and TV shows.
- Academic Costume Designers—these people take up residency at a university or technical school and impart their wisdom and techniques to people who want to learn the craft of costume design. They usually teach specific courses and might only work freelance in film and television in their spare time.
'The Irishman' costume sketchesCredit: Netflix
How to Become a Costume Designer
To become a costume designer, there are a few paths you can take. The first is the most obvious. You can go to film school and then find an MFA or a technical school that focuses on costuming or costume design. Check out Otis College of Art and Design, which has a widely renowned program.
A lot of times, there is a crossover with fashion design, since a lot of the same sewing and sketching is covered in both fields.
Another way is to just... do it. Get started working on indie films and watch some YouTube tutorials. Work your way up the ladder by getting some clout and then working with some of the other established costume designers as an apprentice or being brought on to help their vision.
Most costume designers work their way up from within, starting as assistants to more established designers, and slowly are given more promotions and work up from there. You need hands-on experience to see how the business happens and how to collaborate with other artists.
Phoebe Dynevor in costume department of 'Bridgerton'Credit: Netflix
How Much Do Costume Designers Make?
Because of the wide range of costume designer jobs, it's hard to nail down an actual salary. As I mentioned earlier, many costume designers are paid in steps per job. So the annual earnings may be different if you work more or fewer jobs. Or if you get a residency somewhere or an ongoing project.
Also, you have to take into account that there are people working outside film and TV as costume designers for plays, musicals, and even local theater companies.
Zippia reports, "Costume designers make $64,043 per year on average, or $30.79 per hour, in the United States. Costume designers on the lower end of that spectrum, the bottom 10% to be exact, make roughly $36,000 a year, while the top 10% makes $112,000."
If we break this down to mostly film and TV, Comparably reports, "The salaries of Costume Designers in the US range from $10,782 to $288,999, with a median salary of $51,930. The middle 57% of Costume Designers makes between $51,935 and $130,188, with the top 86% making $288,999."
'The Walking Dead' costume designer Eulyn Womble works on a WalkerCredit: Gene Page/AMC
Academy Award for Best Costume Design
Like many other film jobs, there is an Academy Award for costume design. Many people have won several times. Most notably, Edith Head won eight times.
Even more remarkable? She was nominated 35 times.
Milena Canonero and Colleen Atwood are the most honored currently living designers, as they have four awards each. You can check out an entire list of all the winners of the Academy Award for Costume Design on Wikipedia.
Edith Head and her Oscars.Credit: Courtesy Everett Collection
Famous Costume Designers
As mentioned above, Edith Head helped define the style of classic Hollywood. She worked with people like Grace Kelly, Cary Grant, Lana Turner, Paul Newman, John Wayne, Steve McQueen, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlene Dietrich, and many more. All of the costumes she put them in helped sell their films and rocket them to stardom.
In her personal life, Head was also known to have a signature look. She inspired the character of Edna Mode in The Incredibles and only wore black, white, beige, and brown.
A more modern costume designer who is super famous is Ruth E. Carter. She has been designing costumes for over 30 years, mastering the looks of periods and genes for over 40 films. During her career, Carter has been nominated three times for the Academy Award for Best Costume Design, winning the Oscar for her work on Black Panther and being the first Black person to win that award. Carter’s designs are unlike anything else.
Carter shared her process of designing costumes for films like Black Panther, Malcolm X, and School Daze with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, highlighting the importance of research and intention of each piece designed on the costumes.
Ruth CarterCredit: Today
Tips for Your Costume Design
The elements of mise-en-scène (or "everything in the frame that makes up the frame") play a pivotal role in the storytelling process, from the size of your shots to the way you dress the set, and one such element you should never ignore or leave to chance is costume design.
The way you dress your characters is just as important as how you light your scene or direct your actors, but this skill is often quite underdeveloped (or not developed at all) in novice filmmakers. If you want to take your costume game to the next level, the team over at The Film Look gives you a few pointers on how to get started in the video below.
1. Choose costumes that communicate
Costumes speak volumes. They can tell audiences where and when something is taking place, who your character is, what's going on in a scene, and what is going on in the story. Costumes give your characters their persona and your story visual depth, so it's not enough to have your actors wear the clothes they came to set with. Take some time to develop the costumes of each character and see how you can communicate story elements with your choices.
2. Make them pop
Another thing you'll want to consider when designing costumes is color, not just of the clothes you'll be using, but of the set(s) they'll be appearing in. You'll want to choose materials that bring your actors out from the background, rather than blend them into it. In other words, if you're shooting against a brick wall, it wouldn't be wise to dress your actors in red—perhaps blue or a vibrant yellow would work better.
3. Keep styles consistent
In real life, we all wear costumes, don't we? Keep that in mind if you're designing several different costumes for a single character. Each of them will have their own unique style, and any deviation from it will most likely be obvious and confusing.
Ruth Carter teaching students at OtisCredit: Otis
Summing Up "What Is a Costume Designer?"
As you can see, whether on a film or a TV show, costume design is incredibly important. Designers not only are entrusted with building character, but they also have to extrapolate the world and have a heavy hand working in the setting as well. While they mostly go unheralded, they can either keep you in the movie or have the power to take you out of it.
Becoming a costume designer is not easy. It can take years of schooling and work, but you have a place in movie history if you can do it well.
If you are a costume designer reading this, what tips and tricks do you have to impart to the audience? Any advice for people breaking in? We want to know all the wisdom you have to offer. Put it in the comments.
We look forward to hearing from you and viewing your work.