Design Career Profiles: Costume Designer

Design Career Profiles: Costume Designer

Costume designers are responsible for the costumes needed for theatrical productions, television shows, and movies. As such, they help tell stories, and are an integral part of bringing characters in a movie, play, or TV show to life. It is cosume designers who research what's needed, determine the condition of what's available, and then select, procure, fit, alter and clean costumes for cast members.

This job involves being a bit of an historian, because costume designers spend many hours reviewing fashions of historical periods and characters to be portrayed. They also review scripts and study books, pictures and examples of costumes, and determine how many costumes are needed for each character.

Because costume designers deal with hundreds of costumes for some productions, keeping track of all the outfits is no small chore. So they spend a lot of time tracking inventory.

Professional costume designers usually fall into three categories: freelance, residential, and academic.

  • A freelance designer is hired for a specific production by a film or television show, theatre, dance or opera company. Freelancers are not obligated to any exclusivity in what projects they are working on, and have the flexibility of designing for several projects concurrently.
  • A residential designer is hired for a specific project for an extended series of productions. This has great benefits, but the biggest drawback is that a residential designer's contract may limit the amounts of freelance work they are allowed to accept. Unlike the freelancer, a residential designer is consistently "on location" and is readily at hand to work with the costume studio and his or her other creative collaborators. Residential designers tend to be more established than strict freelancers, but this is not always the case.
  • An academic designer is a designer who holds professorship at a school. The academic designer is primarily an instructor, but may also act as a residential designer to varying degrees. They are often free to freelance, as their schedule allows. In the past, professors of costume design were mostly experienced professionals that may or may not have had formal post-graduate education, but it has now become increasingly common to require a professor to have at least a Master of Fine Arts in order to teach.

USA is the union that represents costume designers. Although most professional designers are union members, USA has relatively few collective bargaining agreements with theatres when compared with other theatrical unions. However, most major US opera companies do have CBAs with USA. The majority of union contract work for designers is on a project by project basis, not as a part of Collective Bargaining Agreements with theatrical establishments.


  • Ability to make creative alterations to costumes to help create the characters. Imagination and attention to detail are both must-haves.
  • Independent research skills help lead the costume designer to find clothing appropriate to the story line or era.
  • Good communication skills enable the costume designer to work successfully with the wardrobe manager and head cutter on each design, as well as with the director and other designers (set, lighting, makeup) to develop design concepts.


  • Although some costume designers study at art and design schools, many break into the industry as assistants or volunteers and then work their way up. For fashion design as a whole, employers usually seek designers who are knowledgeable about textiles fabrics, ornamentation, and fashion trends.

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