Designing, making, fitting, styling; the costume and wardrobe departments are a hive of activity. Whether a period drama or modern-day rom-com costume designers and their team help bring the characters to life.
Costume designers are unconcerned with fashion or trends (unless the script demands it), what they look for when approaching a new project is how to help establish the characters. Expressing a personality through clothing is not a new concept, after all, it’s what many of us do daily; it’s how we recognize who people are, giving us hints about their personality and the life they live.
During pre-production, the designer will break down the script, get to know the characters and talk to the director and production designer about their vision for the film. Designers research the period the film is set, consider fabrics and textures, whether to manufacture or buy-in. Working closely with the production designer the costume designer will sketch out their ideas, paying close attention to the color and imagery already conceptualized by the Art Department. Costume works very closely with the Makeup Department and the actors to fully establish the look of each character. The finalized designs go into the costume Bible that lives in the department, a reference guide for the makers, fitters and dressers who come on board at different stages of production.
Costume Departments can be creating clothing from scratch, as well as hiring, borrowing or buying from stores. This means a workroom full of sewing machines and overlockers, steam irons and rolls of fabric. You will also find facilities for distressing clothes, rooms/wardrobes full of costumes; the ‘hero’ items of clothing (things the character wears throughout the film) being replicated ten times or more to last the duration of the production.
Costume and wardrobe work hand in hand and they are largely interchangeable. What draws the division however are the local labor unions, namely the IATSE. Costume falls under Locals 829 (United Scenic Artists) or Local 892 (Costume Designers Guild), which is the home of the designers, assistant designers, co-ordinator and shoppers. Those working in wardrobe are members of locals in that area that are wardrobe specific 705 (Motion Picture Costumers).
On larger productions, the Costume and Wardrobe Departments will design, manufacture, tailor and fit costumes for principal cast and featured actors. Here you can find the role of the costume production assistant. PAs are brought into the department and set to work quickly, the majority of the work will be directed by the coordinator and focus on logistics. The PA position is the gateway into the department, there will be plenty to learn and much to do!
On lower budget films, costume designers may decide to purchase or hire costumes to style, rather than run a workshop to manufacture. On smaller productions, short films, music videos and commercials the wardrobe assistant will be there to help the stylist go about their job which is managing the wardrobe and dressing extra talent. When working on productions of a lesser budget, the assistant is the entry-level role; the assistant role can mean taking greater responsibilities as well as dressing talent and performing workroom/wardrobe duties.
Costume designer: Head of Department responsible for researching and creating the designs and compiling the wardrobes of the characters. Designers will discuss what is to be made, what is to be bought/rented, lead the workroom in constructing garments, collaborate with the supervisor to finalize a budget, oversee fitting and approve the work. As the HoD they are the primary point of contact for the department, liaising with the director, production designer and makeup designer throughout the project.
Wardrobe Supervisor: Responsible for the running of the department and the day-to-day activities. They can also take on other responsibilities depending on the size of the production, such as liaising with other departments, research, sourcing fabrics and protecting the integrity of the designer's vision.
Assistant costume designer(s): Working with the designer to achieve their vision. They will be on the front line, measuring and fitting an actor for a costume in pre-production. Depending on the production they can share many of the supervisor's responsibilities also which can include budgeting. Once filming begins they can oversee the extra talent, creating looks and pulling together combinations of costumes under the designer's supervision.
2D illustrator: works with the costume designer to sketch out computer-generated designs to be shown to the director. Most designers will still draw, but due to time constraints, illustrators have become valuable addition to the team. They can be the preferred choice of directors also, due to the ability to change the color of an item is achieved instantaneously.
Members of the workroom: which includes cutters, textile artists, ager/dyers, and specialty costumiers who are brought in for specific pieces (armor, milliners, etc.)
Costume buyer: who will shop for items of clothing working from an extensive brief. Buyers can have favorite second-hand stores, high street shops, and rental houses they use.
Set costumer: Laying out clothes in the morning for the actors and responsible for that character's continuity and wardrobe for the entirety of the shoot. Some actors will make specific requests for their dressers, which the costume designer and supervisor need to factor into their team.
Costume Coordinator: the linchpin between costume and wardrobe, keeping the whole department running as it should. They oversee the budgets, schedules and act on the needs of the department to make sure costumes arrive on time and everyone is where they should be at all times. They are responsible for the PAs who will be working with the coordinator to maintain stability through the shoot.
Extra or crowd staff: For productions that need to dress hundreds of extras, an additional team is brought into the department to manage the workload of heavy crowd scenes.
Most PA’s arrive before their call time to make sure they beat the traffic for one, and two to collect any breakfast orders from the department. Many costumes can be in the process of alteration for the days work and once senior members of staff have started for the day it can be hard for them to leave. Being a considerate PA and getting them (and yourself) breakfast makes a great impression.
Getting the sides for the day and any alterations to the script is the number one priority - after breakfast that is.
Working to instruction.
Each day will bring something new, there is no set pattern to any department on a film set. Make sure you listen and write down the taste in order of importance. If you are given a huge list of requests ask your coordinator to put them in order of importance for you.
Logging in items of costume and arranging the returns of others is a key task of the PA. Being organized is key to staying on top of the admin for this task is key to doing a good job.
Going out on department ‘runs’.
This could be anything, for picking up specialist items, last minutes fabrics, swatches or coffee if you have run out. This is where your driving license and common sense come into play. If working in a city you can find yourself on foot heading to suppliers. For more information about Covid-19 filming restrictions, click HERE (link to vivid guidelines). Otherwise, you will be driving around from the unit base. Always remember to have your phone on and get a hands free driving kit to keep safe. On smaller, non-union productions your own car may be used. Make sure you have all the relevant insurances.
Making sure machinery is in good working order.
Know who to call if a sewing machine or overlocker goes down. If there's a workroom contact list, make sure these details are added.
Logging in and out items of costume.
At the end of the day, double-check that all principal cast have their costumes stored away correctly and nothing has gone missing for the next day.
If the production is a period drama you may be called upon to research fabrics and materials, helping to source them locally or sometimes globally.
Working with other members of the team to maintain continuity for all the costumes. This can include printing out images at the end of the day to put into the actor's files and logging them digitally. Charging batteries of the digital cameras standby costume use on set to document any changes.
Calling casting agents.
Actors are hired at various stages of production; you may need to call up agents for measurements.
'Keep warm' coats.
If on set helping the dressers you can spend a significant amount of your time handing out coats to actors (principle cast and background) as they step off the set, they are known as ‘keep warm’ coats. It is entirely possible that the script dictates a warm spring day and you can be filming at the end of October, so you need to be quick with the coats!
Enjoy your job.
The number one quality for working in the Costume Department is a passion for the work. This job is not glamorous; you’re going to be on your feet working some long days, making sure the department runs like clockwork. Passion for your job will be the key driver to progress your career; you’re also going to need a lot of passion for seeing you through the 5 am pre-calls for days with big crowd scenes.
Working as a PA will require you to use your initiative and proactively assess what needs doing. Costume designers love nothing more than a junior member of staff who is always looking for things to do. If it’s well within your remit, then go ahead and do it. Take ownership of the responsibilities you have been given and continue to carry them out to the best of your ability.
Research isn’t just a case of looking it up on Google, well sometimes it is, but good researching skills mean hitting the books, knowing where to look, periodicals, archives or calling up museums that have collections of period clothing to get the answers you need.
Calm under pressure.
It's highly likely that as a junior member of the team you will be called upon to complete many jobs at the same time, it can be easy to get flustered when everyone is waiting on you. Try to stay calm and focused on the tasks that you have been assigned. If more jobs require your attention either add it to the list or deal with the one you believe to be most pressing. If in doubt ask a senior member of the team.
It sounds obvious, but you should act as though you want to be there. Don’t be on Instagram all day sending out pictures of you in front of the costume you’ve been logging.
It’s a team effort.
When working with other departments and actors, members of costume need to be adaptable in the collaborative process. If the boom op is having trouble putting a mic on an actor due to the costume, watch how your colleagues try their hardest to help resolve the problem.
Designers will be looking for PAs who can work with actors and other members of the team, know when to chat and when to keep quiet. Knowing what is going on in the department is also key, as is relaying any information you have been given. Never assume people know about an issue that has arisen, always check.
While working as a PA take the time to assess whether you want to pursue the route of costume design, a workroom position, shopper or the role of a set costumer. Working as a PA will allow you access to professionals who love the work they do, whether that be designing and fitting or working with the fabric to get a certain look or texture. Let your interests guide you as much as the desire to climb the career ladder.
If you would like to work as a costume designer then this is the formal career path you could take:
2nd assistant costume designer
Assistant costume designer
Members of the Costume Department enter from different backgrounds, such as fashion, textiles, personal styling, theatre or dressmaking. As the Costume Department needs people with a variety of skills, many of the practices learned from working in these areas translate well to film.
Previous experience will always give you a significant advantage when applying for PA positions; you're going to need a strong portfolio and resume, which not only reveals your skill but demonstrates your potential. Be prepared for a few years of self-investment as a PA. Investing in yourself not only means taking the time to build up your contacts and body of work, but it also means learning how to conduct yourself in a professional environment. Gaining initial experience to put on the resume working on low-budget productions is not going to be well paid to begin with.
In stage 1 of your career plan, which is where you will struggle to fill one side of A4 paper, you can consider collaborations. If you've opted for a degree, make sure they offer work placements in the industry, failing that you're going to have to do some legwork and find some work experience yourself. You can also:
Learn how to use a sewing machine or work from a pattern then make a significant investment of time to learn, these are vital skills in the workroom.
You can also enquire at costume rental firms and suppliers to see if they are accepting applications. Just as camera and sound juniors can make their way into the industry through the rental houses, so too can costumers.
As you start out, take the time to explore the other mediums where costume/wardrobe are employed, at this stage of the game you are looking to build relevant experience wherever you can.
Working on short films, ideally, while you are studying, can help your resume and portfolio. The film industry is fiercely competitive, so you need to use all resources available to you. Alongside the opportunities we list here on MFJF you can look to our industry essentials section to search for collaborations with local filmmakers.
Do your research first to find out who is going to be working on the production. The university will back student films so you know a budget is in place and insurance will be taken care of.
If you're working on a short film with people you don’t know, make sure to check out the producer's track record and back catalogue of work, you want to know they are following best industry practices and will be running the production properly. This means the production will be insured, catering (or at least some form of feeding the crew) has been devised, there is a schedule that is realistic and location, transport and travel plans are all considered.
If you’re claiming expenses, always talk about money before you agree. So, although you will not be remunerated for your efforts, you need to make sure you are rewarded in other ways. Such as experience of working on a properly run shoot, experience of working as part of the costume team, making some contacts who are working in the industry and adding a credit to your resume.
If your gut feeling is you're not going to get these things, (you will know within the first five minutes) you could decide to say thanks but no thanks and look for the next opportunity.
When working on your resume check it through (or ask someone else to) to see it reads well and is correctly formatted. You can use the advice to help create a resume and covering letter. You can check it against our examples to see if it includes all the relevant information.
Keep your resume short and to the point, as many supervisors will be ‘scanning’ rather than reading, cut out anything unnecessary and keep it down to one page.
Finding paid work and applying for positions can be a full-time job in itself. Some people will get lucky, finding work almost instantaneously. Some may have put in the hours on short films while they are studying to create a network, some people might just be in the right place at the right time. In whatever situation you find yourself, the resounding advice from professionals working in the film industry is to be persistent; persistent and relentless in the pursuit of your chosen career.
When applying for jobs make a website so you can upload your best work, and create a feature of the link in your resume. If it's looking a little light on images, you can add other work such as sketching or life drawing into the mix, anything that can demonstrate your eye for color, texture and composition.
You can also work with photographers, models and makeup artists on ‘testings’. These are collaborations where the key roles on a photoshoot (photographer, model, stylist, makeup artist) come together for free to create work for their portfolios.
Use an artist's case to compile a hard copy of your work to take to an interview, or internships, if you secure a place. If you have a chance to sit down with a member of the Costume Department, it can be an excellent guide in the conversation. Here you can add more detail on how you came to produce garments or designs, try and sell your technical skills in conjunction with your creativity.
There is a host of blogs, books and internet resources available to gain further insight into the work of the Costume Department, and although nothing is going to beat practical application, they will give you a feel for life on set.
Alongside researching at local museums, improving your sketching, looking at fashion through the ages and knowing back to front the role of the department, you may also wish to continue your reading so hit the library. Here are some useful sites and books that can further your knowledge of costume:
Film Craft: Costume Design. Deborah Nadoolman Landis
Designing Costumes for Stage and Screen. Deirdre Clancy
Dressed: A century of Hollywood Costume Design. Deborah Nadoolman Landis
Costume 1066 to the present: A complete guide to costume design and history. John Peacock.
https://www.facebook.com/groups/1818271621531365 Costume Daily Database
You should have two networks.
A lateral network of other PA’s and junior staff who can recommend you if they are unavailable to work. Remember, this industry is founded on word-of-mouth recommendations, which is why you need to be a great PA and professional at all times.
Your horizontal network consists of those above you; assistant costume designers, wardrobe supervisors, trainees, etc. Keep in contact with everyone you meet, send the odd email, social media is a great way to stay in touch. Use your time to create opportunities, don’t wait for them to come to you.
You're going to need to support yourself financially while in those initial stages of starting your career. If you find yourself waiting tables, working behind a bar or pouring coffee it’s relatively the same starting wage as a PA, except you get tips!
It's a bit of a juggling act for the first few years so look at other areas of the creative industries where costume and dressers are employed such as theatre or fashion. In those initial stages, you are looking to build relevant experience wherever you can. There are not many people who walk straight into a job, which is why you should check your college degree to see if they offer internships or have links to the industry that you can utilize.
Although the industry is incredibly flexible when it comes to changing careers you will need to be clear about why you want to make the change and give examples of what you have been doing to facilitate the move.
The role of the PA is not a unionized position, so you have the ability to work on union and non-union productions. In the US the labor unions were established to protect members of production - across the arts - from exploitation. Read our guide on union and non-union productions to fully understand their role in film production. The unions and guilds who represent the Costume Department are:
The role of a PA is most likely found on productions that have the budget to include members of junior level staff. PA positions can be found in:
Feature films of most budgets.
Student productions (Masters film production programs)
Some digital content if working with actors, the role may be that of a stylist.
All departments on a film set work hard, and the Costume Department is no exception, expect to be clocking up some long days. Members of the team need to be adaptable, practical and creative when it comes to working on set; they also need to be methodical when looking after an actor's costume continuity and possess tact and diplomacy when working with the other departments. Similar to the work of the makeup artists, members of costume collaborate closely with the actors, and many strong professional working relationships are formed that can last a career.
If working at a studio, the workroom is set up close to set, and this is where you can find the designer during pre-production. Creating a wardrobe can mean some items are outsourced (corsets or specialist items that need making), bought, rented or bespoke. The Costume Department work very closely with sound (for hiding mics), and if the SFX team use complicated stunts, the designer will conceive ways of hiding padding and create enough room for movement for the actors. While working on location, the wardrobe truck will house a mini workroom with space for the costumes themselves.
Most designers are aware of the grind of production and endeavor to lead by example to make their work environment a fun place to be, and it most often is. The Costume Department is always busy, the sound of the sewing machines buzzing away, actors being fitted for costumes and a general buzz of activity means the workroom is never dull. When the department is under pressure it can also be a stressful place, so make sure to keep professional and try and be unflappable. Designers and senior members of the team will be watching how you handle yourself.
Working as a costume PA will not require any formal academic qualifications, although a degree in fashion or textiles can offer you a solid educational grounding, knowledge of how garments are manufactured and some life experience. If choosing a costume or fashion degree look closely at the modules the course is offering, does it offer:
Practical modules with a specific focus on manufacture as well as design.
Lecturers (full time or guest) who are working in the industry.
Affiliations with industry-recognized institutions.
A chance to meet alumni or industry members.
Working on short films or student projects can give you experience in styling characters, which can come into play on many features with a limited budget. Working with limited resources can often bring out the best in people, so if you have to make something out of nothing make detailed reference to this during interviews or in your covering letter. On entering the Costume Department, you should be able to demonstrate an eye for detail, color, texture and some thought for the characters. If you don't have a degree and have worked on short films or theatre, build your portfolio of work and demonstrate technical competence via short courses or practical work experience with a dressmaker. Courses that focus on a particular element of the costume can be very useful on the resume such as:
Working/altering vintage garments.
Always make sure costumes and accessories are stored in their correct place in the evening. This is a great practice to get into, and it's not uncommon for a designer themselves to double-check everything is where it should be at the end of the day.
If you have a skill, let them know.
If you have been working on your designs, and have found a skill that you're good at, let someone know about it. It’s a way to get yourself known within the department and can open up opportunities later on.
Gain experience working in other mediums.
You can work as a stylist or do a stint in the theatre; all these experiences will add to a deeper understanding of the work of the Costume Department.
Take on research in your spare time.
Become familiar with the trends and styles of the past. Being able to identify the cut of a suit for example can enrich your professional knowledge.
It sounds simple, but study the work of filmmakers and costume designers you admire; work out what it is that adds depth to a character alongside the actor's performance. Think about why they have chosen the costumes, and what you would do differently.
Continue to develop your technical skills.
You may find courses dedicated to restoration or embellishment would be useful if working on a period drama. Use your spare time to equip yourself with as many desirable skills as possible; it could give you the edge over your competition.
Make sure to take wet weather gear out on location
Don't forget a good pair of shoes! Being comfortable and wearing clothes that allow you to move from the set to the workroom is essential - although the working environment during COVID will see you based in one location. If you're going to be on your feet all day, you will need a good pair of shoes. It’s a well-known rookie mistake, don’t be the one everyone is looking at drenched in your woolen coat - now three times the weight due to the rain.
Be prepared for unemployment.
There is some crossover between feature films, commercials and TV dramas, expanding your chance for employment. If you decide to work on the big-budget features, this becomes less so, once involved in this area of the industry people tend to keep available for the next big job. While you're training, work is going to be sporadic, even later in your career, you may find this is still the case. One option for short-term work is dressing in the theatre. These are casual gigs for dressers who can pick up a few weeks' work here and there. Make sure to give your details to local theatres; it could come in handy.
If you get on set pay attention. As a PA, you may be sent to the set with one of the standby dressers. Make the most of this opportunity and learn from your colleagues about set etiquette. If someone appears distant, it isn't because they are anti-social, they are just listening to the conversations going on so they can be prepared for the next set up.
When your jobs are done, never, never, ever get your phone out and sit down.
It goes without saying one of the biggest mistakes made by PAs and trainees with little experience is to think they can take a break - not so. As a rule of thumb, if everyone else is busy you should be too. You may be tired, but so is everyone else and they have more responsibility to deal with. So, if you have nothing to do, go get them a coffee.
A costume designed to tear or snag in a scene. Often there are more than one of these costumes.
This is research from the costume designer including notes on makeup, hair, photographs, sketches and fabric swatches. The Costume Department shares this with the director, production designer and makeup designer when collaborating on the key designs and tones of the production. New entrants should seek this out so they can get a feel of what the department is trying to achieve.
An element of costume, jacket, dress, etc. that is worn throughout the film. The hero item is often replicated ten or more times to make it through three months of filming.
A small explosive that is embedded into the fabric of the costume, designed to appear as a bullet hole on detonation. A designated copy of the hero costume will be fitted with these by the special effects team.
At the beginning of the day get a handful of sides for the onset team and the trailer. The sides include a copy of the call sheet and the scenes from the script to be shot that day. Always check the sides against the schedule you have in the workroom or trailer, the ADs may have made an amendment or included a pickup shot.
One of the most important pieces of paperwork you are handed at the end of the day, detailing your call time and if you are shooting on location, address and directions. Check it thoroughly, there will also be a weather report so dress appropriately.
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