The Costumer's Manifesto: What Do You do as a Costume Designer for aLiving?
Huge numbers of students are given the assignment of interviewing a personwho has the job they want to have as adults, and asking a series of jobquestions. However, there are many, many kids who would like to becomecostume designers, and not a lot of us designers who have time to answer thedozens of inquiries we get. I am no exception, I can't spend the timeanswering these inquiries individually. What I can do is answer thequestions I am asked most frequently, and give you links to a large number ofother online interviews with costume designers (see bottom of page), many ofwhom have answered similar questions in their interviews. As a student youcan use these to complete your report. ----Tara Maginnis
What Do You do as a Costume Designer for a Living?
Hello Tara, my name is Miranda and I'm in the seventh grade at Prospero MiddleSchool. In English class I'm doing a job search. For my profession I chose costumedesigning. I have a list of questions that I would like you to answer as best as youcan. Thank-you very much for your time, this is helping me out a lot.
1) What kind of skills training and/or education would I need to become a costumedesigner?
Tara: I needed a Ph.D. and most costume designers in University theatre need atleast an MFA, that is a Master of Fine Arts in Theatre Design. Generally, to do thissort of work in an educational setting you need to be prepared to be a collegeprofessor, that is do historical research, have English skills sufficient to be a publishedauthor of articles BEFORE you are hired, as well as every year after you are hired.You need to learn to draw figures that look well proportioned and in character withthe play. You need to have lots of social skills for interacting with your director,the other (scenic and lighting) designers, each of the actors, and the public (notto mention the students who will be working with you to make the costumes. You need tolearn all sewing, painting, dyeing and crafts skills needed to make your costumes, including how to draft period patterns from scratch, well enough that you can teachthese things to your workers. You also need a good knowledge of costume history, theatrehistory, art history, and the usual more generalized social and political history. Youneed library research skills, internet skills, and basic budgeting math. You shouldget a demonstrable competency with pencils, pens, opaque and transparent watercolor,drawing inks, felt pens and Prizmacolor pencils. Computer literacy is also amust.
(written for adults, but any bright Jr. High School or High School kid could use it to make great cheap costumes for school plays)
Rosemary Ingham & Elizabeth Covey. The standard textbook on costume design. Illustrated in B&W and Color.
2) What does a costume designer actually do?
A costume designer in an educational setting (the majority of paid all year salariedcostume designers in the USA outside the film industry), usually a theatrical costumedesigner has a sort of dual existence as a professor and a designer in a repertorytheatre. In a usual week I will teach classes for part of the days (I teach two classes asemester taken from Theatre Makeup, Costume Design and Construction, Theatre History II,History of Fashion and Dress, Advanced Costume Design and Construction, andArt/Music/Theatre Aesthetic Appreciation) then supervise work in the costume shop in theafternoons 1-5pm. I go to about one meeting for the Faculty Senate and it's committees aweek, and have to speak and vote on matters relating to the university as a whole. I alsomeet weekly with the faculty and staff of the Theatre department to make schedule, policy,and budget decisions. I meet weekly with the Student Drama Association to give them adviseabout their policies, schedules and budgets, as well as share ideas about creative ways todo publicity, fundraisers or shows. I do research in thelibrary for upcoming shows, and make Xeroxes and sketches to show in another weeklymeeting on whatever show is coming up next. In these meetings all the production peopleconcerned, director, designers, the stage manager, and sometimes assistant designers meet,share ideas, work out conflicts, budget problems, time and staff constraints, etc. I shopin evenings and earlymornings at fabric stores, Thrift Stores, crafts stores, Fred Meyer (Superstore), and evenscrounge through the public dumpsters for materials for use in our shop. (A blunted senseof smell helps). I also maintain good relations with other University departments and thepublic by assisting outside groups with research, borrowing costumes, books, catalogs andpatterns. During the hours spent in the costume shop, I may on any given day: paintrenderings (figures of the costumes to be made), draft patterns, dye fabric or costumes,cut out fabric from commercial patterns, paint costumes, distress costumes (age and dirtycostumes artificially with wire brushes, sandpaper and paints), make hats, steam or alterhats, dye shoes, pull costumes from stock, sew, fit actors, and instruct students to doany of the above. At home in the evening I work on my internet project, answer mails likethis, learn computer graphics for the future of the web site, grade papers, and writereports for the university's administrative machine.
3) What are the working conditions?
As the above will perhaps make you guess, the hours are extremely long, regularlyincluding weekends, and the pay is fairly low for a Ph.D. I am at the middle rank, tenuredfor a number of years , and make about $45,000 gross pay. On the good side onegets almost three whole months free in summer, plus three weeks at the winter holidays.One is also blessed with a tremendous variety in one's work, interesting co-workers, and avery fun working environment.
4) What are the average high/low earnings of a costume designer.
Costume designers without degrees often work for free, I can give you names of at leastfour fully competent designers in this town (Fairbanks, Alaska) who never get paid a dime,yet do wonderful work for FLOT and FDA. At the opposite end aresuccessful film costume designers with union status and regular work from a studio doingTV work and films. These folks regularly make $70-150,000 a year. These folks sleep evenless than I do by the way.
5) What is the future job outlook?
Rather bad in the educational area of costuming. Universities are cutting back theatredepartments and professor salaries, so my sort of job is getting harder to get into.However, the US film and TV industry is expanding so Hollywood costuming is not as hard toget into as it once was. As with all desirable (read fun) professions, there are about 50persons wanting any given job that opens, so it is highly competitive, however, like allthese sorts of super competitive jobs, the jobs in the long run go to the mostpersistent, determined, hardworking types, not always to the most talented
6) What is the most enjoyable thing about being a costume designer?
Getting to play with bits of paint and garbage and fabric, mix it with creative ideas, andfinding you can create something magical.
7) What is the least enjoyable part?
The long hours, the constant dependence on others to do support work, which, if they donot do on time, or properly, or at all, you are left doing yourself at the last minute.
8) What got you interested in being a designer?
Seeing bad designs for a show I liked, and thinking "even I could do better thanthat".
9) How long does it usually take from the time you design something, to when itgoes on stage?
I usually design costumes 2-6 months before they are seen on stage.
10) What is a typical day like?
Today I spent 9-1 doing assessment reports for the university administration, 1:130helping a high school film class borrow costumes for a project, 1:30-3 sorting through ourcostume storage to weed out discards for the year, 3-4 discussing cleaning plans with myassistant, and digging through paperwork on my desk, 4-5 putting away antique costumes andaccessories into storage. 515-7 Hunting for needed costume items at value village. 715-9writing this. 9-930 vainly trying to get online to send it. After I do get through (945?)I'll go straight to work on scans for my web site, probably till 12.
11) How do you feel, in working in the costume world, design ultimately affects the performance?
Design affects different performances different ways:
Bad designs are those that detract from a performance by
looking inappropriate on a character, thus making an actor's work more difficult,
by drawing pointless attention through spectacle when spectacle is not called for,
by not providing enough spectacle when spectacle is clearly called for,
by confusing combinations of color that pull audience focus to the wrong place on stage,
by forcing actor movement in an inappropriate way,
by not forcing actor movement in an appropriate way,
by not making the most of the actor's body type in an intelligent way.
Good costume designs can help actors to better feel "in character", and better show their character's traits to the audience,
they can provide spectacle that makes musical numbers charming, distracts from poor sections of script, and amplifies scripts that need strong visuals to match the heightened emotion and languge (Angels in America, The Tempest, operas, etc),
they can provide a needed visual shorthand and coding that can direct attention to the right place on stage, explain character "types" faster than a script or actor can, thus speeding up the script, and let audiences know which people belong to which groups in potentially confusing scripts (Romeo & Juliet),
they can contribute with lighting and sets to a unified visual whole that can visually explain the concept of the director, and set the mood of the audience,
they can help actors to blend their body type harmoniously with that of their character, making the person look sexy or frumpy, young or old, regardless of what they normally look like,
they can provide cues, restrictions and/or oppertunities for movement that can appropriately limit, or enhance the actor's movements in keeping with the script,
they can communicate information to the audience about period, social circumstances, time of day, weather, socioeconomic status, and a host of other details without needing to waste script time on exposition.
Once again, thank-you for your time. Miranda
Rosemary Ingham &Elizabeth Covey. The standard textbook on costume construction and costumeshop management. Excellent information on drafting, cutting, shopequipment, and forms. This is the improved and expanded text of the old,beloved, The Costumer's Handbook. Illustrated in B&W and Color.
Hand out for Middle School on Costuming as a Job:
WHAT A COSTUMER DOES FOR A LIVING
HOW TO READ A PLAY (DEVELOPS A CONCEPT ABOUT THE SHOW AND FINDS INDIVIDUAL MEANING FOR EACH CHARACTER)
RESEARCHES COSTUME HISTORY
TALKS WITH THE DIRECTOR AND OTHER DESIGNERS
DESIGNS COSTUMES ON PAPER------
SHOPS FOR FABRIC AND OLD JUNK CLOTHES
BUDGETS MONEY, MAKES PHONE ORDERS, AND BORROWS/RENTS ITEMS
MAKES PATTERNS USING DRAPING AND/OR GEOMETRY
SEWS, DYES, PAINTS AND EMBELLISHES FABRICS WITH BEADS AND EMBROIDERY
DOES COSTUME CRAFT WORK: CASTING PLASTIC, CARVING FOAM, STRETCHING AND WIRING HATS, PAINTING/DYEING SHOES, AIR BALLING, ETC.
DOES LOTS OF LAUNDRY, IRONING, STEAMING AND REPAIRS.
PHOTOGRAPHS THE SHOW FOR PORTFOLIO/FUTURE JOB HUNT
WRITES ARTICLES FOR OTHER COSTUMERS
WHAT YOU SHOULD STUDY IF YOU WANT TO COSTUME: (EVERYTHING)
ART, PARTICULARLY DRAWING, WATERCOLOR AND ART HISTORY
SEWING, PARTICULARLY PATTERN DRAFTING
HISTORY, PARTICULARLY WESTERN CIVILIZATION AND 20TH CENT. AMERICA
ENGLISH, PARTICULARLY ESSAY COMPOSITION, ENGLISH LITERATURE, AND DRAMATIC LITERATURE
PHOTOGRAPHY, ESPECIALLY LOW-LIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY
LIBRARY SKILLS (YOU CAN'T GET TOO MUCH OF THIS)
COMPUTERS, ESPECIALLY PHOTOSHOP
WOOD AND METAL SHOP
FILMS AND FILMMAKING
AFTER SCHOOL PROJECTS:
SEWING AND CRAFTS CLASSES AT SEWING STORES
VOLUNTEER FOR COMMUNITY THEATRE & COLLEGE THEATRE COSTUME CONSTRUCTION AND/OR MAKEUP CREW
PAINT, PHOTOGRAPH, DO CRAFTS, HANG OUT AT MUSEUM
READ LOTS OF PLAYS
WATCH LOTS OF MOVIES
PART TIME WORK AT COSTUME RENTAL STORES IN SEPT-OCT
PART TIME WORK AT FABRIC STORES AROUND XMAS
TAKE PART IN YOUR SCHOOL'S THEATRE PROGRAM IN ANY CAPACITY BOTH ON STAGE OR OFF
Links to info about similar jobs
Links to Interviews
Places you can
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