Great movies are often praised for incredible direction, cinematography, or performances. But one of the more important aspects of the filmmaking process that unfortunately does not receive proper recognition is costume design. Costume designers are more than just fashion designers. They are storytellers that utilize the craft of fashion design to tell a story. In this article, we’ll take a look at the differences between a fashion designer and costume designer, the responsibilities of a costume designer, and why those responsibilities make them integral to the filmmaking process. 

What is a Costume Designer in Filmmaking?

What does a Costume Designer do?

While the term costume designer sounds rather straightforward, there is more to the job than you might initially think. Before we dive deep into all of the responsibilities of this rather undervalued role, let’s first take a look at the general costume designer definition. For a complete guide to the major roles in film production, check out our ultimate guide to film crew positions.

COSTUME DESIGNER DEFINITION

What is a costume designer?

A costume designer is responsible for designing, creating, or purchasing the costumes, and wardrobe that actors wear in a film, television, or stage production. Costume designers work similarly to a fashion designer, but design clothing specifically for film and stage productions. Therefore, costume designers must have a solid understanding of story, character, mood, and other filmmaking elements.

What is a costume designer responsible for?

  • Reading and understanding the story 
  • Collaborating with directors
  • Researching visual references and relevant information
  • Creating, purchasing, and acquiring costumes

Costume Designer Job Description

Costume vs Fashion

Costume designers are often confused with the job of a fashion designer and rightfully so. Both roles share similar skill sets and mediums. Both must have a keen understanding of wardrobe design. And, obviously, both must understand the craft of creating clothing. 

Where they differ, however, is what they are creating clothing for. A fashion designer typically will be designing a wardrobe or outfit for a specific event such as a gala. 

A costume designer, on the other hand, must design clothing for a character in a story. For this reason, costumers must have an understanding of storytelling and prioritize it when designing the costumes of a film. Costume designers are a critical part of creating a memorable character. 

Take a look at this video by Now You See It to get a better understanding of how costume design is often overlooked, yet important aspect of filmmaking. 

What is a Costume Designer  •  The Hidden Layer of Movie Magic 

To dive deeper into why this is such an integral role in storytelling, let's take a look at the responsibilities that define their job.  

Edith Head Headshot StudioBinder

“What a costume designer does is a cross between magic and camouflage. We create the illusion of changing the actors into what they are not. We ask the public to believe that every time they see a performer on the screen he's become a different person.” 

— Edith Head, Winner of 8 Oscars for Best Costume Design

What Does a Costume Designer Do

Understanding the script

Before any decisions can be made and before any sketches are drawn, before anything is researched, a film costume designer must read and understand the script of a film. 

They must understand the story’s tone, themes, character arcs, setting, and plot. Scripts leave clues that lead a designer in the right direction. Often, costume designers will break down a script for these wardrobe clues.

If you’re a costume designer, check out our video tutorial of how you can use StudioBinder’s script breakdown software to tag wardrobe elements in a script.

Costume designer responsibilities  •  Subscribe on YouTube

Costume designers understand that filmmaking is a collaborative effort. In this phase of understanding the script and the story, designers will collaborate with the director. Take a look at this video below that analyzes how designers must really be storytellers to create iconic looks in film.

How a Costume Designer Creates an Iconic Look

After getting a thorough understanding of a script and having creative discussions with the director, a film costume designer will enter the research phase of their job. 

Costume Designer Job Description

Research

What is a costume designer responsible for during pre-production? It all starts with research. Designing costumes and wardrobe is essentially a part of world building. What a character wears can tell you both where and when the story is taking place. Period pieces often entail research of what the fashion was during the time period the film takes place. 

For example, The Irishman screenplay takes place over five decades. This required a ton of research to see how fashion changed over time and how they would change the costumes over the course of the film.

Take a look at costume designers Sandy Powell and Christopher Peterson breakdown how they designed the costumes of The Irishman in this video by Vanity Fair. 

‘The Irishman’ Costume Designers Break Down Dressing 5 Decades of Crime

Research is not only relevant to period pieces, but all types of films. Even fantasy films, although they may take place in other worlds, are based off of some research. Even in a television show like Game of Thrones, costumes are designed from prior research.

Here is Game of Thrones designer Michele Clapton breaking down she designed the iconic costumes of one HBO’s best television series.

How the Iconic 'Game of Thrones' Costumes Are Made

Once a movie costume designer has a clear understanding of the world of a story from their research and they understand the script of the film, they must put the two together. 

What is a Costume Designer in Film?

Designing for story

Costume designers are one for the many storytelling contributing to a film. Cinematographers tell a story through visual cinematography techniques. Actors tell a story through their performances. Costume designers tell a story through clothing and wardrobe. 

They are not designing for actors, but rather fictional characters. And they must understand their character arcs, their internal and external conflicts, and how they fall into the world of a film. Here they combine the research they have found with storytelling. 

This can entail matching a character’s wardrobe to their social status, personality, and identity. One of the most effective tools these designers have in creating the personality of a character through clothing is with color. 

In the show Euphoria, designer Heidi Bivens uses specific colors for each character to give them a unique identity. Watch her break down the process in the video below.

Matching the Characters With Colors Schemes

Costume designers not only design for a character, but for a film’s tone and themes. In the television series The Boys, costume design is used to contribute to the satirical tones and themes of the show.

In this video, we break down how costume design is one element of the The Boys’ mise en scène that helps tell a story.

How Production Design is a Superpower  •  Subscribe on YouTube

Typically once the research and story come together, sketches are made and look boards are made to present to the director a vision of the film’s final costume design. Once the director and/or producers sign off on the ideas, the movie costume designer gets their team to work. Costumes can be made from scratch based on designs.

But more often they are sourced out from various places such as vintage shops, online stores, or retailers.

As you can see, costume designers are incredibly important to the filmmaking process, but they can often be unsung heroes. From fantasy films, to period pieces, to contemporary television shows, there is a lot of thought and effort put into the wardrobe of a story.

Good costume designers create iconic looks. Great costume designers create iconic looks while also adding depth to a film’s world, characters and story. 

Costume Designer Salary

Salary and Getting Started

If all of this seems like a role you’d enjoy and pursue, then let’s take a look at how one might get started in this career. First and foremost, a background in an education in costume design will give you an advantage when just starting out in the field. 

Typically, the best way to get your foot in the door on the path to becoming a designer would be to work as a costume maker. In the beginning, this may be for university, community, or other smaller productions.

With this experience you can work into becoming an assistant designer and work toward working on larger productions. 

According to Glassdoor.com, the average base salary for a costume designer is around $50,000 per year with the potential for additional pay depending on the production. 

Up Next

What is Mise en Scene in Film?

Costume design is an important aspect of filmmaking because it contributes to a film’s mise en scene. Mise en scene might sound like a completely foreign term, but luckily if you want to learn more about it, we break it down thoroughly in our next article and how it plays an important role in a film.

Up Next: Mise en Scene Explained →
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