You like clothes. Love them, in fact. Not just wearing them (hopefully you do), but just being around them in general. Shoes make you happy, giddy in a Jimmy Choo (sneezy with his brother, Ah). When you’re feeling sad and lonely, you cuddle up with your favorite blouse. If you had to choose between your car and your snakeskin belt, you’d take the belt. But fashion design doesn’t exactly suit you. You don’t have quite the creativity or the connection with the buying public to come up with new, wearable fashions almost entirely from scratch. However, you think you might be quite adept at crafting more elaborate, over-the-top pieces that no one is necessarily going to actually put on before leaving the house. And this Halloween-once-a-year deal isn’t doing it for you.
Maybe you should consider costume design as your life’s work. Aside from being around more shoes, hats, and… cloth than you can shake a stick at (and why would you do that? It’s not like you’re trying to scare them away), you get to take an active part in creating an important element of a piece of art. Depending on the project, it may also be a piece of #@$&, but the point is that you’re being creative.
The movie business isn’t the easiest business to get into. Studios are making fewer films these days, which means the opportunities for all those who work on studio films has gone down, too. Still, there are plenty of avenues to pursue if the Hollywood well continues to dries up. There is always theatre (even if it doesn’t pay nearly as well), and don’t forget that rock stars need costume designers, too. You think Lady Gaga had that meat dress hanging in her closet? The music industry has been hit hard lately too, but in this case it may actually help you. With the piracy issues surrounding Napster and iTunes and the subsequent declining album sales, bands are touring now more than ever before, which means costume designers for rock concerts are more in demand. A lot of these older rockers don’t have much of a voice left either, so they are relying heavily on the glitz and glamor… which is where you come in. You could design the Blouse of the Rising Sun.
Costume designers start by getting together with a director (for a stage play) or director/production team (for a film) to determine what exactly will be needed. What is the period, what is the overall color scheme, what are the motivations of each character, does the director have a particular aversion to all things orange, etc. Once they understand how each costume should look and feel, and have substantially researched the era of the piece, they go about designing and crafting everything that will be needed in the course of production. They will also coordinate efforts with hair and makeup people so that there is a consistent flow in terms of each character’s appearance. There’s no point in a costumer designing a hoodie for a character if the hair specialist is giving them a Marge Simpsonesque 3-foot fro.
Say you’re the costume designer for Tim Burton’s next film (how in the world did you land that gig?!), and you have to design the costume for the main character – a man who grew up in a cave, was raised by bears and wears a garment he constructed himself out of wolfskin. That man sure does have some imagination, doesn’t he? Well, you’ll need to have one, too. Before starting on the design, you have to ask yourself all kinds of questions. What tools would he have had to construct this garment, and therefore how shoddily will it be put together? Will parts of it have visibly dried blood (it’s a Burton picture, so there’s a good possibility) or is that too graphic? If he grew up in a cave, is it horribly filthy? Maybe it even has dead caterpillars and whatnot stuck to it?
Yeah. We’re grossed out, too.
Then you do your initial sketches, from several different angles, and with certain aspects of the costume labeled and/or explained. After these have been presented to the director and approved, you have to acquire whatever materials are not available to you in the studio’s costume shop, and then start sewing it together. To make this seem really authentic, you mask all of your needlework by securing every two adjacent patches of “wolfskin” with twigs. The fur isn’t quite dark enough to go with the tone of the picture, so you spend some time dyeing it until it reaches the ideal shade. And Mr. Burton wants the character’s sexuality to be front and center, so you also have to rip and tear the costume in certain strategic places – enough to do the requisite hinting, but not so much that the film has to change its rating.
It’s a fun job, but there’s a lot of forethought (and duringthought) that goes into it, and a lot of hard work to achieve the initial vision.
One of the great things about this job is the variety. You could be designing flounced petticoats for a Victorian era drama, heavily armored leather vests for some disgusting Tolkien creature, or some sort of electronic, mechanical thingamajig for a sci-fi picture. On the other hand, you really need to be able to dabble in each of these areas to be truly successful - if you’re a one-trick pony, no producer is going to be interested (and no little girl is going to want you for her birthday).