What is a Costume Designer? | The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama

What is a Costume Designer?

Caroline Townsend, Costume Construction Course Leader discusses the difference between a costume maker and designer.

Image of costume design course Costume Construction, BA at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, London. Pictured: Final year student project 2017

By Caroline Townsend, Course Leader for Costume Construction, BA

What is a costume designer?

A costume designer is a person who works very closely with the director to look at the subject of the play and decide what the actors are going to be wearing on stage. They will produce a range of costume designs that might be a traditional hand drawn design, painted design, a photoshopped design or a collage, it also might be a number of sourced costume references that people can work from to create those costumes. The important role of the designer is coming up with the initial idea of what everybody on stage is going to be wearing; together with the director they are creating the world of the play.

What’s the difference between costume design and costume construction?

A costume isn’t like a piece of streetwear clothing it's very specific to the need of that piece, it has to help to tell the story that’s very important. The costume constructor works very closely with the costume designer to create the costumes. The costume designer might not know how to make those costumes - they might but generally they are dependent on the costume maker to decide how that costume is going to be made. They will share their research and decide on the fabric for that costume, the costume constructor will draft a pattern and will make that costume from scratch, several costume fittings will take place and here the designer and costume maker will continue to develop the design with some input from the actor/performer. Sometimes costume makers are given a garment to alter but generally, the role of the costume constructor is to start all the garments of the costume from scratch.

Costume constructors will make costumes for women and men, it might be a period costume, contemporary costume, or fantastical. The costumes might involve corsetry, tailoring, surface decoration or working with different fabrics such as stretch fabrics or leather. As well as those who specialise in certain areas such as period costume or tailoring there are costume constructors who will specialise in millinery and hat making, there will also be other people that specialise in dying painting, distressing, all those different elements that make a costume believable.

Why do you think there is a confusion between a costume maker and costume designer?

Historically (and originally), if you designed the costume, you would make the costume, dress the actors and possibly maintained that costume throughout the run as well. Of course, now those roles have all become quite separate and within the costume department there are all those roles there is the costume constructor or in some plays it might be called costume design interpreter there is also the costume supervisor who works really closely with the designer.

What opportunities are there for a career in costume?

The opportunities are very diverse in costume, absolutely. Our graduates do go out far and wide and there are lots and lots of opportunities for costume making, and I do believe that those opportunities are becoming bigger. More recently we have had several graduates who work in film, they have made costumes for the recent Disney and Universal films.

Costume Supervisors ensure that all the costumes are there ready for the technical rehearsal, they will be buying costume as well as organising people to make those costumes and all the accessories that go with it as well which includes footwear, the jewellery and underwear etc.

The Wardrobe Manager who is the person who takes over from the costume supervisor as soon as we get into technical rehearsal and beyond so they will be looking after all the costumes and managing a team of costume dressers to make sure that the production runs smoothly. Within technical rehearsal it is the wardrobe manager that is testing and trying out all the dressing and quick changes, they organise how things are going to be set up back stage so everything is pre-set ready to go. They are also responsible for the laundry and maintenance of the costumes.

We really value all those roles on BA Costume Construction because our graduates will go to work in these roles, we have people who are dressing on Aladdin and Book of Mormon, we do have a graduate who is the Wardrobe manager for Kinky Boots, we also have graduates who are working at the National Theatre costume department making costumes in the women’s department and we have people in the royal opera house making costumes in the ballet department.

If we think about what’s happening out there, even though there isn’t a huge amount of money about, performance is happening in a variety of places now as well as the traditional theatres, for example there’s a lot of immersive theatre using very exciting performance spaces all over the country, such as ‘Teddy’ which performed at the London Vaults and Secret Cinema which includes audience participation too. The important thing to remember in all those instances is that your audience is incredibly close so they’re looking at the detail of the costume which is really important.

Cosplay

I mention cosplay because a lot of people who come onto the course have a background of taking part in cosplay and of course that is an international area of performance. We don’t make for cosplay on the course however I know that a lot of the students and the graduates do work in those areas and we’ve got one student graduating this year who’s set up an amazing business to support cosplayers that includes wigs making and prosthetics as well as the costume.

Fashion

We have a graduate who specialised in embroidery and surface decoration who is going to work as a freelancer for a high profile fashion company this summer. We also have a graduate who from doing the theatrical tailoring skills on the course developed her tailoring even further and now works on Saville Row. It’s unusual for people to go from theatre to fashion but it can happen.

Find out more

If you'd like to find out more about being a Costume Maker, take a look at our Costume Construction BA.

Headshot of Caroline Townsend, Senior Lecturer, Costume Construction
Caroline Townsend is Course Leader for Costume Construction at Central