FAQ: The creative REWARDS of COSTUME Design + the PAY can be 6 Figures

Question. What is costume design?

Answer. Costume design is the creation of costumes for artists or characters of performance art – film, television, theatre, opera, music, and dance.  It communicates the identity of a character to the audience and helps the actor communicate and “get into” the identity of the character.  No other form of art can do this.

Q. How do I get into costume design?

A. Network and form relationships with those in the business at all levels. Develop and manage a portfolio of your talent and skills particularly as it relates to storytelling and your resourcefulness in building a costume(s).  With an accomplished resume of well over a 100 productions (at least at the time we talked in 2016), I asked awarded costume designer Alex Jaeger about advice or tips for someone new to costume design.  He said, “I think that young designers are so anxious to work that they sometimes will take any job that comes along.  Choose projects that you can get something from whether experience, connections, good reviews, etc.  That’s how you build a career.  Make sure you can create a successful design given the budget and resources of the project.  Set yourself up for success. One job will tend to lead to another, but don’t get stuck on a lateral plane.  Always look for projects that are a step up in some way.  Saying no to a project that isn’t right for you can open you up to something better.  Saying no to a bird in the hand is scary, but can also be very powerful.”

Q. What about local theatrical and performance art productions, those not part of the mainstream; is that a good place to get started?

A. Absolutely. It’s good to attend as many shows within your community as possible. Find out who the players are.  Meet the actors and production team backstage.  Invite the costume designer, producer, and director for separate coffee/tea meetings to ask questions, or by ZOOM.  This interaction may open a door.  This is the “in your face, I want to be part of this world” activity you need to generate.  Also, when talking to them, find out future productions and projects that you can be a part of, even as a volunteer/intern, to learn the ropes.  Get your foot in the door, someway.

Schitt’s Creek TV show, FIDM “12th annual Outstanding Art of Television Costume Design” exhibit | photo ©Rhonda P. Hill

Q. What is the process on creating costumes?

A. Costume designers work closely with directors, producers, set designers and make-up and hair artists to create realistic costumes for actors and other performance artists.  The script starts the process.  This is the most important part and it may take months of reading, re-reading, and researching before you begin the development work.  From the script you will start to organize mood boards that will incorporate concept, time period and geographical location.  In looking at each character, you will consider mood and color, texture, class identity, age, gender, and personality.  And then you have to design with the actor in mind – their personality, gestures/movements, body size, etc.  Working with the production team is the collaborative process in making sure all the elements pull together in the final production – lighting, staging, sets, costume, hair, make-up, etc.

Q. How do I get credit for my work?

A. With a good contract you should get credit for your work and royalties of future new productions using the same original costumes.  There was time when only the head designer’s name was in the credit, if then.  Today, it is common to see credits of all involved with costuming the characters, inclusive of those handling the “wardrobe” for the actors.

Q. Are there unions to protect my work, fair wages, and working conditions?

A. Yes, there are local unions affiliated with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States, Its Territories and Canada (IATSE).  Founded in 1893 to establish fair wages and working conditions for their members, IATSE covers work in all forms of live theater, motion picture and television production, trade shows and exhibitions, television broadcasting, and concerts as well as the equipment and construction shops that support all these areas of the entertainment industry.

Emmy nominated Westworld, FIDM “12th annual Outstanding Art of Television Costume Design” exhibit | photo: ©Rhonda P. Hill

Q. Who owns the rights to my designs?

A. Based on contractual agreements, designers own the rights to their designs, but the production company owns the actual costumes.  Contractually, designers can receive royalties for future productions if same costumes and concept are used.

Q. What is the pay in costume design?

A. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics categorizes costume designer under fashion designer with an annual mean wage of $109,320.  But pay will vary by location, entertainment platform, and job.  The following is an example of wages established by Burbank, California based Costumer Designers Guild Local 892 (affiliate of IATSE) for the period of August 2021-July 2022.  Studio minimum wages for 5-day week are as follows, note: hours over 8 hour daily or 40 hour weekly minimum are time and a half:

  • Costume-Designer Theatrical – $3234.06
  • Costume-Designer Television – $3040.67
  • Assistant Costume Designer – $2502.65
  • Costume Sketch Artist – $1904.40
Emmy nominated The Alienist, FIDM “12th annual Outstanding Art of Television Costume Design” exhibit | photo ©Rhonda P. Hill

Q. Why do people choose costume design rather than fashion design?

A. Costume designers that I have spoken to say that with costume design you are not selling a product or creating something as a commodity as you do in fashion, instead you are creating for a character or an artist as part of the art of storytelling.  Your work is part of a body of work, the performance production, that one can’t argue represents “the arts”.

Q. There is something about being part of a live creative project that feels very magical and satisfying.  How do costume designers feel when the opening night curtain is down?

A. Oh my! As an attendee, if it is an amazing production experience, you’re ecstatic.  I asked Alex that very question and where does he find the magic in all the work leading up to opening night.  He said, “I think that it’s magical by its very nature.  In doing my research I learn about different cultures, different times.  I work with and learn from all kinds of creative people and then create a magical experience for the audience.  What could be better?”  In the opening night theatrical production of Liberty Vance (of which was a standing ovation), where Alex designed the costumes, he went on to describe the other side to the magic when it is over, “It’s a combination of physical relief, a little sadness to be leaving the project and the people I’ve been working with so closely and celebration of having completed the creation of a work of art. One word? That’s hard.  Maybe “bittersweet” with an emphasis on the sweet as in bittersweet chocolate. LOL”

FIDM "12th annual Outstanding Art of Television Costume Design" exhibit | photo ©Rhonda P. Hill
FIDM “12th annual Outstanding Art of Television Costume Design” exhibit | photo ©Rhonda P. Hill

“About the images.  Los Angeles FIDM Museum (Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising) presented its “12th annual Outstanding Art of Television Costume Design” exhibit, in 2018.  The exhibit highlight Emmy nominated Television network shows crediting the costume designer, costume assistant, and supervisor of costumes.

If you are interested in costume design, you will want to read this comprehensive interview with costume designer, Alex Jaeger, to gain insight on the costume creation process and the role it plays in performance arts – The Art of Costuming. . .A Converstation with Alex Jaeger.

Related article: Dressed in COSTUME: The VISUAL Communication of Performance Art

Rhonda P. Hill

Founder, Publishing Editor