Unscripted TV

Costume designer

Also known as: Head of wardrobe, Stylist

Costume designer

What does a costume designer do?

It’s all about the outfits for costume designers – and the types of outfits depend on the types of production. In entertainment, costume designers design, create or hire costumes worn by participants competing in talent, sports or games. But they also style any presenters, such as judges or experts, in suitable contemporary fashions. When they are working in this way, the role is often referred to as being 'a stylist'. They may do both jobs. Costume designers need to consider the whole look of the person for whom they’re designing, so they also select, source or make suitable accessories like shoes, hats and jewellery. 

Costume designers research, sketch and may create mood boards to communicate suggested colours, textures and styles. They work with directors, producers and production designers to collectively create an overall look and style of a show. On big budget programmes, they recruit a team and ensure costumes or outfits are ready in time for fittings, rehearsals and recordings. They are also responsible for ensuring any costumes or outfits meet health and safety guidelines (that they’re not flammable, for example) and are within budget. Once shooting starts, they are often on set to adjust and maintain. When filming is over, they oversee any cleaning, repairing and returns.

Costume designers are usually freelance, unless attached to large in-house art departments.

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What’s a costume designer good at?

  • Dressmaking and tailoring: draw, sew, make and source clothes, including fabrics and accessories
  • Knowledge of design: have a passion for fashion, the history of design and costume, understand colour, lighting, pattern and texture, know where to source fabrics, accessories and outfits
  • Styling: understand the producer and director’s vision for a show and see what that means for the outfits or costumes, know what styles suit different people best and create the right looks with flair and creativity, have an eye for detail
  • Communication: work well with others, listen and respond to presenters’ or contributors’ needs, be trusted and have good relationships with designers, PR (public relations) and brands who may supply clothing in current styles, as well as hair and make-up artists
  • Organisation: schedule the costume production and hire, manage the team and the budget

Who does a costume designer work with?

Costume designers spend most of their time in their own department, creating, sourcing, adjusting and maintaining outfits.

Once they have a good idea of the costumes or outfits and the style they want to create, they work closely with the hair and make-up designer to ensure they create a complete and coherent look. They also meet with the production designer, art director, producer and director to ensure their creations work with what the other departments are doing. Later in the process they have contact with studio and technical staff, members of production and regular updates with the production management team regarding budgets and schedules. On big productions they also manage their own team of people, but on smaller productions they may be the one person who does everything.

There are also fashion stylists who tend to work one-on-one with celebrities, presenters or hair and make-up designers, often over a long period of time, forming trusted relationships and partnerships.

How do I become a costume designer?

Costume designers typically start as costume assistants or runners or art department runners and build up experience so they can become costume supervisors and then costume designers. Some have experience working with costumiers and others come from theatre or dressmaking. But however experienced, they start off as assistants or runners.

At school or college:
If you want to go to university, A-levels or Highers in art and design, fashion, textiles, theatre studies, graphic design or graphic communication are useful.

If you want to go straight into a job or apprenticeship, the following Level 3 vocational qualifications will equip you:

  • NCFE Applied General Certificate in Art and Design
  • BTEC National Diploma/Extended Diploma in Art and Design
  • UAL Applied General Diploma/Extended Diploma in Art and Design
  • OCR Cambridge Technical Diploma in Art and Design (3D Design)
  • OCR Cambridge Technical Diploma in Art and Design (Graphic Design)
  • OCR Cambridge Technical Diploma in Art and Design (Photography)
  • BTEC National Diploma in 3D Design and Crafts
  • BTEC National Diploma in Fashion Design and Production
  • BTEC National Diploma in Photography
  • UAL Diploma/Extended Diploma in Art and Design

Get an apprenticeship:
Apprenticeships are jobs with training. They’re a great opportunity to earn while you learn. Some of the major broadcasters offer apprenticeships. Check out the schemes with ITV.

If you can’t get an apprenticeship with a broadcaster, it might be worth trying to find one outside the TV industry, where you can develop your skills and your craft. You can then move into TV at a later point.

These are the relevant apprenticeships that might be available throughout the UK:

In Scotland, you might be able to find degree-level apprenticeships through the following frameworks:

  • Creative (SCQF Level 6/7, Scotland)
  • Design (SCQF Level 6/7, Scotland)

Before taking any apprenticeship, check what you’ll be learning with your prospective employer and college, so you can be sure it will give you the skills you want. Go to where can I find an apprenticeship? to learn how to find apprenticeships in your region, or approach companies directly.

Build a portfolio:
This is essential. Go to build your costume portfolio for specific advice on ways of impressing admissions tutors and costume designers.

Get a degree:
You don’t need a degree to be a costume designer, but if you want one, you could have a look at ScreenSkills’ list of recommended courses and select one in unscripted TV or search for “costume”. We recognise courses with our ScreenSkills Select award where they offer training in the relevant software, dedicated time to building a portfolio and have strong links with the film and TV industries.

Get work experience:
Try to get work experience by writing to local production companies and asking if they offer any. Keep an eye out for work experience opportunities at the BBCChannel 4ITVSky and the PACT Indie Diversity Training Scheme.

Take a short course:
Hone your skills in costume designing by taking a specialist course. Go to the list of training courses recommended by ScreenSkills to see if there is one in pattern cutting, millinery or embroidery.

Network:
Get to know people in the unscripted TV industry by attending events. Meet professionals and ask them questions about their work, while demonstrating interest in and knowledge of the industry. Offer to provide them with your professional contact details and try to stay in touch with them. Go to how to network well to learn how to do this.

Network online:
Create a LinkedIn profile. See if there are Facebook pages or other social media groups for people making unscripted TV in your area. There might even be groups for runners and trainees. Join them. Create a ScreenSkills profile. There are a lot of crewing agencies that will charge you to be on their books. Sign up to the free ones initially. Wales ScreenNorthern Ireland Screen and other areas offer free crew databases. Find a film office near you and get connected. If you do sign up to paid sites, make sure they specialise in the areas in which you’re interested.

Search for jobs:
Research unscripted TV production companies that you’d like to work for and watch the programmes that they make. Regularly check their websites and job listings websites to see if they are advertising for roles. StartinTV offers tips on creating your CV and attending interviews, as well as some advice for your first day working in TV.

You might also be interested in…

You might also be interested in being a costume designer, production designer, prop master or production buyer in the film and TV drama industries.

Further resources