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How to become a West End costume designer

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How to become a West End costume designer

What does a West End costume designer do?

A key part of any production team, West End costume designers are in charge of how outfits look and are created and put together. A costume designer could either make unique costumes or source separate items together from stores and companies.

Costume designers can be hired for a specific production or may work in-house at a theatre where they design costumes for more than one show.

Costume designers are a core part of any show. You will work with the production designer to discuss how costumes can enhance the tone of a production, and working closely with lighting and set designers will also be essential – you don’t want to design outfits that will wash out actors or scenery!

Will I only be able to design West End costumes?

Not at all! Being a West End costume designer doesn’t mean you only sort out wardrobes and style people. It’s common for designers to put their mark on many different areas of a production. In the recent National Theatre production of Home I’m Darling, for example, Anna Fleischle designed both the set and costume to ensure both aspects related to each other and were authentic to the period.

A costume being assembled
Credit: cedwardmoran (flickr)

What skill set do I need?

  • Drawing and Design: As a costume designer, you’ll need to have to a creative eye. You’ll learn what fabrics go together and how to formulate original sketches to fit with directors’, producers’ and cast members’ requirements.
  • Fabrics: To excel at costume design, it is beneficial to have a strong knowledge of fabrics, how fabrics are made and what fabrics are authentic for certain time periods. You probably shouldn’t be using PVC in a show meant to be set in the Renaissance (although that could make for interesting viewing!)
  • Outfit-making: You should be able to design each outfit, but you may not be sewing and constructing all individual costumes and parts.
  • Passion: The biggest skill you need. You should have an interest in clothes and fashion; researching new fabrics and materials to update a character’s wardrobe is part of your job. Even if you’re just buying outfits off the hanger, these should be updated if a new trend that has come in will affect what characters are likely to wear.
  • Dedication: Finding or making an outfit isn’t a quick process. It’s also a lot of hard work. 12 hour days are the norm for famous West End costume designers like Susan Hilferty, who designed the original Broadway production of Wicked. But, once you’ve styled your characters perfectly, the entire production will look cohesive.

This sounds good, how can I get started?

  • Getting involved in costume designing for local shows, theatre groups and school performances will allow you to build up a portfolio.
  • Contact local theatres to see if there are any productions you could shadow a costume assistant, or if they have wardrobe trainee positions available.
  • Shadow tailors and dressmakers for some hands-on experience!
  • Complete a Level 3 qualification such as Level 3 Diploma in Fashion and Textiles at a local college or Sixth Form. Courses like these will help you gain skills like sewing, dressmaking and pattern cutting

Are there professional courses available?

There are degree courses in costume design across the UK: Edinburgh, Nottingham Trent, Arts University Bournemouth and University of the Arts London are just a few examples you could look in to.

Are there any West End costume designer guides?

  • Valerie Steele’s Encyclopaedia of Clothing and Fashion: Scribner Library of Daily Life is a handy guide to covering all topics within fashion. The book covers designers, cultural costumes, fabrics and how to combine all elements of a costume together.
  • Elizabeth Covey’s Costume Designer’s Handbook: A Complete Guide for Amateur and Professional Costume Designers. This book has detailed guidance in establishing a costume plot, as well as tips for working with other designers and how to conduct historical research.

I want to see these costumes in action, where can I go?

The Theatre and Performance collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum documents the history of all clothes related to performing arts in the UK. Founded in the 1920’s, the permanent collection has grown to include artefacts on West End costumes, set design, dance and opera from companies, performers and directors.

I’m interested in fashion, but not in costume design. What else can I do?

There are plenty of careers to get into fashion and theatre. These include:

  • Wardrobe assistant: A wardrobe assistant looks after West End costumes, also helping with making and sourcing clothes. With further opportunities to become a costume designer, this could be a step in the costume direction if you are unsure whether you want to be a costume designer.
  • Clothing alteration hand: Repairing and adjusting garments and clothes, this is excellent for those who want to fix pre-existing clothes but do not want to design.
  • Footwear manufacturing operative: Interested in shoes? Then this role is perfect if you want to make footwear for all ages.
  • Hat designer: This role gives you the chance to make hats for all ages and styles.
  • Fashion designer: Design clothing ranges for women, men or children as a fashion designer.

Where can I get more information?

For more information on costume design, head to the following websites:

Theatre Design: A website with information on all aspects of theatre design, including costumes.

Want to know more about Theatreland fashion? Take our quiz about fashion in the West End. 

Photo credit: KKatek8 (Flickr) under Creative Commons 2.0.