Blog Home

Meet The Costume Designer

The artist behind a character's signature style
May 4, 2021

Staff Writer

Costume Designers are character creators, and their role goes well beyond the tailored suits, worn leather jackets, and superhero capes we see on screen.

Before shopping or building any piece for a project, every costume designer takes on the role of psychologist or sociologist, asking questions as they read through a script: Where does the character live? What’s the time period? What’s their economic status? Is this reality or fantasy? What kind of car do they drive?

Diving into the world of the script, costume designers are able to create realistic design choices for a character’s wardrobe that reflect who that person is, and what kind of emotion they need to evoke from the audiences to further the plot. It’s visual storytelling at its finest.

The Research Process

A key part of the role, every costume designer has their unique approach to researching: Googling, people watching, reading, collecting vintage images, studying the construction of vintage clothing design, visiting libraries and museums, and so much more.

Costume Designer, Shawna Trpcic, known for dozens of projects, including The Mandalorian, explains the importance process of her research:

"[I] thoroughly research the character. Once you know the truth, then you can bring your own creative bent to it. To make it larger than life, to make it entertaining. But I think it’s so important to start with the truth. I knew this one guy who wore a cap, and the way he would fiddle with the brim, it was slightly stained from his hand oils constantly touching it and adjusting it. Those little details you can’t just make up, you need to research it; study the character."

After gathering all the research, it’s time to begin the design process.

The Design Process

Costume designers are some of the most collaborative people in filmmaking. Not only do they work with many other artistic departments, such as hair or production design, but their own teams are large and varied, consisting of supervisors, shoppers, seamstresses, illustrators, costumers, agers/dyers, PA’s, coordinators, and beyond.

Costume Designer, Michael Wilkinson, who has designed projects from Justice League to American Hustle to Tron:Legacy, says this of his process:

“The way I like to work is with Illustrators. I first do a quick sketch myself, whether it’s a line drawing, or a photoshop collage with my favorite images, and then we bring all our ideas together for a nice compelling image for me to show the director. Then, the process starts. We refine ideas, we throw ideas out, we grab new ones. It's a really fun experience of meetings and presentations where we start creating a world that hopefully is a unique synthesis of new ideas. I work a lot simultaneously with the production designer, because they are going through a similar process with their own department. It’s really important to make sure you are going down the same path together. I love that cross pollination of ideas and textures and colors that happen between the costume designer and the production designer.

Once the ideas take shape, Michael goes on to explain, the next part of the design phase to bring the sketches to life:

“[Y]ou’ll get approval from the studio before you start making anything, and then the real fun begins! That’s when we can bring those beautiful sketches to reality, and the team starts to grow. You start working with shoppers and specialty Costumers if you are making superheroes. This kind of work is with a very amazing and specialized group of professionals in a specific kind of construction, which is not so much about pushing fabric under a sewing machine, but scanning an actor, to clay sculpting, to digital renderings of armor and material exploration. We start having fittings, camera tests, approvals and notes from studios, and then we take things to camera.”

I’ve had many, many actors not know who their character was until they put on the clothes.

Intended or not, it is often the costume designer who solidifies a character by creating their signature look, putting their stamp on history and defining an icon that the film or television project will be known for. This character development process begins in the fitting room.

As Shawna explains:

“I’ve had many, many actors not know who their character was until they put on the clothes.”

The fitting is one of the most important parts of the design process. Costume designers see this part much like painting a picture on screen through clothing, ensuring every detail, from the length of a hem to the color of a hat is hand-selected and tailored. Together these pieces are the brushstrokes that add to the set, props, makeup, hair, and lighting for a well blended scene that propels the storyline forward.

Additionally, costume design includes outfitting background actors (or "BG" for short), sometimes hundreds at a time. This part of the job requires long, arduous days of fittings with the costume supervisor and team of costumers.

Different Kinds of Costume Design

Contemporary, period, digital, television, or film, costume design takes on many forms. But the core design elements never change, and it’s all equally challenging.

The Costume Designer’s Guild acknowledges these challenges for both contemporary and period costuming alike, and demystifies misconceptions:

“There is a misperception that shows set in the present-day are entirely shopped. While pieces may be purchased, they require fitting and customization, not to mention combination with other garments. Some designers even fill pockets with mementos to aid the actor in becoming the character. Unbeknownst to many, costumes are usually made in multiple to accommodate looking precisely the same, or deteriorating exactly as the story requires. This is known as continuity. Additional versions are made for stunt people as well as stand-ins.”

You have to create something intriguing, layered and beautiful for all those different categories, whether it's web, film, or television. You can’t compromise, you have to give 110% no matter what medium you are working in.

As Trpcic explains, designing for different platforms can be a unique yet similar experience:

“In television it’s very fast, you’re creating a one-hour movie every eight days, whereas in film, you might have two months to create an hour and a half production. It’s just a matter of time and budget. Typically in film, you might have twice the budget. Creatively though, there is no difference at all. You have to create something intriguing, layered and beautiful for all those different categories, whether it's web, film, or television. You can’t compromise, you have to give 110% no matter what medium you are working in.”

The Future of Costume Design

As technology continues to evolve, so too does costume design. From improving the organizational side through tools like SyncOnSet that help with coordinating more efficient fittings and breaking down scripts, to impacting how the costumes are made, as Wilkinson explains, “The most compelling part of my job is really keeping an eye on what’s coming out. Technology can really help push your costumes to the next level.”

Even with technology so accessible, it’s still just a tool to the overall art of costume design, and Wilkinson reminds us of the true craft of the costumer designer:

“We live in an age of so many amazing references and visual overload around us, so it’s a case of absorbing and processing so your eyes stay fresh. Have fun with new technologies, and don’t see technology as something that is going to take away from the human experience, but take you to a whole new world of creativity that will hopefully result in exciting and unique work. Costume design is a lifetime pursuit, it’s not as if you master it and do your thing. I want to remain an eternal student and make sure that my work is always evolving.”

And what an evolving role it is! Costume design is not for the faint of heart and requires consistent dedication to the craft and leadership to guide their team in bringing a sketch on paper to the screen.

The moment the director calls “action” and the costumes make it to camera, adding life to the set, every designer shares a similar rewarding experience of watching their designs transform the characters. Characters that remind us of the human experience we all share in, connecting us with history and stories that make us pause, laugh, cry, celebrate, and wonder.

Topic: Spotlight

Related Content

5 Things to Know Before Relocating for Your Next Job

What production workers need to consider before moving to a new state

How to solve a compounding problem?

The perennial shortage of production accountants has been made worse by the competition for resources, but...

Film Financing Explained: Soft Money Financing

Vivian Hua joins our panel of financing and incentive experts to discuss funding film and television...
Canadian flag

5 Things to Know Before Working in Canada

Prepare for your next job in Canada with this checklist of payroll considerations
Topic: Canada
 John Hadity-Guide to Soft Money Financing-sq

The Beginner’s Guide to Soft Money Financing

How filmmakers can capitalize on incentives, film funds, and more to finance their next project

Designing for Horror

How filmmakers create fear through visual techniques
Paul Beyers prop master on set

Meet the Prop Master

From script to screen, the creative mind behind the props from film and television
Equity Financing Panel-thumbnail

Film Financing Explained: Equity Financing

James Schamus and Michael Helfant join our panel to share expert advice on funding film and television...

The Beginner’s Guide to Equity Financing

Expert advice to help producers secure funding for their next project
Celebrating Pride Month Panel

Celebrating Pride Month and LGBTQ+ Film and Television

Celebrate Pride month with us as our panel of groundbreaking producers and activists discuss the past,...

Meet the Producer

From concept to the red carpet, the producer is there to keep the production moving forward

Meet the Production Accountant

From budgeting, to billing, to payroll, the financial powerhouse behind every production

The Beginner's Guide to Production Incentives

EP helps filmmakers navigate the complex world of film and television incentives
Christy Guilbault, Annette Martinez-Novo

EP Cares — The Industry's Leading Health Insurance Program

Learn how to get your production company on the industry’s leading health insurance program for non-union...
Christine Davila, Jairo Alvarado, Sonia Gambaro

Authentic Latinx Storytelling Starts with Inclusion

Christine Dávila, Jairo Alvarado, and Sonia Gambaro work to amplify the talents of underrepresented...

Streamers and the Changing Landscape of Film Distribution

Director/Producer Daniel Farrands on strategies for success in the time of VOD

Meet the Paymasters

The hard-working payroll professionals behind Hollywood's paychecks

New Terms Under Return-To-Work Agreement

RTW extension includes new two-part delineation, and the role of the vaccine
Topic: Legal
 Adjusting the W4-Becky Harshberger-Sq

How to Adjust Your Tax Withholdings Using the New W-4

Making small adjustments throughout the year can save production workers big at tax time!
Anthony De La Rosa EP Residuals

The Beginner's Guide to Film and Television Residuals

Important details every producer should know as they budget for their next project

Diversifying Hollywood Through Better Hiring and Training

How new legislation and production incentives are promoting diversity and inclusion
Sarah Westman-liu and Jennifer Liscio

Canadian Incentives and Legislation News

The latest updates on incentives, CRA guidance on COVID-19 related costs, and more!
actors on set

Safety on Set Amid Changing COVID-19 Guidelines

What productions should know as they head back to work

Choosing the Right Production Incentives

5 questions to ask when selecting your next incentive-based filming location

Getting a New Start

Davida Lara shares tips on transitioning into your next role

The Path to Better Diversity and Inclusion in Hollywood

How production incentives are helping to promote inclusivity

The Beginner's Guide to Federal Payroll Tax Withholding

Essential information for individual production workers
Spotlight on Georgia Production Panel

Spotlight on Georgia: The Producers' Perspective

A dynamic group of producers, industry experts, and incentive specialists discuss the state of production...

Innovations in Production Incentives

How emerging local initiatives are driving productions to new jurisdictions

Spotlight: Joseph Chianese, Film Production Incentives Expert

Meet the SVP and Practice Leader of Production Incentives at EP

The Beginner's Guide to Production Financing

What to know before starting your next film or television project

Winning Payroll Solutions Start with the Right Team

Davida Lara on why the people who make up a payroll team are critical to delivering results
Producing through COVID women producers panel

Producing Through COVID-19: A Discussion with Six Prominent Women Producers

Stories of navigating the entertainment industry and producing during a pandemic
Pantea Ahmadi and Joe Scudiero

SB 973's Impact on the Entertainment Industry

How California’s new pay data reporting legislation, SB 973, applys to the entertainment industry
Topic: Legal

SB 973, California Pay Data Reporting Law FAQs

The new pay data reporting law and its impact on the entertainment industry

Returning to Production: Hair and Makeup Teams Apply COVID-19 Protocols to Life on Set

Getting back to work: a look inside set life during COVID-19

Payroll Tax Changes and the New Form 1099NEC

What you need to know before filing for the 2020 tax season

Spotlight: Becky Harshberger, VP & Practice Leader of Payroll Tax

Meet the entertainment industry’s foremost expert on Payroll Tax

Why Payroll is 'Sexy'

EP EVP of Payroll, Davida Lara, explains her passion for the industry
Pantea Ahmadi and Alan Wu

California & New York Employment and Privacy Legislation Changes in 2021

EP's Legal team breaks down important legislation changes impacting production hubs
Topic: Legal
Melissa Lintinger NBCU

A Conversation with Melissa Lintinger, SVP of Production Finance, NBCU

How television crews are getting back to work during COVID-19
Becky Harshberger and Neddy Alonso

Preparing for 2021 Payroll Tax Changes and the New Form 1099-NEC

EP's payroll tax experts walk through the 1099-NEC and other important changes
Paul Steinke

A Conversation with Paul Steinke, SVP Production Finance at Walt Disney Studios

Mark Goldstein and Paul Steinke discuss the state of the industry, emerging technology and more!
Master Series Return to Work Agreement Panel

Understanding the COVID-19 Return-To-Work Labor Agreement

EP's Legal experts explain the entertainment industry's safety guidelines
Pressing Play in Eastern Canada Panel

Pressing Play in Canada: From Nunavut to Nova Scotia, Production Returns to the Eastern Provinces!

Producers from across Eastern Canada come together to discuss the exciting work coming out of the...
All eyes on Florida panel

All Eyes on Florida: Spotlight on Florida Productions

Producers and Commissioners from across Florida discuss production, crews, infrastructure and incentives

Film Tax Credit Programs Face Uncertain Future

Tax incentive programs draw high profile productions, cautious optimism for California