Is becoming a dance costume designer right for me?

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What do dance costume designers do?

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How to become a Dance Costume Designer

Becoming a dance costume designer typically involves combining passions for dance and fashion with formal education and practical training. Here’s an outline of the pathway to the career:

High School Diploma
Take courses in art, design, textiles, and home economics. Participate in extracurricular activities like art clubs, fashion clubs, or theater clubs. Aim for strong performance in subjects like mathematics, which is useful for pattern making and measurements, and English, which helps in communication and presentation skills.

Bachelor’s Degree
While not always mandatory, many aspiring dance costume designers pursue a bachelor’s degree in a discipline related to the field. These are popular options:

  • Costume Design – Some universities and art schools offer specific degrees in costume design, focusing on creating costumes for theater, film, and television. These programs emphasize historical research, design principles, and practical skills.
  • Fashion Design – A degree in fashion design provides comprehensive training in garment construction, fabric selection, pattern making, fashion illustration, and fashion history. Programs often include practical projects and portfolio development.
  • Theater Arts – A degree in theater arts with a concentration in costume design covers various aspects of theater production, including costume history, design, and construction. Students often get hands-on experience in school productions.
  • Fine Arts / Visual and Performing Arts – An undergraduate degree in one of these disciplines can provide a strong foundation in art and design, which is beneficial for costume designers.

Particularly relevant coursework for aspiring dance costume designers includes:

  • Sewing and Garment Construction – Classes that teach sewing techniques, pattern making, and garment construction are essential.
  • Textile Studies – Understanding different fabrics, their properties, and how they can be used in costume design is crucial.
  • Fashion and Costume History – Courses in fashion history and art history help designers understand fashion eras and cultural costumes and accurately recreate historical clothing styles.
  • Drawing and Illustration – Skills in sketching and illustrating costume designs are important for communicating ideas.
  • Dance – Introductory-level courses in dance can help designers develop a broader appreciation for working in the dance sector.

Master’s Degree (Optional)
While not common, pursuing a master’s degree in costume or fashion design, or a related field can provide advanced knowledge and specialized training. In lieu of a master’s degree, some institutions may offer postgraduate certificates in these areas of design.

Workshops and Short Courses
Attending workshops and seminars, and taking short courses in specific areas of costume design (e.g., theatrical costume design, dancewear construction, fabric manipulation techniques, or costume embellishment) can enhance a designer’s skill set.

Internships and Practical Experience
Seek out internships with established costume designers, dance schools and companies, theaters, or film production companies. Internships provide hands-on training and opportunities to make industry connections. Be willing to take on various roles within the costume department, such as costume assistant, wardrobe assistant, alterationist, or costume researcher to develop a wider understanding of the industry.

Participate in costume design for student, independent, or community theater and film productions. Consider freelancing or working on a contract basis for different productions. These experiences help to build a diverse portfolio and establish a reputation in the field.

Portfolio Development and Online Presence
Focus on building a strong portfolio showcasing research or concept boards, fabric swatches, design sketches, and photographs of your designs in action. Including examples of work on various projects, with an emphasis on multiple dance styles and performance requirements, is essential for demonstrating skills to potential employers.

Develop an online portfolio or personal website to display your work. Use social media platforms to share your designs. Participate in online forums and social media groups related to costume design, dance genres, and the theater community.

Specialization (Optional)
If you have a particular interest or strength in a specific area, such as ballet, contemporary, or cultural dance costumes, develop your expertise in that niche to stand out in the field.

Continuous Learning and Networking
Continuously enhance your skills by taking advanced courses in dance costume design, as well as the broader arena of fashion design. Stay informed about current fashion trends, new materials, and techniques in the fields. Attend dance performances, theater productions, costume exhibitions, and industry conferences to meet like-minded professionals and learn about potential job opportunities or collaborations.

Network and forge strong relationships with choreographers, directors, and performers. Positive word-of-mouth and recommendations can lead to more opportunities.

The following certifications, though not specific to the costume design community, can enhance the dance costume designer’s skills, knowledge, and credibility in the industry:

  • Master Sewing and Design Professional (MSDP) – Offered by the Association of Sewing and Design Professionals (ASDP), the MSDP Certification Program tests the knowledge and skills of seven important areas: fabric, design, fashion illustration, fit, garment construction, pattern development, and professional practices.
  • Master Alteration Specialist (MAS) – Also offered by the ASDP, the MAS Certification Program tests the knowledge and skill of five important areas: fabrics, alteration techniques, alteration fit, alteration overview, and professional practices.
  • Sustainability Certifications – With growing emphasis on sustainability in the fashion and textile industries, certifications related to sustainable fashion and ethical practices and processes can be valuable. Organizations like the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), and Bluesign offer certifications and training programs focused on sustainability in fashion design and production.
  • Adobe Certified Expert (ACE) – Adobe offers certifications for its software products, including Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop, which are commonly used by costume designers for sketching, pattern making, and design development. Becoming an Adobe Certified Expert demonstrates proficiency in these essential design tools.

Professional Organizations
The following organizations play crucial roles in fostering professional development, providing support networks, and advocating for the recognition and rights of costume designers within the entertainment industry:

  • National Association of Schools of Theatre (NAST) – The NAST is an organization that accredits theater and performing arts programs, providing standards and guidelines that can be relevant to aspiring costume designers seeking education and training.
  • Costume Designers Guild (CDG) – The CDG is a labor union representing costume designers, assistant costume designers, and costume illustrators in film, television, commercials, and other media. It offers membership benefits such as access to industry events, workshops, job listings, and professional development opportunities.
  • The Costume Society – The Costume Society is a UK-based organization that promotes the study of all aspects of clothing and textiles. While not exclusively for dance costume designers, it offers valuable resources, conferences, and publications related to costume history and design.
  • The Costume Society of America (CSA) – The CSA is a varied group of professionals representing museums, libraries, theaters, academia, apparel, merchandising, private collections, and reenactment organizations. It promotes personal connections and discovery about clothing, fashion, and costume – its history, design, construction, merchandising, and preservation.
  • International Costumers' Guild (ICG) – The ICG is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the art of costume design and creation. It has chapters worldwide that host events, workshops, and provide networking for costume enthusiasts and professionals.
  • American Theatrical Costume Association (ATCA) – The goal of the American Theatrical Costume Association is to connect a community of costume educators, focusing on the dual responsibilities of teaching and research.
  • International Textile and Apparel Association (ITAA) – The ITAA promotes research and education in textile and apparel fields, offering conferences and publications relevant to dance costume designers.
  • International Textile Manufacturers Federation (ITMF) – The ITMF represents the global textile industry, including manufacturers, designers, and suppliers of textiles. It publishes industry reports and research.
  • International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) – The IATSE represents various entertainment industry professionals, including costume designers and artisans, offering resources, benefits, and union representation.
  • United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT) – USITT is a leading organization for design, production, and technology professionals in the performing arts and entertainment industry. It offers conferences, workshops, publications, and networking opportunities.