Is becoming a historical costume designer right for me?

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What do historical costume designers do?

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How to become a Historical Costume Designer

Becoming a historical costume designer typically involves a combination of formal education, practical experience, and a passion for historical fashion. Here’s an outline of the pathway to the career:

High School Diploma
Take courses in art, history, 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.

Develop a Passion for History and Fashion
Cultivate a strong interest in history, fashion, and costume design. Read books, visit museums, and study different historical periods and their clothing styles.

Bachelor’s Degree
Most historical costume designers have 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, costume design, and traditional and modern methods of costume construction. Students often get hands-on experience in school productions.
  • Art History – This degree program provides a deep understanding of different historical periods and cultural contexts, which is directly applicable to historical costume design.
  • Museum Studies – Courses in museum studies, particularly those focusing on costume conservation and preservation, can be beneficial for designers working with historical garments.
  • 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 historical costume designers includes:

  • Sewing and Garment Construction – Classes that teach sewing techniques, pattern making, draping, 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.

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, such as historical textiles, textile manipulation techniques, and fabric conservation, can enhance a designer’s skill set.

Internships and Practical Experience
Gain real-world experience through internships with established costume designers, theaters, film production companies, museums, or costume rental companies. Internships provide hands-on training and opportunities to make industry connections.

Volunteer for local theater productions, historical reenactment groups, or community events that require costume design.

Portfolio Development
Build a strong portfolio showcasing your design skills, research, and completed costume projects. Include detailed sketches, fabric samples, and photographs of your work, particularly any historical costumes you have designed.

Continuous Learning
Continuously enhance your skills. Subscribe to fashion and costume design journals. Participate in advanced workshops, seminars, and courses to stay updated on new techniques, technologies, and trends in costume design. Attend industry events, exhibitions, fashion shows, theater productions, and historical reenactments, to meet like-minded professionals and learn about potential job opportunities.

The following certifications, though not specific to the costume design community, can enhance the historical 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:

  • 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 historical 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 historical 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.