What is a Costume Design Degree?

Costume designers use clothing and the language of fashion to tell a story. With each wardrobe element and accessory, they immerse both actors and audiences in a particular era, culture, and world.

Degree programs in costume design prepare aspiring designers to take on this challenging work. While the curriculum encompasses the technicalities of drawing, pattern drafting and cutting, fabric characteristics, and sewing, it also emphasizes the importance of research and understanding all aspects of a stage or film production.

Students learn that this comprehensive approach to costume design is the only way to develop the ability to translate the creative vision of their colleagues. They learn to become part of a collaborative team of storytellers.

Program Options

Bachelor’s Degree in Costume Design – Four Year Duration
At the bachelor’s level, the costume design curriculum focuses on sewing courses and industry specific design courses. In addition, students take culture-focused classes like art history and language and are given opportunities to work in concert with costume designers, directors, set designers, lighting designers, and actors – to understand how all of these artists share a single objective, which is to create a cohesive aesthetic for the production as a whole.

Here is a snapshot of a bachelor’s program in costume design:

  • Drawing for Fashion I – foundational skills in design sketching through observation and replication; overview of body proportions, basic human anatomy, and figure balance
  • Introduction to Costume Design – designing costumes for theatre and film; designing costumes for a specific set of characters, altering and manipulating garments for the stage; the systems, terminology, and tools used by costume designers
  • Fashion Sewing Techniques – cutting and sewing skills for work in the apparel industry; hand finishing and machine sewing techniques; students will create a notebook documenting their new skills
  • Artistic Resilience – strategies for building artistic resilience and achieving academic success, using critical reading, writing, and research skills
  • Drawing for Fashion II – effective design communication through line quality, color accuracy, and rendering of pattern, texture, and drape; further practice in drawing fashion figures
  • Color Science and Fabric Technology – color and fabric concepts that drive creativity, novelty, and innovation; professional application of color and design principles at all levels of the industry; how textile fibers and other fabric characteristics affect garment performance
  • Digital Techniques for the Fashion Business – using professional software to communicate visual information; working with various software programs to create fashion line layout, concept boards, and detailed specification for reproduction
  • Concept Design for Film – bringing film characters to life; creating character identity by breaking down a script to develop a ‘look book’ for actors using mood boards, color stories, and illustrations
  • Composition for the Artist – how to express one’s own artistic identity, process, and vision through writing, focusing on grammar, style, revision, and research basics
  • History of Fashion – key moments in fashion history and culture; exploration of modes of dress and ideals of beauty and the sources of influence on current fashion
  • Drawing for Fashion III – composition and design techniques to effectively draw the clothed figure; common composition principles, how to use a light box, and a variety of conventional and unconventional materials
  • Costume Production for Film – students will collaborate with a film director to bring characters to life in a feature film and will be on set during filming to costume each character and fit the actors
  • Applied Textiles – exploration of textiles in both home furnishing and fashion; students will develop skills in silkscreen and heat transfer printing, while learning about opportunities for a successful career in the textile industry
  • Art History through the 15th Century – the major styles of art and architecture in Western civilization from prehistory to the late Gothic and early Renaissance periods; practice of the language of the arts and examination of the purposes of art
  • Designing Careers – pursuing a design career; developing skills through collaboration, self-promotion, and other professional interactions; students will collaborate across disciplines to write a persuasive project proposal, and conduct industry research for seeking out entrepreneurial and employee-based career opportunities
  • Costume Design for the Stage – development of skills in research, script analysis, costume period and style, design problem solving, and rendering to produce portfolio projects
  • Styling – telling the story and expressing the brand through design; students will develop concept drawings from cultural references and assemble compelling outfits to create fashion imagery; they will put the foundations of personal, product, and editorial styling into practice
  • Construction / Draping / Flat Pattern I – creating basic garment blocks using the principles of flat pattern drafting and pattern cutting
  • Millinery – the specialized techniques of hat making using a variety of materials
  • Art History through the 19th Century – exploration of the major styles of art and architecture in Western civilization from the high Renaissance through the 19th Century; application of the language of the arts and analysis of the purposes of art
  • English Composition: Creative Persuasion and Argument – examining the art of persuasion by developing research and argumentation skills; students will write their own expository essays
  • Digital Photography for Artists – taking an inspired approach to lighting, composition, color, and design; capturing flat art, three-dimensional objects, and optimizing photos for digital workflow
  • Construction / Draping / Flat Pattern II – advanced pattern cutting techniques and development of construction skills; students will construct a dress, a basic shirt with design variations, and a high-waisted skirt; emphasis on industry standards for pattern making and construction techniques appropriate for industrial sewing equipment
  • Costume Production for Stage – students will realize 3D costumes from their 2D designs on paper; they will collaborate with actors, directors, and other designers throughout the production process
  • Costume Design for Dance – students will examine and experience the history of costume for multiple dance genres while developing their own design; they will build a 3D tutu (a female ballet dancer’ costume) from unconventional materials and construct a dress for a dance production
  • Writing for the Short Story – becoming a creative storyteller; applying the elements of the narrative genre to write a short story with dialogue, character development, plot, and setting
  • Fabric and Fiber Technology – through hands-on analysis of fabric swatches, students will identify the properties of textile and how they related to performance and end use
  • Surface Embroidery – traditional embroidery techniques used to tell contemporary stories; hand embroidery stitches using cotton, rayon, chenille, and wool threads and applying them to a variety of fashion fabrics
  • Construction / Draping / Flat Pattern III – using professional pattern cutting and construction techniques; cutting and constructing tailored garments, working on draping projects, and practising the correct way to handle fashion fabrics
  • Costume Design Production – students will work with the theatre script, directors, actors, lighting crew, costume designers, and others to produce original costumes for a real production; developing designs on paper, realizing them in 3D, and providing appropriate documentation
  • Fabric and Form – draping fabric on the mannequin to create design options; experimental fabric manipulation techniques to transform geometric planes of fabric into garment design for the human body
  • Western Civilization – exploration of western civilization from ancient civilizations to the Renaissance, focusing on ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, and Islamic religion and societies
  • French: Basic Grammar and Speech – practical applications of basic principles of French pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar; gaining an appreciation of French culture
  • Design and Culture – exploring design through humanistic and sociological lenses; observing, gathering, and interpreting cultural information into ideas that can shape architecture and urban space
  • The Classical Tutu: Introduction – the history of the classical and romantic tutu; students will construct a classic tutu including waistbands, knickers, ruffles, wiring, basque, top skirt, and bodice
  • Portfolio for Costume Design – creating the portfolio that lands the job; students will refine their previous costume projects to highlight their skills for photographing work, portfolio layout, and presenting ideas to potential employers
  • Physics for Artists: Light, Sound, and Motion – developing a conceptual and quantitative understanding of the fundamental physical properties of light, sound, and motion
  • Film History 1940-1974 – students will study the Golden Age of Cinema: Neo-Realism, the French New Wave, Cinéma Vérité, and a New Golden Age of Hollywood, to discover what made great directors – such as Vittorio DeSica, Billy Wilder, François Truffaut, Akira Kurosawa, Mike Nichols, Francis Ford Coppola – great
  • Photo Shoot Production for Stylists – learning to become a freelance stylist; students will produce photo shoots, manage a job, and learn how to promote themselves
  • Renaissance Costume Construction – creating period garments; students will build theatrical costumes using Renaissance-era garment construction abilities, patterning and rigging techniques, and corset construction skills
  • Internship in Fashion – students will put the knowledge and skills they have acquired in the classroom to work in a real-world setting by applying for an internship
  • Jewelry and Metal Arts – creating fine metal object and jewelry using copper, brass, bronze, and sterling silver; developing skills in stone setting, metal forging, die forming, basic chain making, and introductory casting
  • Great Performances: Legendary Actors of the Silver Screen – analyzing the groundbreaking work of legendary film actors by exploring their famous work and their individual creative processes
  • Make-Up: Street and Special Effects – master make-up for film; students will create realistic contemporary make-ups, and learn character, special effects, and medical make-up skills for beauty, fashion, film, and television

Master’s Degree in Costume Design – Two to Three Year Duration
The master’s program in costume design expands upon the topics addressed in the bachelor’s curriculum, with the primary learning outcome being professional readiness. Classes emphasize collaboration with directors, actors, lighting crews, and others in the field to produce original costumes. Students graduate with a portfolio that showcases the range of their talents in design and construction of garments and specialty items like jewelry and millinery work.

The master’s curriculum is comprised of advanced courses in areas such as:

  • Fashion construction and flat pattern drafting
  • Costume design evolved from story structure, character, and plot
  • Historical and global influences of the arts on fashion, design, and culture
  • 3D design and garment development
  • Drawing the clothed figure for fashion and general illustration
  • Creating costumes for musical, dance, and experimental theatre / connecting design to movement and voice
  • Designing costumes for film and TV / examining comedy, drama, and horror and learning how color and silhouette affect the audience’s perception of character
  • Creating costumes for various film genres, specifically fantasy, period drama, and science fiction

Degrees Similar to Costume Design

Art History
Students of art history study the history and development of drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography, filmmaking, and architecture.

Fashion Design
A degree program in fashion design teaches students how to develop artistic ideas and concepts and transform them into wearable clothing and accessories. The typical curriculum is built around the four basic elements of fashion design: color, silhouette/shape, line, and texture.

Students learn that each of these elements can create identity and meaning, they can convey certain emotions, they can be flattering or unflattering, and they can trick the eye. Classes in fashion design programs cover the history of design, fashion sketching, pattern drafting, and computer-aided fashion design.

Fine Arts
The fine arts provide several degree options, including drawing / illustration, painting, photography, sculpture, and animation.

Graphic Design
The goal of graphic design is to produce visual concepts to communicate messages. The discipline uses layout, color, and other creative concepts to design logos and branding packages that inspire and captivate consumers.

Illustration degree programs teach students how to tell stories and communicate ideas visually. They cover traditional manual drawing, digital art technologies, and art and illustration history. Some programs may include painting classes or offer concentrations in a specific kind of illustration, such as book illustration, fashion illustration, exhibit drawing, animation and cartoon drawing, and medical illustration.

Theatre Arts
Theatre arts degree programs teach the performing arts and the fields that support them. Some curricula may focus on a specific area, such as acting, dance, or music. Others may address more than a single aspect of the live theatre industry, covering a range of topics including theatre history, dramatic literature, playwriting, directing, and/or self-promotion. Still others may focus on or include the technical/supportive disciplines of lighting, scenic design, costume design, and make-up.

Skills You’ll Learn

  • Communication – communicating ideas and concepts is part of almost every job
  • Creativity and ability to translate creative vision – every business needs employees who are imaginative and innovative
  • Artistic ability – artistic ability is surprisingly valuable in non-artistic jobs, because it can lead to out-of-the-box thinking
  • Drawing skills – the ability to present an idea in a drawing can be applied throughout the business world
  • Visualization skills – the capacity to visualize, to imagine how a product, event, or presentation will look is key in many kinds of work
  • Business sense – knowing how a business operates is an asset in any field
  • Research

What Can You Do with a Costume Design Degree?

Costume designers typically get their start as costume makers, who create and alter costumes based on detailed sketches and specifications received from a costume designer. They often begin their career by working on college or community productions. From there, they progress to become assistant designers.

The ultimate goal, of course, is to work with prestigious theatre companies or in film and TV, or to lead the design of entire concerts and tours as a live show designer. Live experience designers create a live show’s visual aesthetic. They are responsible for developing an overall vision which unifies elements including sets, lighting, props, costumes, and projections.

It is not uncommon for costume designers to work on a freelance basis, although some do find full-time positions with large theatre, opera, dance, or film production companies. Opportunities may also exist in music video production, the advertising industry, and fashion show production.

Centers for the arts, music, and fashion, such as Los Angeles, New York, and London, naturally offer greater employment options in the field, but they also present intense competition for jobs.


Find out what graduates typically earn.

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