5 Skills to be a good Costume Designer


Recently some people asked me advices about which type of studies they should pursue to be a costume designer. They seemed to think in terms of future opportunities rather than becoming a good designer. For example the girl I talked to asked me if she should pursue studies to become a seamstress while she was clearly telling me she was interested to design so I asked her “why would you want to become a seamstress if your goal is to become a costume designer ?”

I think it’s easy to get scared (I’m scared all the time !!) because this industry is hard and earning a life as a creative requires a lot of energy. So here the 5 skills I believe are the most important to nurture for anybody who would like to become a good costume designer.

1/ Patience

Building a portfolio and long-lasting work relationships require a lot of patience and dedication. Nobody gets to design a feature film/a show right away because first you need to prove to people that you are able to do it. Generally it comes by meeting the right people - the ones that trust your abilities because they had the opportunity to see how you work as an assistant or on a smaller scale project - and by showing your creative skills with examples of previous works.

I think in this industry everything takes a while and you never really know what you’re going to get. Most of the short films I have worked on took at least a year to be released. Sometimes you don’t even know if the film will be out because they might have been some issues with the editing. In theater, rehearsals can be long too, especially if the actors are committed to other works and the show didn’t get sold yet.

I would say that it’s better to focus on the long-term goal rather than the short one so get a job as a PA or in something else that teach you another aspect of the work to pay your bills while building your portfolio.

2/ Self-confidence

Of course everybody struggles with that one too. I think it’s more a matter of cultivating little things that give you self-confidence in your abilities rather than wanting to be confident right away.

Creating a routine, meeting short-time goals and building trusting relationships with few people really helped me nurturing a sense of self-confidence. Building healthy habits like learning to run a 5K and becoming a vegetarian, moving abroad and having to meet new people, writing a journal and committing to my partner were ones of the things that really helped me reflect on my progress and proved me that I could achieve things that were a little bit challenging - even if they were not directly related to my work.

My point is that self-confidence can be nurtured in so many different ways. You just have to find the ones that work for you and see how they helped to grow your sense of faith in your abilities.

3/ Communication skills

Communication is everything. You need to be able to communicate about your vision to a director but also understand his/her own vision while listening to the producer who has also a different way of seeing the project.

I guess this is also a skill that needs to be nurtured with experience and maturity. As an introvert and a woman (and a French one) I have SO MANY barriers when I need to “sell” my work. I tend to diminish my past experiences and have way too much humility compared to an American person. It’s all cultural and I’m working on it. Instead I tried to nurture my listening skills and my abilities to “get” people quite easily. I’ve also learned to stay calm under pressure (I’ve downloaded a meditation app while I was working on a very stressful project and I’ve learned to use these tools) and to think straight when something bad happens at the last minute.

I don’t think there is one way to be a good communicator. You don’t have to be a “people-pleaser” (trust me, I’m not lol) or to change your personality (I tried and I failed very badly). You need to find your own soft skills and nurture them.

4/ Leadership

When you become a costume designer, you work within a team and you end up having lots of responsibilities - therefore a lot of tasks you need to delegate. I think the best costume designers I ever worked with were the ones who knew exactly how to surround themselves with the right people who were in charge of executing his/her vision.

If you don’t know how to work with people and trust their abilities to help you doing your job, then you end up doing everything alone and failing to meet the goals because you don’t know everything ! Good leadership is about understanding that you need help, surrounding yourselves with people who have the skills you don’t have and empowering them by letting them do what they are the best at.

Start slow and small (I failed miserably the first time I had a full team to lead because I was scared and I had never done that before) and be a good assistant first (because then you know what it’s like to be in your future assistant’s shoes).

5/ Attention to details

I believe anybody can draw a dress and say “I’m a costume designer now”. It’s not really about that. Being creative is great (and necessary) but it’s not what is going to make you a good designer. If you learn to be a detail-oriented person by understanding every aspects of the work process, adapting your vision in order to fit specifics rules and learning everything that could go wrong, then it will make your creativity grow stronger.

Along with the communication skills, learning to look around you and pay attention to people, see how they move and take the time to learn their sensibilities is something that will develop your ability to be intuitive - which is also part of the creative process.

Being curious about other people’s works, developing different creative skills, growing a visual culture are the keys to sharp your vision.

And of course, be honest about who you are and have a strong work ethic :) You might get rejected, some people may not appreciate your work, but there will be others that will! I think the hardest part in this industry is to find your tribe, people you can trust, share a vision with and have fun working with. It’s hard and it takes time but if you never stop, you’ll get there !!