10 Lessons learnt as a young Costume Designer

It's tricky to talk about this subject because people have different work ethics. Nobody has the same expectation and attention to details. I believe there is no “right” or “wrong” process when it comes to designing costumes. However I feel like most of the mistakes I have done (or I have came across) were always linked to the same things :

  • a lack of self-confidence

  • a lack of empathy

  • a lack of trust

These issues are normal. Nobody is 100% confident on a first position.
By the way, are you ever 100% confident even after 20 years of experience ?

Talking about these issues without judging is the only step toward improvement. I trust our community to understand that this blog is all about learning, empowering each others and sharing our success and failures in order to master our crafts. Remember that there is no success without failure EVER.

So here a list of 10 things I wish I knew when I had my first design job :

1. You are hired for only one reason : MONEY

If you are hired as a costume designer on a production for the first or second time, there are only two reasons for you to have this job :

  1. you might be friends with the right person

  2. you are the cheaper option

Always keep in mind that if producers can hire an award winning designer, they will. The only reason they can’t do that is money, period.
This should lead you to always be humble and understand that you are replaceable.

2. Talent is not valuable at this point

I believe that anybody can learn costume design and develop creative skills.
When you start in this industry, there are so many other things that are much more valuable than your talent as a costume designer. These are your ability to be :

  • reliable

  • nice

  • flexible

  • organized

  • confident

If you are talented but...

  • you can’t handle your stress,

  • you can’t keep up with your schedule and you have to work many extra unpaid hours to be on time,

  • you look down on your team and don’t have their back,

  • you can’t handle critics and/or apprehend the director’s vision,

...you are not a professional.

Your ability of acting like a professional in every circumstances and overcoming last minute problems is more valuable than your talent.

3.  Good team-leadership is one of the biggest challenges

Most of the time you don’t learn to lead a crew at school. Art and design schools mainly focus on teaching you to work on your own projects and pat yourself on the back when it’s done.
In real life you will work with many other people especially within your department. Each of them will have specifics skills required for you to be able to do your job. Everybody is linked and we all need each other.

As a social introvert I'm better at listening than expressing myself, so I’m now focusing on this strength rather than trying to change my personality.

4. Hierarchy comes with responsibilities

Being on top of your department comes with responsibilities toward the people below you.
You are expected to know the work regulations and have your people’s back. You should understand that working on a set during night time is not the same experience as working during the day time. It might not change a lot for you as a designer but it does change a lot for your wardrobe assistant, your intern or your costume runner. They are the ones who put up with the physical work without having their names on the top of the screen. Therefore you should be grateful and stand up for their rights.

If you don’t know the rules, join a union.

5. Empathy is key

We're all different. Everybody lives their lives through their own bubble. The things you think are natural are not necessarily natural for someone else. We often forget this basic fact when we work under a lot of stress and a serious lack of sleep.
If you have a problem with someone talk to the person face to face. Explain your problem and then listen.
Sarcasm and passive aggressive behavior will never be a good way of expressing an issue. Everybody comes from different backgrounds (especially in big cities) so put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

6. You won’t be taken seriously most of the time

As a first time designer (and a woman) you will likely not be taken seriously.
You will need to stand up for yourself, know the rules while remaining friendly. The more you will accept things that are not in your contract or completely illegal (sourcing costumes with your own money, using your car as a costume truck,…) the less you will be respected. It is not worth taking such risks on a first job because if something bad happens you will be held responsible. You need to set your boundaries from the beginning. If you lose the job it means it wasn't worth it.

7. Delegate and trust

Maybe you don’t have great self-confidence. You need to relax and respect the people who work with you. They know their crafts. Trust them. Let them do their jobs.
You can’t do everything anyway. Trying to look like the person who knows it all is not going to make you respected (because nobody knows it all ever).
Listen to people. Let them handle their parts.

8. Don’t be afraid of failures

You will make mistakes. As soon as you understand that it's ok to make mistakes then you'll be fine. This is what professionals do : they own their mistakes, they land back on their feet and they carry on.
If you don’t fail along the way then you are not getting better. It took me a while to get that.

9. Earn their respect

Everybody working as an assistant came across a disrespectful boss (I had for sure. Have you ?). This leads to resentment and frustration.
Accept the fact that people will have better ideas than you sometimes. Let them own their ideas and they will respect you even more.
Don’t ask someone else's opinion if you don’t want to hear it.
Stand up for your crew. Always.

10. Have fun

You chose this career because you are passionate about it. At the end of the day not having the right dress is not a catastrophe. Things go wrong, people are tired and make mistakes. I’m not saying that you should not pay attention to details, but sometimes we make a fuss about things that won’t even be on screen. Relax and have fun. We dress people and tell stories. We won’t save the world with it.