Becoming a Costume Designer: Job Description & Salary Info

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Get the truth about a costume designer's salary and career prospects. Read the job description and see the pros and cons of becoming a costume designer.
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Pros and Cons of a Costume Designer

Costume designers create the costumes for plays, musicals, television shows and films. Read on to learn about the pros and cons of becoming a costume designer.

Pros of a Career as a Costume Designer
A creative career*
Self-employment opportunities*
Enter the industry with just a high school diploma*
Do a job you are passionate about*

Cons of a Career as a Costume Designer
A 3% decline in employment opportunities is projected for 2012-2022*
Starting salary is low*
May have to work nights and weekends*
Will have to meet deadlines*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Career Information

Job Description

In addition to sewing, as a costume designer, you'll be responsible for purchasing the fabrics and patterns needed for costumes. You also oversee the production of costumes and stay current on fashion trends to ensure that art is imitating life on the stage or screen. If you are creating costumes for a period piece, you will need to research the era and styles.

Salary Information notes that costume designers in the 10th-90th percentile earned a salary of $18,373-$69,531 annually in 2014, while the median salary was $39,942. The salary of a costume designer is going to vary widely, depending on their experience and skill. While some costume designers may choose to work for a production company or theater, others may freelance and find employment on a project-to-project basis.

What is Required?

The BLS notes that you can work in the fashion design field without a college degree, and some job postings note that a high school diploma is the only required education. You could become a costume designer with experience and demonstration of your skills in a portfolio. A bachelor's degree in fashion design may help you solidify those skills.

The creative nature of costume design means that you'll need manual dexterity and good hand-eye coordination. You'll also need to be comfortable working at sewing machines or sewing by hand. Strong attention to detail and patience working with actors are also important.

What Do Employers Look For?

Employers are often looking for costume designers with experience, knowledge of all types of fabrics and proficiency with computer programs like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. Here is a sampling of what employers may want from applicants in April/May 2012 job postings:

  • A college theater department in New York seeks a costume designer to work on student productions, designing and altering costumes as necessary. They must attend technical rehearsals as well. This applicant should know how to use a sewing machine and have experience in costume design. The schedule for this position includes nights and weekends.
  • A New York costume company seeks an experienced costume designer to create new costumes, follow fashion trends and oversee production of patterns and costume samples. This individual will be responsible for submitting products for licensing, maintaining costume portfolios and ordering materials as needed. This individual must have experience and submit a portfolio of their designs with the application.
  • Another New York company seeks a costume designer to design product lines, approve production calendars and work with other departments to coordinate marketing and graphics for new costumes. This person will also create guidelines for patternmakers and stitchers. The ideal candidate should have a bachelor's degree in fashion or 5-7 years of professional experience in design.

How to Make Your Skills Stand Out

Because of the intense competition for jobs, you'll want to find a way to stand out in the field. One way to do that may be to earn a bachelor's degree in fashion. In this program, you'll learn about different textiles, fashion trends and the history of design. In addition to taking fashion and costume design courses, many colleges offer bachelor's degrees in fashion design that include internships. Internships will offer you a chance to work under an experienced costume designer and create costumes for professional productions.

Opportunities may also be available to work in summer stock theater festivals. During the summer, you will be able to work in the costume department and develop experience working with actors, sewing costumes and making quick changes in between scenes. Because you will be working with theater professionals from all over the country, this is also an opportunity to network within the field and make contacts for future productions and possible employment.

Other Careers to Consider

If costume design isn't your first choice, but you love to sew, you could work as a tailor or dressmaker. The BLS notes that prospective tailors and dressmakers need a high school diploma and on-the-job training is often provided. Tailors must be sensitive to their customers' needs, because they may have to work in close proximity to alter or customize clothing. The BLS notes that in May 2011, there were about 25,000 tailors and dressmakers working in the United States. According to the BLS, tailors and dressmakers earned a median annual salary of about $26,000 per year in 2011.

The BLS notes that a jeweler, precious stone or metal worker is responsible for grading the gems and precious metals, creating original designs and repairing jewelry. As a designer, you use computer-aided drafting programs to make design easier and quicker. When repairing jewelry items, you must be proficient in using specialized cleaning equipment. On-the-job training is generally provided for this position. According to the BLS, there were 22,000 jewelers, precious stone or metal workers in the United States, and the median annual salary of these professionals was about $34,000 as of 2011.

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