Filmmaking | How to Be a... | How To's

How to Be a… Costume Designer

1 Jul , 2006  

Written by Nikki Chase | Posted by:

Do you have a passion for fashion and a fancy for film? Then costume designing might be the perfect profession for you. Costume designer Walter Peterson shares the ins and outs of the business.

When it comes to celebrities, there is one question that we have all asked ourselves at one point or another and that is, how the heck does her dress stay on? Well, the answer to that question would be that it stays on because it is someone’s job to make sure that it stays on.

Most of us think that the job of a costume designer entails finding a gorgeous dress for the leading lady, but when it comes to costume design, there is much more than meets the eye. I sat down with Walter Peterson, renowned costume designer and author of the soon to be published book Out of the Closet: The Life of a Costume/Fashion Designer.

In the 1960s Peterson was a struggling actor trying to make it in Hollywood. To make ends meet, he would accept jobs in everything from props to costumes. A friend, who was familiar with his work, asked if he would design the costumes for his experimental film. After working on the project, Peterson gave up acting and began to devote himself to costume design full time.

He briefly attended the Chouinard Art School, but decided that he would gain more experience working at a summer theater in Anaheim, California. Now, Peterson is one of the most versatile and inventive designers in the business having designed costumes for everything from the Carol Burnett Show to the original Disney on Ice.

He is currently working on his book, a personal memoir on his experiences in costume design, which will outline the highlights and pitfalls of his career in the business. Until then, he shared with me a few insider tips for those interested in the profession.

Where to start…

The best way to gain experience and learn about costume design is to be hands on. If you think school is the best way for you to gain experience than go for it. "If you’re going to school for it, take philosophy, take psychology because you have to know who the characters are," recommends Peterson.

But, there are also many other ways to gain experience in the business, such as summer theater programs or apprenticeships. One of the best ways to learn about costume design is to work with other designers. This is a good way to become familiar with different techniques and the way fabric is used at different angles. "The designer needs to know constructions because anyone can draw a picture with a great look, but if you can’t get it put together then you’re going to end up with something that doesn’t look like how you wanted it to look because it’s impossible to make," Peterson says. But, whichever way you chose to go about learning the trade, make sure you’re well rounded in your pursuits.

Know the script.

"Your work is the first thing the audience sees so you have to be able to tell them who that character is," Peterson observes. You have to know how the actor and the director see the character before you can dress them. Once you have an idea of who you’re dressing then you can being to develop a look that he can portray that character. Peterson recommends studying up on the Stanislavski method which entails bringing the character out from within.

And, it’s not only the character that you have to pay attention to, but the movement and set design as well. If the actor has a lot of movement, you have to make sure that the costume is going to move with them and that they are going to be able to maneuver around the set. When it comes to costumes, there is much more to take into consideration than looks alone.

Be versatile.

"With design, there are a lot of different facets you can go into such as theater and film, and television shows but there are also advertisers that are looking for clothes to be designed to go with their products. There are all different ways costumes work in different aspects of life," Peterson says. Observing everything around you and taking in as much as you can is the best way to create your own personal style. Peterson also recommends having a library devoted to different times and different places so you can learn to recreate their styles. Make sure you try a little of everything and keep a sample line together so you can show people what you have to offer.

Budget your time.

Usually, a costume designer is working on many different projects in a short period of time. "You can be working at three or four different houses for three or four different jobs. So, you work on one thing Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and then whole another thing on the weekends. So you have all these jobs going at once," Peterson says. He admits to working from 6 am to 3 am for weeks at a time. But, don’t worry, it’s not always like that. The "season" for costume design is about ten weeks long but, during that time you’ll want to get in as many jobs as possible so make sure know how to organize your schedule or you’ll end up in the weeds.

There is no room for attitude.

Costume design is a competitive business. Because there are so many talented costume designers out there, talent alone is not enough to get your foot in the door. "You have to have a personality where they like you and want to work with you again. There’s no tolerance to be demanding or temperamental. You can’t be exacting because you’ve got a lot of competition out there. You’re really selling your personality and your talent," says Peterson. "I’m a firm believer in becoming part of a team. Your ego can’t get in the way. You may have interpreted a character one way but until you’ve talked and gone over it with the director, he might have seen it in the different way. You have to have flexibility to change your ideas."

The passion.

"If you love it, give it every opportunity you can," Peterson insists. "Never turn down a job and make sure you try everything. Look at the budget you are given and decide what you can do with that budget. You never know who’s going to be in the audience and who’s going to talk." Once you start getting involved and really taking pride in your work that’s when you’ll get noticed. "I think I’ve applied for one designer job in my life and I didn’t get it. I just always work and put myself out there and so the phone is always ringing."

Walter Peterson hosts the workshop Out of the Closet: A History of Costume Design as part of the Plynmouth Independent Film Festival on Friday, July 21 from 2:30-4:30 pm at the Radisson Hotel. For more information, visit and click on ‘workshops’.

Walter Peterson hosts the workshop Out of the Closet: A History of Costume Design as part of the Plynmouth Independent Film Festival on Friday, July 21 from 2:30-4:30 pm at the Radisson Hotel. For more information, visit and click on 'workshops'.