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Costume Design

When you’re watching a movie, your favorite television show, a stage performance, or even a commercial, everything has to come together to make the performance believable. Though the lines spoken are integral to understanding a story, sometimes the actors need to convey a mood or situation without even speaking a word. In order to connect the character to the plot, the viewer has to be able to pick up visual clues from the actor’s appearance. A costume designer uses textiles, fabrics and accessories to help tell a story.

When you imagine the career of a costume designer, you might picture someone dressing actors in Shakespearian gowns for live theater performances. Though many costume designers do this kind of work, today’s variety of performance entertainment ranges from television shows, music videos, concert performances, to motion films. Many costume designers choose to work in a niche, gaining expertise in their own corner of the market. The variety of settings a costume designer can work in makes this career anything but boring.

Trina Patterson is a freelance fashion and costume designer who works in New York. She is currently working as a set costumer on the film Summer at Dog Dave’s, starring Morgan Freeman. She has worked with A-list celebrities like Beyonce and Nelly (who she styled for many of his music videos and tours). She got her start at a very young age, interning at a production company as a preteen. As she worked her way up in the business, she got a taste of both fashion and costume design. Though both jobs are about clothes, there is a very big difference. “Costume design is more about continuity and remaining true to the script,” she explains. It can be a tedious job, as you have to ensure that the costume is uniform throughout continuous scenes, which are often filmed out of order. This requires constant collaboration with the writers, producers, and directors, as well as the actors. If a cowboy’s hat is tipped to the right in one scene and then to the left in the next, someone is bound to notice.

Andre Milman and his wife Irina V. Ivanova both teach costume design courses at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale and also work together in their home studio. They boast very accomplished costume design careers, working everywhere from the Republic of Armenia to Russia and now Florida. Ivanova explains the difference between fashion design and costume design: “Costume is intended to be looked at, to communicate with audience mostly visually. Fashion design communicates through much broader spectrum of sensations: through touch and appreciation of quality of material and of implementation.” In costume design, you have to be able to convey a personality purely through visual cues.

However, Milman notes, “Costume and fashion have a lot in common since ‘all the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players’ . . . they all have costumes.” Many of the world’s great fashion designers have dabbled in costume design and vice versa. After all, a passion for clothing and style is utilized in both fields.

Patterson admits that costume design doesn’t appear as glamorous as fashion design, and is often very hard work. When you’re in the midst of filming, you can be on set for a lot longer than eight hours, and sleep is a sometimes rare. Patterson recalls filming in the woods for days and coming home filthy and exhausted. This is quite different from when she has fashion design jobs, when she spends hours shopping at upscale boutiques for her clients.

There is also a vast amount of research involved in costume design. First, the designer starts by reading and rereading the script, to get a clear understanding of the characters. Patterson says she spends days researching the role, particularly the time period that the film takes place, the living situation of the character, the location of the setting. Then she has to collaborate with the director, to make sure your vision for the character is in line with his. 

Landing a career as a costume designer requires much more than a love of clothing and a sense of style. Education can play an essential role. When Patterson went to school, she majored in business. She explains that her education helped her manage the business side of her freelance career. She had to learn how to keep track of finances, book jobs, and follow up with clients.

Milman explains, “Good design education can give you a comprehensive system, a professional foundation upon which a fusion of theoretical knowledge and practical experience is built. Such foundation is hard to build on your own from practice only.” However, he emphasizes that once you have a diploma, you’re not done learning. A good costume designer must look at every job as a learning experience. He advises budding costume designers to learn from the expertise of others they come in contact with. There will always be someone with more experience and knowledge than you, and learning from them is essential.

Though an education is important, it’s not a free ticket to a successful costume design career. According to Ivanova, a creative imagination is critical to success. “You have to have an ability to visualize looks and images which did not exist before,” he says. Besides imagination, a costume designer has to be flexible and willing to collaborate with a number of other creative artists, which is often easier said than done.

Patterson emphasizes the importance of persistence. She insists that she wouldn’t be where she is today if she hadn’t been ruthless with perusing jobs and convincing people to hire her early on. There have been days where she has felt like quitting, and she warns that you need to be able to take criticism and get back on your feet. In the end, the pride she feels from watching her characters come to life on the screen makes the hard work and sacrifices worth it.

Irina Ivanova - http://www.artdesignivanova.com/?irina_ivanova.html

        Professor at Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, costume designer

Andre Milman http://www.facebook.com/ivanovamilman

            Professor at Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, costume designer

Trina Patterson - http://www.trinapatterson.com/home.html

            Costume design, fashion design