What is Costume Design?

JULY 20, 2020
Two costume designers measuring a mannequin.

From Sandy’s greaser outfit to Olivia Pope’s white hat, clothing can become an iconic part of any movie or TV show. The best costume design may not only come to define a particular production, but can influence our current style and trends.

When you’re booked as a Background Actor by Central Casting, the wardrobe you bring to set helps the costume designer realize their vision for a project. To help you put together the best background looks, here’s what you should know about how costume design contributes to the success of films and television.

What is costume design?

Costume design is the creation of clothing and accessories for characters in movies and TV shows. Whether it’s a well-worn t-shirt or elaborate period dress, a lot of thought goes into each character’s overall look.

When creating outfits, costume designers not only think about a character’s individual style, but the overall aesthetic of the production. While costume design and fashion design have some similarities, costume designers have to take the filming process into account when designing their looks, like if the garment can stand up to the rigors of filming, provide enough movement for the actor, and show up well on camera.

“I love the whole idea that you can transform [a character] by what clothes they have on,” For All Mankind costume designer Jill M. Ohanneson told Deadline. “One of the things that has always been really important to me is that the costumes feel real and honest.”

Creating wardrobe

Each costume designer is different, but generally they will read a script, meet with the director or showrunner and other production members, then start researching, designing, and producing looks. Depending on the type of production, budget, time period, and other factors, designers may create their own looks, modify clothing from specialty stores, or buy retail pieces.

One challenge costume designers face, especially in regions with multiple productions, is how to make wardrobe feel unique and authentic to their project when other designers are purchasing the same or similar pieces. When costume designer Lou Eyrich was working on Netflix’s Hollywood, she told Deadline that there were around five other 1940s set productions working in Los Angeles at that time.

“Unless you have time to make everything, or close to everything, you are pretty much shopping at the same stores as every other [of the] 600 shows on television right now, and movies,” Eyrich said. “It’s hard to keep coming up with fresh looks when you’re all pulling from the same department stores and online stores, but that also makes it a fun challenge. Like, how can I take this dress that everybody else has just bought and make it look unique?”

Background Actors and costume design

Costume designers oversee all wardrobe for a production, including for Background Actors. When you’re booked by Central Casting, your Details Blog will often include detailed wardrobe notes. These notes are given with the production’s overall costume design in mind, which is why it’s important to read your details carefully and follow the instructions given.

For example, if you’re booked as a high school teacher, each project is going to have a different idea of what that looks like based on time period, location, color palette, what principal actors are wearing, etc. So just because an outfit worked for Never Have I Ever, doesn’t mean that same outfit will work for Euphoria. You are a big part of helping these scenes come to life, please pay close attention to the wardrobe notes you’re given to help costume designers realize their vision.

You can find out more about the crew members and departments Background Actors work with on set in our articles What Does an Assistant Director Do? and Production Crew Members You Should Know.

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By Meghan Dubitsky

Article Category:

Industry Essentials