About Resa McConaghy
As a 20 year long established costume designer in film, television, and digital media, Resa McConaghy has credits with: Showtime, ABC, Disney, CBS, CBC, Hallmark, Lifetime, and more. Her mission: to enable the articulation of character through wardrobe.
Prior to these goals, she ran a 10 year history in commercials, rock videos, shorts, and has held every position in the wardrobe department. Check out her reel, plus her expert industry advice below.
Notes on Costume Design
So you want to be a costume designer in the film or television industry? First, ask yourself a few questions:
- Are you ready to work 14 hour days?
- Are you willing to work weekends?
- Are you willing to travel to a location and be away from home for weeks, even months?
- Do you have solid hands on people communication skills?
- Can you handle a budget?
Yes! So far so good.
Of course it will take more than just willingness to work hard, and a decent personality. You will need to develop your creative talents and skills, get some early experience, and promote yourself.
1. Developing Talents & Skills
Formal education is always a good path to start on. Not relegated to, but directly related to being a costume designer is:
Fashion Design and Technology
Here you will learn to: make patterns, drape, sew, draw technical sketches, sketch fashion style, get to know all of the names of collars, cuffs, body cuts, fabric knowledge, dying, and many other skill sets that will serve to enhance and showcase your natural talents. You will also learn how to organise and put on a fashion show, which is on its way to film production.
You can choose from many courses. Drawing, painting, sculpting, fashion sketching (becoming a dead art, so if you can do it, you will have an edge) computer art skills, which if added to real drawing can give you even more of an edge. Photography is also good choice, as you will have to present the costumes fit on actors to producers, directors and the actors, themselves. A great shot will go far. A bad shot could sink you.
You will develop and/or hone your eye for proportion, texture, colour, and more. Although lacking in practical hands-on skills, you will be approaching the industry from a very creative viewpoint.
Here you will learn about all of the departments on a production, what they do and how the costume department will interact with each department. You will learn how to break down a script manually, and how to budget the costume costs.
Remember, once you pay for the clothes, you will need staff to take care of upkeep and organisation in the wardrobe truck on a location shoot, or in the Wardrobe area if on a studio shoot. You will need a set super to take care of the actors and their costumes on set, and run wardrobe continuity.
A current school should teach you how to use on line production programs such as “Sync On Set”. Here you can see what the location for certain scenes looks like by going to the locations department, or what colour scheme the set dec department has chosen.
By the same token, producers and directors will be able to view the wardrobe fittings. Get ready to be critiqued, and work with it. One of the many places your people skills will come in handy.
Your talent will loom larger the more experience you get, and skills will become honed.
This is where the hard work can lead. Here is a trailer of a recent project on which I designed the costumes. Sensitive Skin – starring the fabulous Kim Cattrall.
2. Getting Some Experience
Reach out to continuing film education facilities for producers and directors. Volunteer your services for free. This might sound crazy, but if you can drive and have a car, you’ll go far fast.
Check out the websites of local film companies to see where you can view their latest productions. Watch those productions! Make note of the costume designer’s name, and any names in the wardrobe department.
You might find these people have websites or blogs where you can get a hold of them. OR, if you have the guts, call the film company. Explain that you want to contact the costume designer. They won’t give up the number. However, they may allow you to submit your beginners resume, and pass it on for you.
Volunteer on anything that will let you: low budget shorts, shoe string features. If you can’t be the costume designer, be the assistant. Any experience is valuable. Do the ironing, the lugging, stand on set for hours with a lint brush, tape, and pins.
Music videos for unknown artists are a great creative place. You will work for free with no budget (probably). If they have a deal, or some money, they will hire someone with credits. YOU will be that person with credits after a few freebies.
On any set, don’t chit chat and socialise. Don’t play with your idiot smartphone, do not daydream – instead, stay attentive. Focus on the job at hand and look like the professional you wish to be.
Commercials are a fabulous place to grow your name as a creative, and the money is very good. Joining a Film Technicians Union will allow you to work bigger budgets. But you will still need to promote yourself.
How do you do that? Blogging will help. And one of my creative endeavours is just that: Art Gowns.
3. Promote Yourself
Create A Resume
A beginner’s resume can look lacking to be honest, but you’ve got to start somewhere. I suggest NOT putting your education at the top. You want to start with your design credits, even if that is only one small credit. Any film experience in any department next, then education and finally any jobs in any industry, full or part-time that you held for any decent length of time. A beginner’s resume should have 3 references from people you worked for in film or other areas.
Enrich your resume. Create a fashion blog, or a historical costumes blog that shows off your knowledge. The link for that should go on your resume.
Put your name at the top of the resume. Put your phone and email under there, plus your blog’s address under that.
Create a Portfolio
It’s a great device to get conversation going, and show off your talent. As a newbie, you could have a series of shots from your fashion school projects, shots of art you have created, or even original pieces since you left school.
Perhaps you worked or volunteered on a music video, and wound up making a top for one of the band members. Make sure you get shots for your portfolio. If you’re great at sketching, include your best!
Be proactive! Example: put a bunch of outfits/looks together. Shop selectively at second-hand stores, mix it up with your own clothes and new clothes if you can afford it. Get a friend who looks good.
Perhaps she wants to be a model or an actress. Dress her up, take the shots, and put them in your portfolio. If you develop your eye, you will only need a smartphone camera!
Engage small local theatre companies – for the costume design position only! Pay will be poor, but the run will be short and you will get a costume design credit to add to your resume.
The next step? Costume design agents – they may be looking to finding the next future wave of designers. They may, or may not, take you on, but if they have taken the time to meet with you, they will at least offer advice.
Remember, if you have an agent, you will give up a percentage of your income for the length of the contract, possibly your entire career.
Everything could work out great, as they will do the calls, and get you interviews. Once an interview is set, it is up to you to nail the position, and it could you take an extra 10 years to pay off your mortgage.
But a director, or producer, who you volunteered for, could well be looking for a designer for their next project.
They will send you a script. Now you know when and where it takes place. You know about the characters motivations and lifestyles.
So, create a “Look Book”! Rip pics out of magazines, print pics off of internet or use sketches that you create. Organise these by character into a simple portfolio available at most art shops and impress the director and producers with your creative understanding of their neat characters in their fab script.
A magazine recently found me on my Art Gowns Blog and did a wonderful article (it’s on pages 14 and 15 in below).
Okay, there you have it! Three steps to becoming a Costume Designer. They may seem like big steps, but if you mean business, you’ll reach your destination.
In her spare time, when that happens, Resa collects Street Art and has a blog about graffiti that’s a remarkable pastime in Canada: Graffiti Lux and Murals. But she finds it very relaxing.
She once spent a year travelling in South America and spent a week climbing the Peruvian Andes mountains with friends. The destination was Machu Picchu . It was reached. Now she prefers to mentor young costume designers into the biz.