Three Tips To Becoming A Costume Designer – Resa McConaghy

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.

Art College

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.

Film School

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 smart phone camera!

Early Interviews

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.

 Resa McConaghy at workA Final Word

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.

13 thoughts on “Three Tips To Becoming A Costume Designer – Resa McConaghy

    1. Thank you for your comment. There are a few ways for you to learn more about the various roles in film. You are welcome to come to our workshops, most universities and film would offer career advice, you can also reach out to established filmmakers.

      It is difficult to find one thing to do, it can be a lot of pressure. For some people knowing what they want is really obvious, for others no so much.

      I have met plenty of people that began in one job and changed to another after a while, Producers who began as Directors and Directors who began as Actors. If non of that works, you don’t have to do just one thing.

      In my case, I have three different careers, one with the festival, one in administration and one in teaching. So, my point is that there are many ways to doing things and you can find your own way. I am sure that you will find people happy to help you figure it out, you just need to ask.

      Liked by 3 people

    2. You certainly sound wise for a young person!
      I’m not the wisest, perhaps, but for me it’s about passion.

      I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I started out, but I had a passion for being creative, and I knew how to sew and make patterns. It was all about Couturier Design for me. So, I opened a boutique with my own designs.

      One thing lead to another. I wound up in film.

      In today’s fast paced and evolving world, it is possible for you to have 2, 3 or even 4 careers during the rest of your life. So try out a position on a film shoot, see how it goes and know you can can change/evolve course at any time. As I said, one thing leads to another.

      LOL! At this point I have decided that I’m going to be an artist. I have 10 paintings of my Art Gowns, and I’m going to have an Art Showing when I hit 20 pieces.
      Best to you!

      Liked by 3 people

  1. Such a lovely article! I’m sure not everyone, or even a handful can create as you do Resa. Aside from all the above requirements and endless energy one must be blessed with creativity as you have so abundantly been. I’m sure this will inspire those designing men and women out there who want to follow in this line of creativity. I am very impressed and awed, continue to enjoy your wonderful and full life of bringing beauty to the world. Many hugs ❤ Do I need to add I am one of your biggest fans!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hello Holly,
      You are such a wonderful supportive soul.
      I hope I have, as you have stated, said something here to inspire and fire up our future Costume Designers. Thank you so much for checking out this article I wrote for the Barnes Film Festival, which is about young talent emerging into the film world. It feels good to offer up some mentor type advice! ❤ (& I'm your biggest fan!)

      Liked by 2 people

      1. You are a beautiful example of what can be accomplished if one uses their gifts. Your success is so well deserved and an inspiration to those who strive for excellence in their field of expertise. To take the time from all that you do to mentor hopefuls is the highest caliber of generosity! Love you lots sweet lady. Admire you to the moon! ♥️

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Fabulous post. Filled with important information. The video was fantastic. Resa, you are a role model for this very creative and wonderful endeavor. Your talent amazes me and I’m not sure many could actually keep up with you. You are most definitely one-of-a-kind. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so very much for taking the time to read this article!
      A lot of people helped me when I started out, I have had a wonderful career in the biz and I’m giving back now. I’m also now looking ahead to where Art Gowns are going.
      One-of-a-kind is a great compliment, thank you, and Make Art not War! ❤

      Like

  3. Great insightful article!
    I love your no nonsense approach, it is very inspiring.
    Especially to an aspiring film director, I like your attitude to working for free, and reassurrence that it will pay off- it’s encouraging.
    Great stuff!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad you found this article insightful.
      I’ve always been pragmatic with creativity. It’s an odd thing, I can design the costumes and bring the budget in, but am lacking in other areas of business.
      My favourite has always been working with my director. After all, the director is the one with a vision and it’s that vision I am trying to help bring to life.
      I wish you much success, as your aspirations become a larger looming reality. I hope your talent will bring the messages you want, to the world. -Resa

      Liked by 1 person

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