How to work in costume for screen

 28 January 2015

Gayle Playford is a costume workroom manager and head costume cutter for period drama on TV. Her work has been featured in the BBC Two adaptation of Wolf Hall, among many other screen productions. Here she offers six pieces of advice for a career in costume for screen.

"It’s important to learn from the industry. Look for live projects and courses that are linked with theatres or production companies."

As a costume artist, Gayle works within the remit of costume and set design for theatre and opera, as well as running master classes and workshops. Her most recent work is featured in the BBC Two adaptation of Wolf Hall, and she is in pre-production heading the costume workroom for Beowulf.

1. Study and research costume 

It's important to study the practice, but believe me it's not always the costume degree graduates who make the best costumiers. Oh no. It’s also the people who have the humility to accept they don’t know everything about a particular period in terms of costume, but they do know where and how to look into it, and will do so with joy and positivity. 

It's those that are really interested in the culture around them and how things are created that excel in costume. It's the people who are willing to work hard and enjoy doing something well.

Going to college or university to study costume is obviously really useful, so if you plan to study, choose your course wisely. It’s important that you learn from those who work in the industry, so do look for opportunities such as live projects and courses that are linked with theatres or production companies. 

It's not always the costume degree graduates who make the best costumiers.

If you want to be a costume maker, then opt to make costume and do practical research as much as possible. But if you want to be a designer, focus on designing a full show and not just individual one-off costumes. That’s not how the industry works. 

Also be aware that there is less work available in design. On a production such as a period drama series, there will be a designer and an assistant designer. There may be between 10 and 20 makers and dressers.

2. Be technically able

It’s really important that you have more than just an interest in how things are made, have been made or can be made.  

Practise. Go through some costume making books and make things out of it. You may have studied and practised in terms of drawing, research or practical techniques, such as pattern cutting or sewing a button fly for example.

It's important to enjoy costume-related things rather than just do it because you have to. Don’t get me wrong – you don’t need to join a re-enactment society or an amateur theatre. Just go to exhibitions and theatre shows and see as many films or series as you can manage. Immerse yourself in how things are done and how they are done differently. 

It's those that are really interested in all culture that excel in costume.

Some costume makers specialise in men’s tailoring, some specialise in period ladies and some are more prop-based. Some are more textile-based and work in the area of costume finishing: breaking down costume to appear as if it has a particular history to it like being dirty or very old. 

Think about what is out there, what you would like to do and what you have the most interest in. The world of costume is an exciting world. Enjoy it!

3. Be contactable, therefore employable

Northern Film and Media and Screen Yorkshire have advice on getting into the screen industries in different areas, and can help with tailoring a CV in the most appropriate way. 

There is also a wide range of work experience opportunities available. Try not to take up many unpaid opportunities: there are so many these days, very often with a company you have never heard of. 

You should only take unpaid work if it is during the time you are studying. Instead, I would suggest contacting theatres and opera houses, costume hire places, and the BFI to see what is filming in your area.

Do keep an up-to-date portfolio. I say this although I have not updated mine for around 15 years! This is more to do with the fact that I have been working in this industry for a while. Once you are established, you will be asked to work on projects without the need to apply. To get to that stage, you have to be very good at what you do and work hard.

4. Be costume-kit ready

Working on location, on set or at unit base requires some forward planning. You might be on location in a field, miles away from nowhere, and you need a revolving hole punch to make an extra hole in a belt RIGHT NOW. There is no time and nowhere to buy one. So you need to have it in your kit. 

Each costume-based role would need to utilise different items: costume standby would need different kit to costume workroom, and in turn different kit for costume supervisor. 

Some items would cross over, and everyone would be expected to have a sewing kit at the very least. On top of this you should have: 

  • safety pins 
  • a sharpie
  • revolving hole punch
  • needles and thread
  • variety of scissors
  • toupee tape
  • digital camera

The list goes on and on. You will find out from more experienced costume professionals the kinds of things you need to add to your kit.

5. Keep records and be organised

It can be very busy when working in film or TV in the costume departments. It's important that you keep a record of the work you are doing in some depth. 

Costume stand-bys and crowd costume dressers will keep continuity sheets for each costume, with information on how the costume items are worn, the scene it is being worn for and which character is wearing it. 

I find myself going in and out of trailers of very famous actors with virtually no clothes on almost every day of my working life.

This can take quite a while during a busy day, but it must be done, and different people may need to look at them. So they must be clear, concise and well organised.

The designer and assistant designer will have mood boards, look books or tear sheets, drawings and swatches of fabric in order to communicate their ideas about the hiring of items for the head cutter to read and make from. 

The head cutter or workroom manager will have all the patterns organised and fully labelled so different makers can access them and understand them. They will also have files of information as to what is being made, how much meterage of fabric is needed and where it was from in case of remakes. 

You have to be organised in all aspects of this job. It keeps everything ticking along nicely, and time is money.

6. Be yourself

Being a member of the costume team means you will need to liaise with runners, art departments, assistant directors, producers: pretty much everyone. And this applies absolutely to actors. 

I find myself going in and out of trailers of very famous actors with virtually no clothes on almost every day of my working life. It's them with no clothes on, not me. It is very important that you are a relaxed individual who can be yourself and be respectful. 

Actors are all very different: some may be very quiet and self-conscious, some not. Either way, it's up to you to make the fact that you are helping them dress and undress be comfortable and not stressful. They need to feel at ease in your company, so be professional, be prepared with kit and costume options, and be yourself. 

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