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How to succeed when designing on a budget

By Marie Brammah – 22/12/2018

Rarely are costume designers and stylists given the budget they want/need for the requirements of a project. Dealing with this, alongside limited timescales and unexpected changes, requires skill, knowledge and experience. So, here’s some advice on how to make the most of your limited budget and resources.

Know your sourcing options


There are many great places to get what you need without spending a fortune:

  • Ebay, Vinted and ASOS Marketplace offer a wide range of garments in terms of style, era and cost.
  • Charity shops and garage sales are also great places to visit.
  • Whilst other vintage shops and websites may be higher in cost, most have sale sections which may have exactly what you’re looking for.
  • Costume hire departments – these are great for sourcing more one-off and period pieces or post-production costumes, although they are often more costly.
Friends and family

Your friends and family may have the pieces you are looking for. They might have old pieces from decades ago or have contemporary pieces that are perfect for your character. Asking them is a great option, as they are likely to lend you items for free. Just make sure they won’t be damaged during production and that they’re fully aware of the risks to their garments before agreeing to help you out.

The actors

Always reach out to the actors to see if they have anything suitable. This is especially important for productions with a large number of extras. Actors are usually understanding and happy to help and may even prefer working in their own clothes. Be sure to inform them of the risks and return their clothes cleaned.

In the best-case scenario, you will be able to look through their wardrobes yourself. Having a solid understanding of the styles required, you will see things that would work that they might have dismissed. Unfortunately this isn’t always possible, especially when working with a large cast, so you’ll have to rely on them finding items and sending photographs. When giving information on the costume requirements, it’s better to be vague rather than specific, to avoid missing any opportunities.

Remember, even if they only have basics this is useful, as everything adds up.

Get creative

If you’re in need of vintage/period items but the options are too expensive, you may be able to cheat it. Try exploring how you can adapt or rework new pieces to recreate the era’s styles and silhouettes. For example, adding shoulder pads to create an 80s silhouette.

In order to succeed here you need to have a solid understanding of the period you are working in, and the director’s stylistic intentions. Having great knowledge of the fabrics, silhouettes and cuts of the clothes of the time will grant you more flexibility in your sourcing options.

When looking in shops, think creatively and exhaustively at the items you see. Could this be adapted? Embellished? Dyed?

Prioritise your work

During your initial discussions with the director you should seek out which costumes/costume elements are most vital. Ask if any elements could be re-negotiated/removed if the budget will not allow for everything. Then you can prioritise your tasks and get the most important things first.

If you have a team working with you, figure out which tasks can be delegated. A designer should be present in fittings and on set. If you need to process returns or gather last minute pieces, assign these jobs to your supervisor. Just be sure that your team is given all the information and resources they need beforehand, as to avoid errors and wasted time.

If you need extra help, reach out to universities and post in online costume networking groups. Students are always eager to get involved and gain any experience they can. This will help you out with your budget – voluntary work – and allow you to allocate more time to bigger tasks.

Working against a limited timescale, directors and producers are very busy and so each department is often left to figure things out by themselves. Therefore, great time management is very important in order to successfully work independently.


Sometimes, low budget productions call for purchases rather than made pieces. However, the stronger your sewing skills and knowledge the better. Things may need to be adapted or last-minute changes could require quick makes. The more you can do yourself, the more money you save. Again, reaching out to students might work if makes are required.

‘It is important to have a directory of collaborators that can help you with those low budget projects.’ – Anna Barroso, Costume Designer

If you cannot make certain things yourself, it’s really useful to have contacts who will be able to make things for you. Having these contacts ready will also save you time on finding new professionals to work with.


You need to understand what you can and cannot achieve with the budget you have been given. Try to give rough estimates to initial costume requests. This will bring up any issues with the budget that you may need to bring the director’s attention.

The director is usually aware that finances are low and difficult to work with. However, they may not be aware of how much it costs to clothe someone, and how quickly things can add up. Therefore, it’s always worth talking to them and making them aware of this, as they may then renegotiate the budget or costume requirements with you.

It’s helpful to have evidence of your estimated costs, so try finding specific items to give them a strong and believable understanding of your needs. 

‘The Costume designer is not responsible for the tight budget, the producer is.’ – Carlos Rosario, Costume Designer

Sometimes directors may be insistent upon a particular idea and unwilling to renegotiate this or the budget for it. In this case, try going to the producer, as they will know the best way to solve the issue.

-Marie is a costume designer based in the South-West of England, Coming from a textile family, Marie grew up with a strong interest for the subject, which soon developed into an enthusiasm for art and fashion, and eventually costume. Having a great passion for film, she studied Costume and Performance Design for Screen at the Arts University Bournemouth.


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