Article by Anne Marie – 20/12/2018
Working in costuming can be a highly rewarding and exhilarating experience but getting that first break in the competitive industry is notoriously difficult. Persistence, finesse and working on your craft are all key factors for success – but getting your foot in the door can still be difficult.
I spoke to some industry professionals get the inside track on what they look for when hiring costume professionals, what impresses them most, as well as the negative experiences that would make them think twice about hiring somebody again – and what advice they can offer to anybody looking to further their career.
Zoe Kavanagh is a director with a flair for the creative and whose forte is alternative and edgy films. Her award-winning and internationally acclaimed feature ‘Taryn Barker Demon Hunter’ was released this year, and she has directed music videos for Clan Of Xymox, The Birthday Massacre, as well as directing commercials.
She had this to say about what she looks for and values in her costume designers:
“ I usually would look at their previous credits and see if they’ve had previous experience in genres such as horror & fantasy as the surreal is very important and particular to get right. A lot of pre-production and conceptual designs would be important to collaborate on with the costume designer. I also like to know their personality for the job, someone who can connect with how I work on set and if they can sync with my vision so we both can be in a highly positive working experience. Imagination and unique fashion sense I believe to be the strongest points I’d factor in for a costumer. To be able to add to the distinct look of the project whilst being able to add their style and complimenting the tone of the picture. Another key skill is resourcing, being able to pull off high-quality costumes on a low budget and thinking on the spot under pressure when time is not on our side. I really appreciate a customer who is always there on set being sharp and spotting any costume issues, rips, continuity and isn’t afraid to speak up on issues they feel reflect on the costume and the scene. Sometimes it can be difficult as a director to pay attention to details on costume and continuity so it’s really beneficial when the costumer stays on set calling out and fixing any issue that arises. I don’t like costumers who don’t get involved on set, who deliver the costume and sits off somewhere in a green room playing games on their phone when they need to be keeping an eagle eye between scenes and setups.”
Her advice to costumers looking to get work is:
“Do as many projects that are genre related as it really benefits costumers. Always take inspiration from different source materials not just from movies but from comics, video games, books, fashion etc. A fantasy, period or horror film really showcases your style and production value on your showreel. It shows your range that would impress future clients. Get into concept art to illustrate your imagination and approach to certain styles of costume. I would recommend a costumer who can collaborate well with myself and my art department efficiently – Who can be a leader in pushing their ideas into the forefront for costume and to reflect on the style of the script and the art direction. Can be very resourceful in knowing how to find the right material under time constraints to adjust costume changes at last minute. I love a costumer who can expand and improve on ideas already there with the potential to correct any nonsensical issues reflected in the type of costume asserted to characters. I like a costumer who has a strong vision that can match my style overall”
Karen Therése Connolly is a Dublin born Producer / Production management professional currently residing in Toronto, Ontario – Karen has worked on numerous high profile feature films and television productions. I asked her what she looks for when hiring costumers and what traits she feels are most valuable:
“Experience, it’s only by hitting the pitfalls on smaller projects and short films, that one is prepared for the challenges of a larger production, where anything and everything can and does go wrong on the day. A creative and imaginative individual, with a clear understanding of their craft and the necessary tools to support it. A reputation for ownership and accountability – the show must go on, no matter what personal or professional circumstances intervene. Organized with great time management skills. A proven ability to work independently to strict deadlines. Resourcefulness – an individual who seeks a solution, before presenting a problem. An individual who can accept creative criticism with grace and humility, this is not an industry in which one can afford to be precious, the majority of everybody’s work can and does end up in the editors’ trash can. Most important, while a creative and imaginative approach to each character is essential, as it helps to lift the character from the page, authenticity, for me, is most important. Selecting the correct materials, adhering to historical norms, ageing a garment properly and fitting that garment properly, so that convincingly emulates a point in time or a sequence of events, is key to maintaining the sense of verisimilitude, we all experience, while watching a film or Television production. It also extremely important, when designing and selecting pieces for a particular character, that the wardrobe artist chooses garments that allow the actor to move and express themselves, comfortably ( within reason), wardrobe should assist and never hinder the actor’s transformation. I am blessed to have had the opportunity to work alongside some amazing talents, but we’ve all been involved in productions that have had blunders, things can and do go wrong – the seal of a great wardrobe artist is the ability to find a solution and resolve any issues with diplomacy and discretion. Actors are sensitive creatures, it’s what enables them to perform their craft and create the illusion of reality, it is the wardrobe artist job to juggle the various demands from each department, while supporting the actor’s needs, so they can effectively deliver the directors creative vision.”
Her advice to costumers looking to break into the industry is as follows:
“ Get as much experience as possible, volunteer, get involved with local community performances, offer your talents to student and community film societies, if there are no opportunities to practice your craft, create one, connect with budding filmmakers and develop a project, build a reputation, it’s the most important tool in a wardrobe artist’s toolbox.”
The Production People are an agency that connects creative production crew with companies and organisations that require their skills and talents. They have been operation since 2004, developing Ireland’s largest database of industry professionals within the Broadcasting, Media, Audio/Visual and Event Industries, from Production Assistants to Executive Producers and every role in-between.
I spoke to their director Louise Nolan who as an industry expert has some insights on what makes for a great costumer and as well what advice she can offer to anybody looking to broaden their horizons:
“Attention to detail, good memory, good communication skills. Get any experience you can – short films, student theatre productions. Get a good mentor – try to shadow someone you admire in the industry”
Writing an impressive CV especially at the beginning of a career can be a daunting task. I asked Louise for her top tips on writing a well presented cv that will have impact and boost the chances of getting hired:
“When you start out you will have very little to put into your CV so put every relevant bit of work experience into it, and as you get more experience edit out the earlier work and include the work you are particularly proud of. Be honest – don’t make things up – the industry in Ireland is small and most people know each other and will check references and experience with people they know!”.
Although her response is in reference to the Irish market, her advice has far-reaching relevance.
Key things you can do to keep getting hired.
- Be polite and positive at all times both when meeting with potential employers and whilst you’re working. The attitude you have while on set is just as important when it comes to landing the next job as your skills. Your job as a costumer is to tell the story through dress, working in harmony with all other departments – so being a courteous and helpful member of the crew is crucial to building a reputation as somebody who is worth working with.
- Keep yourself in the public eye. Attend industry events such as premieres, film festivals and seminars and tell everyone what it is you do. Directors, agents, professionals from other departments, and acting talent frequent these events too and networking is an essential part of ‘making it’. Establishing yourself as somebody who is passionate and involved can be very helpful for career progression.
- Always make the time to up-skill and educate yourself. If you have garment construction skills, research patterns and practice. For both sewers and those on the sourcing and styling end, having an in-depth knowledge of fashion-history as well as the socio-economic factors that determine costumes can give you an edge. An upper-class socialite from New York in a story set in the 1930s will have a completely different dress style to a working-class character from the U.K. Your costumes for period pieces will be critiqued for accuracy and detail so knowing how to style for characters from all backgrounds correctly will be impressive. Do your research on a diverse range of styles and genres, and exercise your creativity by working up designs in your spare time. Employers want to see what you can bring to the table so having the ability to present polished and imaginative ideas from the beginning will stand you in good stead.
- At one point word of mouth was the only way people moved up the career ladder but today, with online profiles and directories, it’s easier to find out who’s who and which productions you can send your CV to. Don’t be shy whilst working on set, ask other crew members to take your contact details and encourage them to put you forward for any other jobs they may be working on. If you have proven yourself to be professional and of value to the production then a positive recommendation from someone on the inside can lead to further work.
So now you know what employers want, use this insight to tailor your approach when applying for jobs, as well as whilst working, so that you can prove you are an asset to any production. Persistence, patience and networking are all part and parcel of making it in the industry. Every job you do is an opportunity to learn, improve, and strengthen your intuition and creativity, There may be setbacks along the way but with grit and determination success is possible. Good luck!
– Anne Marie Molloy is a Dublin based stylist and costume designer who has worked extensively with photographers as well as for film, theatre and music videos. She has a love for creating elaborate and detailed looks and fashion history.