Overview of Costume Design Education and Training Programs

Oct 24, 2019

Aspiring costume designers could acquire knowledge and experience through on-the-job training and unpaid internships. Learn about undergraduate and graduate program options, coursework and job outlook.

Essential Information

Depending on the program, bachelor's-level enrollees focus their studies on a particular area. The degrees offered at the bachelor's level are the Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) in Costume Design. The difference is that while a BFA degree program allows students to specialize specifically in costume design, a B.A. program incorporates costume design study into a broader theatre education, which includes courses in acting, scene design, and lighting design. Programs offer opportunities for hands-on learning. A master's degree program in costume design allows for advanced study of costume construction, prosthetics, wigs, and pattern drafting. Students develop their own style of design as they progress through the program and work on required thesis projects.

Applicants for a master's program must hold a bachelor's degree in costume design or closely related field. Colleges and universities also weigh design portfolios, letters of recommendation, and any previous work experience. Some colleges or universities require students submit Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) scores.

Bachelor's Degree in Costume Design

A costume designer works on the design, construction and layout of costumes for theatre, television, and motion picture productions. Students receive a comprehensive overview of costume history, as well as develop rendering and costume construction skills. The goal of a bachelor's degree program is to prepare students for employment upon graduation in theatrical costume shops, along with freelance work or graduate study.

The curriculum is comprised of general educational requirements, as well as introductory and advanced courses in the costume design major. A fully rounded program offers students the opportunity to attend informative lectures and courses, hone directed research skills for class projects, and obtain hands-on experience in costume design and technology through costume shop and theatre productions. Course topics include:

  • Costume design principles
  • Rendering
  • Costume technology
  • Theatrical make-up
  • Costume history

Master of Fine Arts in Costume Design

Students wishing to study costume design at the graduate level obtain a Master of Fine Arts in Costume Design. Graduate programs offer advanced exploration of costume construction, costume history, rendering, and design principles. Students also learn new skills in other areas, such as dying and fabric modification. The master's degree program is considered a terminal degree, and is a prerequisite for students aspiring to teach at a college or university.

Graduate courses are a mixture of advanced seminars and practical studies. Students continue to study the history, theories, and contemporary state of costume design while acquiring practical experience in costume design and developing a personal aesthetic. Course topics include:

  • Advanced costume design
  • Costume construction
  • Prosthetics and wigs
  • Pattern drafting
  • Dying and fabric modification

Possible Career Options

Graduates of a bachelor's degree program are trained to work in a variety of fields involving costume technology and costume design in theatres, costume shops, television sets or movie sets. Some popular career options include:

  • Sewer
  • Costume design assistant
  • Freelance costume artist

Continuing Education

Although it's not necessary for entry-level positions in theatres and costume shops, graduate studies in costume design may help improve employment opportunities for students aspiring to teach at the college or university level, as well as design for prominent regional theatres, Broadway or Hollywood. Graduate programs allow for greater development as a designer and researcher, advanced knowledge of costume history and extensive hands-on experience.

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

While opportunities for employment exist in regional and local theatres across the United States, larger cities, such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, often offer better job prospects for costume designers. Graduates are well-equipped to work in a variety of careers, from freelance designer to wardrobe supervisor. Students may find employment in theatres or on film and television sets.

In 2019, reported the annual salary range of costume designers to be $20,000 - $64,000, with a median salary of $35,924 per year. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) includes costume designers in the occupation of fashion design. This agency reported an annual median salary of $72,720 for fashion designers in 2018. The BLS also predicted an increase of 1% in jobs for fashion designers from 2018-2028.

Students interested in costume design can earn a bachelor's or master's degree in the field to work as costume or fashion designers. Graduates may need to re-locate to larger cities with more theatres in order to receive the necessary hands-on experience to advance their careers.

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