HOW WOULD YOU HIRE A COSTUME DESIGNER?

When I was editing Film Score Monthly, there was no end of poking fun at producers and directors who were ignorant of music and composers. Here was something hugely important for their movies and time and again, they had no clue how to get the best score for their film!

Let’s try a THOUGHT EXPERIMENT.

How would you hire a costume designer?

We can all agree good costumes are important for a movie, especially a period piece or fantasy epic.

Those beautiful outfits in Titanic…Marty McFly in the orange “life preserver”…Clint Eastwood in the Spaghetti Western poncho—even more recent instances like Ryan Gosling in the scorpion jacket in Drive.

These are iconic cultural images and, surely, great examples of first-rate costume designing.

Yet I have NO IDEA who the costume designers were for ANY of these movies. NONE!

In fact, I can name exactly ZERO costume designers for major Hollywood movies today—even though I see lots of movies and, just like you, every year I watch the Oscars and see the winning costume designer go up and thank the Academy (and usually I think, wow, that was well deserved).

Did Titanic win an Oscar for Best Costumes? Yes, it did, which is what I would have guessed—but I had to look it up.

And like you—I’m not dumb! I love movies and know tons of trivia.

I remember that William Ware Theiss made the original Star Trek costumes. That’s pretty much it.

So how would I hire a costume designer?

First and foremost, I’d ask for referrals from people who know the field. Their opinions would carry a ton of weight.

I’d check credits. If somebody did the costumes for, say, Titanic, that would seem significant.

I’d take meetings and ask such ignorant questions as:

1) How do you create the costumes?
2) How much time and money do you need (based on our script) to create the costumes?
3) If I am the director, what can I tell you about the characters’ story significance and emotions—my directorial vision, in other words—in order to create their costumes?
4) What is the process? I assume lots of sketches are involved? How picky can I be before driving you crazy?

What if I was making a period epic and people recommended a costume designer who had never done a period film—only contemporary dramas with very subtle costumes? What would be my comfort level with that?

Is the costume designer for the Hangover movies also capable of doing the costumes for a 19th century romantic epic? What about a superhero action movie?

Do they typically work across genres, or have a niche?

What kind of leap of faith would I need to take say yes to somebody who was operating for the first time outside his or her typical genre?

Do they even have a “typical” genre for that matter?

I assume costume designers work their way up apprenticing for other costume designers…yes? What if there’s somebody brilliant who has never been the head costumer but smart people tell me he or she is ready—sounds like a great idea, but how do I know?

I imagine part of being a costume designer is not only drawing pictures of costumes but supervising a huge department of people doing sizing, sewing, material procurement and more…how do I know that a brilliant artist is also a great field general capable of supervising a huge team spending thousands if not millions of dollars? (How much is typically spent on costumes, anyway, out of the film’s budget?)

These are not rhetorical questions—I have no clue! I would be interested in the answers (in another forum I guess).

This is probably the first time in my life I have spent so much time thinking about movie costumes.

If I was actually directing or producing a movie I am sure I would have lots MORE questions—but not necessarily lots more time, because I would have to repeat this process for EVERY department head: Cinematographer, editor, production designer, sound designer, and on and on.

For me personally, getting to the composer would be the easy and fun part.

But the editor of Costume Designer Monthly would feel that way about the costumes—and probably scared and ignorant about the composer.

Simply consider this when you pitch yourself to clients.

Think about yourself hiring a costume designer and taking that first meeting with a potential hire: what are my needs, anxieties, and questions?

That’s the starting place of most people with music. And it doesn’t mean anything about their taste, intelligence or ability—it means they are typical!

Be their friend, just the way you would want your potential costume designer to be a friend and lead you by the hand towards making the best costumes possible for your movie.

No judgment, no defensiveness—just enthusiasm and a willingness to help unlock the creative energy of somebody who may have great ideas and is embarrassed that he or she doesn’t know anything!