I am often approached by people interested in working as a costumer in film.
As a small step toward my 20 year old goal of making a text on the subject, I'm posting this reply I made to an inquiry.


I was on a search for costumer information. I am going to do something (costume wise) with a movie to be made near my home. Since I'm the only historic costumer in the area, I've been approached. ..... I was just needing to ask someone what it is like to make a movie.


Hi ..........

Your question about film costuming opens a can of worms.... You may know that the only official Film Costumers Union is the Motion Picture Costumers Union Local 705 in Hollywood. There are some "mixed crafts" locals in which individuals work as costumers and some "theatrical wardrobe" locals who have members that work as film costumers.

Local 705 is divided into Finished Costumers, Custom Made Costumers, Costume House Costumers, and Television Costumers. The Finished and Custom Made Costumers work under the Film Production Contract. There are separate contracts for the Costume Houses and the Television Costumers. (Further information regarding Costumers and the unions that they are affiliated with.)

Historically, the only way you could learn to be a film costumer was by working your way up the ranks. One usually started working as a stock person in one of the costume rental houses or one of the studios in Los Angeles. Anyone wishing to "break-in" to film costuming, who hasn't had the good fortune that you have just experienced, finds themselves in a "catch-22" circumstance. To qualify for union membership in the costumers union requires 30 days of work for a union company. To be hired by a union company you need to be a union member. Obviously it is possible to overcome this contradictory situation, since there continue to be new members joining the Motion Picture Costumers Union on a regular basis.

The Costumers Union, Local 705, has an active Education Committee that tries to fill the gap in available "public classes" by providing classes and workshops for its members. I've been trying to write a text book for about 20 years based on the classes I taught in LA. It has been a long range goal of mine (and other's that I've inspired) to create a structure for training and bringing film costumers into the union that is as strong and wide spread as the structure we have in this country for theatre costumers. Unfortunately, transitions like this take time and there's nothing I can just hand to you that will truly prepare you.

Exactly what part of the costuming job will you be doing? Will you be working with a professional film costumer? If so, they will understand that you are not experienced and that they will need to be instructive with you.

A good aptitude test for a costumer is: if you love and enjoy all kinds of people, have an strong knack for the care and feeding of human psychology, can pay attention to 4 things at the same time and make good snap decisions about each one in immediate sequence, you've probably got what it takes.

Film costuming is a combination of theatricalized character dressing, knowing how things will read on film, what is going to show on camera (letting you know where you can take short cuts or fake it) and how not to create color and value combinations that make it difficult to light.

You need to be an outstanding psychologist and astute diplomat for handling insecure actors, directors, producers, other costumers, makeup and hair people, all of whom can make life really difficult in various ways.

Resourcing is a specialized area... many costumers believe that their resources are part of what gives them an edge over another costumer...their "book" is their life.

Costuming requires:

logistical expertise in terms of acquiring, tracking, fitting, preparing and maintaining costumes ( I used to do a 2 hour class just devoted to dealing with dry cleaners).


knowing when costume items need to be doubled, tripled or whatever to ensure no shooting time is lost because a costume has been dirtied or damaged in the course of the scene, but the scene needs another take and the costume has to look clean and undamaged when the scene starts.... And/or there will be stunt doubles, photo doubles, dummies, etc.


getting costumes to and from the set....


keeping actors warm enough when its cold and cool when its hot (blow- drying sweaty armpits can get interesting)


getting the actors dressed, in the right costume at the right time, with the garments all put on correctly (according to the designer's or the key costumer's intentions)


keeping the actors in their costumes looking good on camera (protecting shirt collars from makeup rings for instance - or keeping the linen skirt looking unrumpled)....


keeping the Matching Book (also known as "The Bible"):
since scenes are shot out of sequence a careful record has to be kept of exactly how the costume was worn so that it looks the same.

Example: We see actor on porch of real house on location talking (that is shot a an exterior). Days, weeks, or months later, the next scene, inside the house, is shot on the sound stage where the interior of the house is located (this is an interior soundstage shot). The costume has to match, right down to the tie that was crooked to the left and the collar which was accidentally flipped up on one side in the previous scene.

Worse case scenario: 6 months after the shooting has finished the editor and producer and/or director decide that the film just won't work without certain scenes that were not shot when the original was done. They decide to do several new days of shooting, but they're not going to go back to location, they're going to do it in Los Angeles (or where ever) and they are just going to use a local "pickup costumer" who knows nothing about the film.... costumes have to match. The costumer can only hope that the "shoulder bag" seen prominently in the matching scene, shot more than a year ago, does not turn out to be the "baby bag" belonging to the actress at that time, that has since been discarded with the evolution of that baby into a toddler. Yes, that did happen to me.)


Key costumers also have to be superb budget estimators (telling the producers what the wardrobe budget needs to be) and bookkeepers (able to tell the production manager at any given moment exactly how much of the budget they have spent).

(I actually have created a computer software (with input from the Joint Hollywood Costume Computer Users Group) for budgeting and tracking the budget on a show... it also produces all the "break down" sheets for the "Matching Book", the "cross plot" pages and the "day for day" shooting pages... all different formats used for organizing the tracking and organization of the costumes.)


And, of course, you need to be a people person. Your time will be spent with "crews of people" and "casts" of actors. If you cannot enjoy and appreciate those people who you are spending you time with, for many very long and tiring days, then you do not belong in this line of work.


I have, over the years, seen many people get started in the career of a film costumer by starting as a local hire, with no experience, to work with experienced union costumers on a film that is being shot in their home area. Many of them have gone on to become some of the most respected currently working in the business.

As for the life style:

The process is fascinating, exhilarating, and exhausting. While you are on the project, that is your life. There is little or no time for anything else. (It is very difficult to maintain a marriage, let alone a family.)

Wardrobe people are unusually among the first crew to arrive on the set and usually just about the last to leave. You are lucky if you get an "8 hour turn around" (8 hours from the time your sign out to when you have to be back). When you are working on location (outside of Los Angeles or New York) you will be working 6 days a week. If you are lucky, you will catch up on your sleep and do laundry on Sunday. You have to be really in good physical shape, practice good nutrition, exercise seriously and take good vitamins.

There will be some days when you know the only thing that is keeping you going is your respect for the costumes as an artform.

There will be other days, when you are on the set, watching the process of film making, when you will be in joyful awe of the people you are working with and the life experience you having.


© 2004 Stephanie Schoelzel