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For the aspiring costume designer who dreams of creating looks for film, television, theater and concert stages, the journey typically starts with the right school, where a host of considerations awaits. Classroom size, location, specialized classes, participation in theater programs, job placement, networking with alums and, most important, tuition are all part of the equation. As schools meet the demands and technology of an ever-changing entertainment landscape, nothing tops a good education.
To create its annual top 10 list of costume design schools, The Hollywood Reporter consulted with costume designers and academics, looking at the critical factors — including class size, reputation and alumni success — that help make each school unique.
California Institute of the Arts (CalArts)
Perhaps co-founder Walt Disney summed it up best, having noted, “CalArts is the principal thinking I hope to leave when I move on to greener pastures. If I can help provide a place to develop the talent of the future, I think I will have accomplished something.” A merger of the Chouinard Art Institute (boasting superstar alums Edith Head and Bob Mackie) and the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music in 1961, the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) makes innovation the driving principle of its curriculum.
“Because we are part of an Art Institute with six distinct schools housed under one roof, students have unique access to many art practices — music, dance, film, integrated Media, digital arts, and critical studies,” says Ellen McCartney, director of experience design. “Live performance, film and television continue to be robust outlet for designers. But now we are seeing more opportunity for costume designers in the animated realm.” In addition, new classes include a costume lab that concentrates on intensive drawing and Conscious Fashion History focusing on LGBTQIA+, ethnic and cultural representation.
Adds veteran costume designer Durinda Wood (A Mighty Wind) of her time at CalArts, “I met some of the most creative adventurous people in the world and built great relationships. There was so much freedom there, and they let people blossom.”
TUITION BFA and MFA, $54,400
ALUMS Bob Mackie, Edith Head, Durinda Wood, Sandra Burns (Pivoting), Barbara Inglehart (Animal Kingdom)
Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama
While Pittsburgh may be miles from the backlots of Hollywood backlots and the lights of Broadway, students at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama benefit from the chance to participate in as many as 21 productions including opportunities with the Dance/Light showcase and the Playground Festival. Known as the first degree-granting institution in the U.S., the school has a conservatory program which partners with the Pittsburgh Public Theater, Quantum Theatre and City Theatre as well. This past year saw current students and alumni participate in a Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden fashion show inspired by Billy Porter’s looks and roles.
Offering both BFA and MFA degrees, the program has a faculty of four professors along with five full-time costume staffers (studio manager, draper, tailor, wardrobe and stock manager), ensuring highly individualized one-on-one guidance. An array of diverse classes range from costume design for dance and millinery to scenography and designing for the camera.
Emmy Award-winning designer Daniel Orlandi (The Magic of David Copperfield XI) credits his success to his time at the school that offers conservatory training in a university setting, “Carnegie Mellon gave me the education, basic tools and all the practical foundations to be able to communicate and work with other professionals in the business.”
TUITION BFA, $62,260; MFA, $36,300
ALUMS Ann Roth (White Noise), Daniel Orlandi, Terry Gordon (The Queen’s Gambit)
David Geffen School of Drama at Yale
NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT
If an MFA at an Ivy League institution is one’s goal, look no further than the David Geffen School of Drama at Yale. First-year students begin with technical skills and costume history, followed by a second year of analytical thinking and collaborations with fellow students and directors, while students in the final year create costumes for a professional production. (Last year’s Tony awards featured design nominations for 15 alumni and faculty members). New courses include a class on working in the film and television industry with a focus on collaborative SyncOnSet software (essential for budgeting, script breakdowns, reports, and digital continuity books).
Touting the benefits of an MFA, Ilona Somogyi, associate professor of design, Adjunct, says, “Students can build their own design toolbox, get a deeper knowledge of clothing, make connections, and learn how to collaborate in a safe incubator setting. It’s also a way to step out of the rat race and focus on individual artistic development before stepping back in.”
TUITION MFA tuition-free upon acceptance, thanks to David Geffen’s $150 million donation to the school in 2021, said to be the largest gift of its kind in the history of American theater.
ALUMS Donna Zakowska (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), Jenn Rogien (Russian Doll), Tom Broecker (Saturday Night Live), Susan Hilferty (Metropolitan Opera Live), Judianna Makovsky (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3)
Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising (FIDM)
Enjoying its second year on the list, FIDM’s Film & TV Costume Design program focuses exclusively on costume design for film and television. Students have a chance to interact with working professionals (thanks to its Los Angeles location) and participate with local film schools on a capstone project that requires each participant to design one student film and supervise costumes on another. Directed by Jacqueline Saint Anne, creative director for film and television costume design, the 2023 curriculum will focus on designing exclusively for the camera, covering topics such as 3D character design and costume ageing and dyeing.
Costume designer and alum Marlene Stewart — who received the Bob Mackie Award for design while at FIDM — reflects, “My time at FIDM provided me with the skills I needed to succeed in the garment business, and that laid the foundation for my work in film.” (Stewart’s resume includes Top Gun: Maverick, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and The Holiday.)
Adds Jessica Campbell, who has three degrees from the school and has worked on Doom Patrol and The Boys, “The most informative and challenging design-related classes I took at FIDM were the history of costume/fashion, fashion illustration, textile science, and pattern-making classes. The skills you gain from these classes apply to many career paths, and it’s a good idea not to take them for granted because you might find yourself working in a different area than expected.”
TUITION Advanced Associate (A.A.) in arts in film & TV design, $34,875; B.A. in design, $62,790
ALUMS Cody Lenz (Black-ish), Marlene Stewart, Jessica Campbell
NYU Tisch School of the Arts
NEW YORK CITY
With Broadway just a cab ride away, students with a keen interest in designing for the theater can benefit greatly from the MFA program at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, housed in the Department of Design for Stage & Film.
Notes chair Justin Townsend, “The great leadership and experience of [costume design head] Constance Hoffman and [professor] Susan Hilferty shape a world-class education for costume designers combining profound storytelling and artistic craft all in the heart of New York City.”
Students also gain from the John A. Paulson Center at NYU, which features two professional-grade theaters designed for productions and collaborations with students in graduate acting. In addition, the recently added individual studio workspaces, a computer lab, library and lounge at the school allow space for collaboration.
Emmy-award-winning and Oscar-nominated designer Paul Tazewell (The Wiz Live!, West Side Story) calls his time at Tisch invaluable, crediting it with helping him make key contacts in a career that’s included a Tony win for Hamilton and working with the Metropolitan Opera and the Bolshoi Ballet. “During that period of my education, I matured as a theater artist and designer. All of those rudimentary skills were really drilled into us, and I was able to put together a beautiful picture,” he details.” I learned how to talk about story, and character development, and make decisions about what is smart and poetic.”
And The Green Knight costume designer Malgosia Turzanska recalls collaborations with the film department, learning from guest teachers such as Ann Roth and Tazewell, and having top-notch design professionals as teachers as of utmost benefit. “Another thing I learned at Tisch is my work ethic — it’s a very full three-year program, and if you’re not wholly committed, it’s probably not for you. It was demanding for sure, but I got so much in return.”
TUITION MFA, $65,408
ALUMS Mark Bridges (The Fabelmans), Paul Tazewell, Malgosia Turzanska
The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD)
Located in the charming city of Savannah, SCAD offers costume design studies in the School of Entertainment Arts’ production design program. The school’s innovative curriculum for 2023 prepares students for careers in TV, film, and live performance and the opportunity to work on the school’s latest sitcom, Tours and Attractions, which is filmed before a live audience and premiered at SCAD TVfest 2023. And the school’s first Collaborative Experience course in film and TV places students on professional productions shooting in Georgia’s multi-billion-dollar industry. (12 designers recently contributed to the Todd Haynes film May December shot in Savannah).
SCAD also features numerous extra-curricular networking opportunities including the SCAD Film Festival, SCADTVfest, and exhibitions and events at the SCAD Museum of Fashion + Film. Alum and SCAD professor Kátia Costa credits opportunities like those with giving her a leg up with her career. “During my first year as a graduate student,” she says, “I had the opportunity to work under three-time Oscar winning costume designer Sandy Powell for the Julie Taylor film The Glorias, which was shot in Savannah. I made the hats Better Midler wore in the film. Two months later, I was working with director Barry Jenkins in the Prime Video series The Underground Railroad. Since I graduated, my phone has not stopped ringing with invitations to work!”
TUITION BFA, $40,095; graduate level, $41,085
ALUM Layne Brightwell (Ozark), Kátia Costa
UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television
Innoative classes, networking with a who’s who of costume professionals and a prime location in Westwood with the film industry at its back door makes UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television a magnet.
Under the direction of distinguished professor and founding director Deborah Nadoolman Landis, chair of the David C. Copley Center for the Study of Costume Design, and Chrisi Karvonides, professor and head of costume design, students collaborate with the Department of Film, Television & Digital Media working alongside scenic designers, directors, and producers to create a TV pilot pitch package. The curriculum covers master classes in draping, pattern making and construction, life drawing and digital rendering along with the basics of costume design. Classes in advanced historical costume interpretation, the evolution of menswear, and an in-depth study of the history and influence of costume design in cinema studies courses are also on the slate, and students hone their craft by designing 12-16 musicals, cabaret, operas, and film productions. Students also can make connections through the school’s strong alumni group.
This spring, the popular Designer-in-Residence program, which gives students the chance to study with the best in the biz, features Oscar-winning designer Deborah L. Scott (Avatar: The Way of Water, Avatar and Titanic). Past designers-in-residence have included Ruth E. Carter (Black Panther: Wakanda Forever) and Arianne Phillips (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). Networking also helps contribute to a job placement rate close to 100 percent.
“Costume design students take classes emphasizing collaboration and practical learning with other film students who are training to be future directors and producers. The breadth of industry professionals that visit and guest lecture elevates the quality of content produced beyond the average student film and helps students make lasting connections,” notes alum Allison Agler (Star Trek: Picard).
TUITION BFA, $13,804 (in-state), $31,026 (out-of-state); MFA, $18,136 (in-state), $33,238 (out-of-state)
ALUMS Rebecca Guzzi (Ratched), Allison Agler, Ruth Araujo (Beyond Belief)
UMKC Conservatory, University of Missouri-Kansas City
KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI
There are many changes afoot at UMKC’s MFA program, beginning with new head Brandon R. McWilliams and a completely revised curriculum for fall of 2023.
The UMKC Conservatory’s costume program centers on the education of students as both designers and artisans, with an emphasis on digital graphic skills, entrepreneurial approaches to the field and environmentally conscious practices. Studying in the conservatory tradition also ensures hands-on experience and access to theater training in the various Kansas City venues.
McWilliams notes that equal training in both costume design and production is a top selling point, adding, “It’s really our students that make us unique. We are able to focus our training on guiding and elevating the authenticity that each of our students brings to the table — and since they are all so dedicated to the practice of costume design and production, it’s just the perfect storm.”
TUITION No tuition cost for admitted MFA students; university fees, $3,000 a year
ALUMS Tom Houchins (Station 19), Jonathan Knipscher (Dickinson), Caroline Allander (American Horror Stories), Douglas Enderle (Walt Disney Very Merry Christmas Parade)
University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA)
WINSTON-SALEM, NORTH CAROLINA
Costume Design & Technology at UNCSA’s School of Design & Production is a program on the move. “With an increasing number of students interested in a career in film, we continue to expand our involvement with the School of Filmmaking at UNCSA,” says program co-director Bill Brewer. “Our programs produce 10-15 films per year, and we have developed curriculum specific to film design. These students get in-depth exposure to all aspects of the role that costumes play in the filmmaking process.” He also touts that a unique aspect of the costume program is the structure of the university itself as it is not part of a theater program or a drama school. “Our program lives within a standalone School of Design & Production with degree-seeking programs on both the undergrad and grad levels in 14 different concentrations.”
Costume designer Paul Tazewell, who attended for undergrad, enjoyed the conservatory approach. “It is very well rounded and very focused, unlike a liberal arts college,” he explains. “Back when I was in school, all our time was geared towards advancement as a theater designer and you take classes in set design, art history, art theory, and spend afternoons in the costume shop. As an artist it was an environment that was very encouraging of interaction with other artists. Developing those collaborative relationships made me who I am.”
TUITION BFA, $6,497 (in-state), $23,731 (out-of-state); MFA, $9,196 (in-state), $23,899 (out-of-state)
ALUMS Michelle Pflüg (Gilded Age), Paul Tazewell, Kristen Mendez (The Good Fight)
University of Southern California (USC)
State-of-the-art training in scenic, lighting and costume design combined with practical production experience with working professionals make the USC School of Dramatic Arts a highly conducive environment for learning.
“The School of Dramatic Arts’ training gives our students the opportunity to become multi-hyphenated artists, meaning students are exposed to all facets of the production and design industry to instill confidence and well-rounded experience rather than only mastering one specific piece of the puzzle. As a result, our multifaceted production artists graduate with the tools necessary to build a sustainable career,” says School of Dramatic Arts dean Emily Roxworthy. “They receive their comprehensive design education at a liberal arts university — giving them a full collegiate experience in the heart of a global center of live entertainment.”
As a bonus, students — who can pursue a BFA in theatrical design or a B.A. in theater with an emphasis in design — will have the opportunity to design in state-of-the-art performance spaces in the school’s new Drama Center later this year.
Emmy-nominated alum Sara Fox (Mandalorian and the upcoming Air) gives kudos to USC for teaching her how to communicate effectively in a highly collaborative conservatory environment. “USC’s School of Dramatic Arts has a unique blend of educators that are actively working in the field in which they teach,” she says. “It was really important to me to go to a university where I could build a network and get an accurate account of what life would be like as a professional costume designer.” She also credits the close proximity to Hollywood and the small class size. “I was able to intern for the top studios while I was a student and really benefited from the low student to professor ratio. Due to this, my classmates and I were able to tailor our design courses to best fit our professional interests and pursuits.”
TUITION BFA, $63,468
ALUM Sara Fox
A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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