The Hollywood Reporter offers a guide to the best schools for learning the craft, from the coasts (NYU, USC, UCLA) to everything in between (University of Missouri-Kansas City).
More than knowing how to thread a needle, costume design involves historical research, collaboration with actors and directors, keen attention to detail, the art of narrative storytelling through clothes … and that's just the beginning. A bachelor's (B.A.) or master's in fine arts (MFA) can give a leg up. (Although some, like Jacqueline Durran, who won an Oscar in 2013 for her work in Anna Karenina, do not major in costume design.)
"I don't know if there is anything that can prepare you for your first forays into theater and Hollywood," says Hamilton costume designer Paul Tazewell. "Both formats are terrifying — you just jump into the trenches and keep your head above water long enough for the next job offer." UCLA chairman of costume design Deborah Nadoolman Landis advises to keep the following in mind when choosing a school: "The ideal program will have a robust, fully integrated theater, film and television curriculum. Students must feel confident to design in all media, including gaming."
THR consulted costume designers and academics to put together the top 10 undergraduate and graduate programs. All fees cited are for base annual tuition, and all MFA programs require three years.
Long before it became California Institute of the Arts in 1961 by the hand of Walt Disney, Chouinard Art Institute birthed the careers of two legendary costume designers: Edith Head and Bob Mackie. Today, the school (which offers both BFAs and MFAs in costume design) encourages innovation in mediums including opera, theater, film, television and concerts. Its professional production arm, the School of Theater and the Center for New Performance, offers real-world experience to select students.
TUITION: $48,660 (undergrad and graduate)
HOLLYWOOD ALUMNA: Elaine Montalvo (The Walking Dead)
X-Men: Dark Phoenix costume designer Daniel Orlandi had never used a sewing machine before enrolling. "I started school with the idea of being a set designer but realized that I really enjoyed working with actors and helping them inhabit their characters with their clothes," he says, crediting his success to CMU, which is also the MFA training ground for Oscar- and Tony-winning Ann Roth, whose 100-plus film credits include The Post. While Pittsburgh may be far from Hollywood and New York, the School of Drama Costume Program specializes in one-on-one attention, prepping students for work in film, TV, theater, opera and dance.
HOLLYWOOD ALUMNI: Jessica Peel (Spider-Man 2), Eduardo Castro (Once Upon a Time)
Located in the heart of the entertainment industry, the School of Theater, Film and Television provides an MFA in design for theater and entertainment media, with classes ranging from history and research to the evolution of menswear and costume illustration. Students can learn from designer-in-residence powerhouses such as Oscar-winning Sandy Powell and Game of Thrones' Michele Clapton. "Our students graduate with practical experience designing for the stage and with hefty credits designing student films," says Landis, chair of the David C. Copley Center for the Study of Costume Design and costume designer for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Students benefit from 100 percent placement in film and TV.
TUITION: $27,953 (California resident); $40,180
HOLLYWOOD ALUMNA: Rebecca Guzzi (assistant costume designer, American Horror Story and Feud)
Susan Hilferty, chair of the Department of Design for Stage and Film, credits the Big Apple as a huge factor in the success of "the Tisch," as the School of the Arts is known. "New York City is part of the classroom," she says. "We bring in over 120 professors a year — writers, directors and choreographers." The MFA costume design program (there's also a BFA program) attracted Oscar-nominated Mark Bridges, who says: "Things I learned in cutting and draping were important in creating gowns for Phantom Thread." Other pros: four state- of-the-art theaters and production facilities where students create more than 5,000 films per year.
Undergrad: $27,712 per term.
HOLLYWOOD ALUMNI: Courtney Hoffman (The Hateful Eight), Hope Hanafin (The Newsroom), Gregg Barnes (Legally Blonde: The Musical)
While small in size, Savannah College of Art and Design's star is rising. The international college — with satellites in Atlanta and Hong Kong — has become a film player with its SCAD Film Festival that brings costume and fashion pros to campus (including Sandy Powell and Tom Ford). Costume classes (Narrative Storytelling Through Costume, Dressing the Persona) go hand in hand with the fashion focus. The school, which offers a BFA with a minor in costume design, has 100 percent placement in TV, film and performing arts within 10 months of graduation.
HOLLYWOOD ALUMNUS: John-Ross Winter (Lady Gaga on tour)
The 14-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio ensures that those obtaining an MFA in costume design and technology get attention (a B.A. in theater with an emphasis in design and technology is also offered). Says Lindsay Davis, professor of costume design: "Our students do triple the number of productions of other schools and get so much experience dealing with actors in fittings and directors."
Undergrad: Per semester, $4,881 (Missouri resident); $12,245 (non-resident).
HOLLYWOOD ALUMNI: Tom Houchins (Grey's Anatomy), Jonathan Knipscher (lead tailor, The Greatest Showman)
Tony- and Emmy-winning Paul Tazewell says University of North Carolina School of the Arts, which offers a BFA and MFA in costume design and technology, laid a foundation for him. "Ann Roth gave a master class and told me that I'd better study urban clothes because street stories would be the next paradigm shift," he says. "Ms. Roth was right. Because I was, and still am, one of the few African-American costume designers, I was bombarded with work." Internships for film, TV and theater are offered, says Bill Brewer, co-director of costume design, who adds that 95 percent of students have a job before they graduate.
Undergrad: $6,497 (North Carolina resident); $22,240 (nonresident).
HOLLYWOOD ALUMNI: Keith Lewis (Cider House Rules), Margaret Robbs (assistant costume designer, Blade Runner 2049), Stef Maus (assistant designer, Orange Is the New Black)
Located near downtown L.A., the University of Southern California School of Dramatic Arts, often touted as the country's leading cinema and television school, offers costume-design hopefuls a BFA or MFA and the opportunity to hone skills on productions as early as their first year. The low student-to-faculty ratio ensures hands-on instruction on everything from the evolution of costume design to corset construction.
HOLLYWOOD ALUMNA: Sara Fox (Pretty Little Liars)
The only school that offers costume design in the U.K., Wimbledon, part of the University of the Arts London, offers a B.A. (Hons) in costume for theater and screen with disciplines in costume design and costume interpretation, emphasizing millinery, corsetry and costume fabrication. The focus on couture craftsmanship and traditional techniques comes in particularly handy for designing on classic period dramas.
HOLLYWOOD ALUMNAE: Trisha Biggar (Star Wars prequel trilogy), Caroline McCall (Downton Abbey), Jane Petrie (The Crown)
Saturday Night Live costume designer Tom Broecker (who also works on House of Cards) left his coveted job to pursue a grad degree at the storied School of Drama. "I wanted time away from work to develop as a costume designer, learn ways to communicate visually, and the luxury of student life," he says, calling out history of design classes in particular. "Just this past week, we did a sketch on the musical 1776, and I looked to my training for the silhouettes and a quick hand." Yale's theater-based MFA costume design program accepts only four of about 100 applicants each year.
HOLLYWOOD ALUMNAE: Caroline Duncan (The Affair), Jennifer Rogien (Girls), Judianna Makovsky (The Hunger Games)
The Theatre School, DePaul University
Modeled after the professional-costume-designer experience with a focus on theater, DePaul’s BFA in costume technology program offers the basics in both the history and process of costume construction, rendering and collaboration with lighting and scenic design. Studies also prep students at being adept as drapers, cutters, theatrical craftsman and shop managers. Third-year students focus on plays, musicals and operas and work on the production of two shows.
Hollywood Alum Theoni V. Aldredge (A Chorus Line, Dreamgirls)
University of Texas at Austin
Housed in the department of theatre and dance, the costume design program at UT Austin, one of the top-ranked media and film schools in the country, emphasizes designers working directly with directors and playwrights in school productions. The MFA program in design and technology (a BA in theatre and dance with an emphasis in design and technology is also offered) trains students in all levels of costume technology, including draping, tailoring, millinery, wig and mask making, and even costume shop management. Two candidates per discipline are admitted each year to a program of thirty students, making this an exclusive group.
Tuition Undergrad: Per semester, $5,310 (Texas residents); $18,810 (nonresidents). Grad: $6,796/$13,790
Hollywood Alums Steven Lee (Dancing with the Stars); Robert Blackman (Glee, Rizzoli and Isles, Star Trek: Voyager, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine)
St. Louis, Mo.
While not exactly a household name, this university offers a comprehensive BFA program in costume design. All the skills needed in a costume designer’s arsenal — from costume construction, rendering and shop practices, to concept meetings, technical rehearsals and even wig and makeup design — provide a well-rounded education.
Hollywood Alums Sam Fleming (Phantom of the Opera); Tina McCartney (Bandstand).
This story first appeared in the Feb. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.