What do you want to become?
Assistant Costume Designer
Alternate Career Titles:
Career Overview: Assistant Costume Designers assist Costume Designers with all looks for Actors on set. They also plan, create, organize, and help maintain clothes on set.
General Salary Range: $25,000 to $100,000
Become an Assistant Costume Designer
While an Assistant Costume Designer is responsible for helping come up with all looks for actors on set, the job is much more than that. There are no “typical” days on set, although work life is usually differentiated between pre-production and production.
Alison Uhlfelder has been working in costuming since she moved to Los Angeles more than a decade ago. As an Assistant Costume Designer Uhlfelder says pre-production consists of “reading scripts, shopping for clothes, pulling items from costume rental houses, production meetings with the Director and my boss (the Costume Designer), fittings, and organizing each character’s changes so that everything is ready for the shoot.”
Production is a different animal that includes shopping, fitting, organizing “and also being on set to help establish the look of the characters with the Costume Designer to make sure everything is looking the way they envisioned.”
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Like many careers in the film business, there’s no set path to marching forward. For Uhlfelder, her love of costumes began early as she did all costumes for her high school theater department. Her obsession for all things costumes grew from there.
Costume Production Assistant positions are an incredibly valuable foot in the door. Uhlfelder landed one with Lyn Paolo on Scandal and Kelli Jones on Sons of Anarchy. She also paid her dues at a costume house (Western Costume) which allowed her to join the Motion Picture Costumers Union (Local 705.) This led to a job on the MTV show Faking It as Costume Designer Mandi Line’s Head Shopper. Line then hired Uhlfelder on as Assistant Costume Designer on Pretty Little Liars for Season 5, allowing Uhlfelder to join the Costume Designer Guild Local 892. Joining the unions opened many more doors for mixing, mingling, and finding more job opportunities.
“The path of Costume Production Assistant to Assistant Costume Designer is pretty typical, but doing it in such a short timeline I would say is pretty atypical. You have to be pretty motivated and a bit of a hustler,” says Uhlfelder.
Education & Training
Putting yourself out there as an Assistant Costume Designer is key. “I like to think of myself as a human rolodex,” Uhlfelder notes. Loving research and pop culture doesn’t hurt either. “There is always a historical reference, be it fashion, art, film…it’s great to have those resources in your brain, so immersing yourself in art and culture of the past is always recommended,” Uhlfelder continues.
Uhlfelder says she never feels guilty about making time to watch old movies, or to hit up a museum. It’s all a part of the job. While Uhlfelder studied fashion design, an art background can be helpful as well. “It’s all about knowing how the body moves, and how clothing lays on it, how certain shapes create an overall silhouette. Sometimes Designers work very closely with Illustrators, and having the knowledge/language to help communicate the idea is essential,” she elaborates.
Experience & Skills
Having set emergency skills in your back pocket is essential; know how to fix or create something on the fly. If you love to sew, perhaps this is the job for you. Uhlfelder also re-stresses just getting on the job training: “student films, community theater, non-union projects, working as a Costumer, or even a Designer can help build the skills needed to work as an Assistant Costume Designer.”
Working on set every day is not always easy. For that reason, you do have to learn to let things roll off your back. Uhlfelder stresses “there are a lot of strong personalities that we deal with on the day to day, sometimes an Actor is having a bad day and the last thing they want to do is be in a fitting!”
As an Assistant Costume Designer you will be working to make the lives of others easier including, your Actors, your Director, and your Designer. “Being patient and hard-working is key,” says Uhlfelder.
Set life as an Assistant Costume Designer can be really fun, but it is also a lot of long hours and hard work. Uhlfelder points out that she often works 60+ hours per week: “Work is typically Monday through Friday, but depending on the shoot it can be weekends, or overnight, and usually 10 to 12 hour days.” That leaves little time for a social life, especially when you’re a working mom like Uhlfelder. “I usually wind up catching up on errands and spending time with my family,” she says.
Days are spent with like-minded hard-working people in the costume department such as the Costume Designer, the Costume Supervisor, and the Costumers who do the shopping. Uhlfelder stresses that making time to connect with the whole department is not only satisfying, but will also help everyone’s jobs go more smoothly.
Living in a place with a lot of production is essential for anyone looking to make a living as an Assistant Costume Designer. If you are good and there is work near you, you will find it, and vice versa (although it does take hustling as Uhlfelder noted).
Costume PAing is a great first step into the department, and to see if working in this career is right for you. Participating in low-budget or student films is also a great way to learn and get your feet wet. Uhlfelder still works with up-and-coming filmmakers, as sometimes these filmmakers will eventually be able to give you a job on a much bigger production.
Before joining a union, you may have to negotiate your salary yourself. Several factors will come into play. What budget is your Producer working with? How many days is the production, how much do you need for pre-production, etc.? Once in the union, your production will also have to follow union minimums when offering you a day rate.
Unions, Groups, Social Media, and Associations
Uhlfelder is a member of The Costume Designers Guild (CDG), Local 892 of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (I.A.T.S.E.) The benefits to joining a union include wage protection, and access to benefits. One thing to keep in mind is that after you join a guild or union it’s harder to work on non-union projects. The Costume Design Guild encompasses Costume Designers, Assistant Costume Designers and Costume Illustrators.
Read magazines, attend museum exhibits, brush up on film history.
Get out there and network.
Consider working on student films.
Consider a BFA or MFA.
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Watch as many movies as you can.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“It’s all about shopping and looking pretty. It’s not. Costuming is the least glamorous job I have ever had. It’s a lot of running around, digging and scouring through boxes, getting your hands dirty and breaking nails often, and not getting a lot of beauty sleep!”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“I think so many people just don’t understand how many people the department actually has [on staff] to make the Costume Designer’s vision come to life.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
Alison Uhlfelder is a native New Yorker who has made LA her home since 2006. She works as a Costume Designer, ACD, and Key Costumer, and is in both IATSE LOCAL 892 and 705. When she isn’t working on a production, she enjoys baking cookies with her son, Rex.