Navigating the Costume Department Dynamics

Behind the Scenes in Wardrobe for Film and Television.

Reading time
5 min
Published on

January 2, 2024

Blauw Films

In this blog I’d like to take a look at the inner-workings of the Costume and Wardrobe Department for film and television.

What is the design process like, and what are the departments within the Wardrobe Department?
What is it like to work as a costume designer?

wardrobe for television series outlander. period costumes organised by character and design.

The Design Process

The costumes tell the story of the characters and their world. Before anything materializes, research starts. 

Read the script

Get in the world and let your imagination lead the way.
Build connotations and conceptualize the first design ideas. 

Talk to the Director 

Get in the Director’s head, understand their vision and references.

Understand how to see the characters and what the story conveys; visually and subconsciously.
Directors can have an ideal talent in mind, or have already casted actors.
Research the people who will wear the costumes.

Script Breakdown

The script breakdown serves as a checklist for all elements needed to create the shots.

The Producer or 1st AD makes a script breakdown, which is then reviewed by all heads of departments. 

For themselves and the team, the Costume Designer makes more detailed costume breakdowns by separating script days, costume changes, doubles and other details.

This overview is called the Wardrobe Bible, and becomes a crucial communication tool for the Wardrobe and Costume team to keep track of all the items. 

The Wardrobe Bible used to be, and still very often is, a physical book with pictures of the actores and all costume changes. It consists of all the Pre-Production work, such as the costume plot and initial script breakdown and personal details .
The first pictures are taken during the last fitting, and then on every shooting day, before and after every scene.

Digital Wardrobe Bible tools are available, but nothing really beats a solid excel sheet.

A page from the Costume and Wardrobe Bible from the film production of Blade Runner 1982. Actress Sean Young playing Rachael. She is wearing her signature black suit with skirt and fur coat.

Research the story 

Find and understand the building blocks of the story.
Research the associated topics wide and deep. Research should be focussed enough to not get lost in unnecessary references, but explorative enough to be inspiring and surprising. 

Usually, the person leading the research is the costume designer, who collects visual references and samples that together create the characters and eventually final shot.  

Shopping and Manufacturing

Depending on the production, costumes are bought, rented, traded or created.
Usually, a production is a combination of all four. 

Many Costume Designers have great relationships with rental companies, thrift stores, tailors and a variety of specialists. 

At the end of production, the garments belong to the movie’s commissioning company, which could be the production studio or the director. Not many Costume Designers own the rights to the costumes they produce. 

Large production companies keep the wardrobe for tax deductibles, exhibitions or sometimes auctions. 

The sad reality is that after production, lots of costumes are simply being thrown away, or donated to thrift stores.  

The Costume Department

The exact costume and wardrobe team depends on the amount of actors, extras, the overall complexity of the story, and budget.
With all the information the Costume Designer and Producers gathered from the script breakdown, they should have a good idea who is needed.

MGM wardrobe department, archival image. Costume Design for motion picures in america

Every project calls for different experts. 

Traditional roles within the costume team could be:

  • Costume DesignerHead of the Costume Department. Creator of the overall visual concept and overseeing the design process.
    In pre-production the Costume Designer works closely with the Director, Cinematographer and Production Designer to develop the looks for the characters.
    Depending on the production, the Costume Designer is present during the shoot (on smaller productions), or only gives final checks during the very last fitting, before handing everything over to the Wardrobe Department. 
  • Assistant Costume Designer
    Collaborates closely with the Costume Designer, helping with management, shopping, sourcing materials, fabrics and items such accessories.
  • Costume SupervisorAssists the Costume Designer in managing the department, coordinating schedules, overseeing budgets and logistics.
  • Set Costumer / Key CostumeResponsible for maintaining the Costume Designer’s vision for each character while on set. The Set Supervisor also maintains continuity and manages day-to-day operations of the on-set costume crew. They could also be responsible to communicate special script requirements in relation to the Special Effects, Stunts and Visual Effects.
    Key Costumers might be responsible to look after the wardrobe of a specific character.
  • Truck CostumerHelps to set up the costume trailer. Organizes items the cast needs for comfort, arranges the costumes into the actors’ trailers at the start of each day and prepares what is required for the upcoming days. 
  • CostumerCostumers are key to the costume department. They maintain a wide variety of skills to help in any costume-related situation. They might help with fittings, alterations, supply shopping, and on-set assistance. 
  • Costume Concept Artist / IllustratorCreates detailed sketches and illustrations of the costume designs for visual communication or quick ideation. 
  • Tailors, Cutters, Sewers, DrapersThe roles of these departments are largely determined by the scale of the costume production. Custom costumes require large teams of Drapers, Sewers and Cutters. Off-the-rack costumes might only need alterations by a tailor. Nevertheless, these departments are responsible to achieve the right fit, silhouette and functionality of a garment. 
  • Textile Artist, Dyer, Breakdown Artist
    Creates unique fabric manipulations. Prints, embellishments, dyes, treatments and textures are all manipulations that can help to make the material pop on screen. Textile artists are also very important when your textile needs to look like something that it actually isn’t.
    Ages and distress costumes to make them appear worn, authentic and/or beaten and bloody. Sometimes different stages of wear & tear are needed for a single garment.
    This department often works on set as well, to create and alter looks at given notice.
  • Digital Textile or Costume Artist
    The newest addition to the Costume Department, and one that is rapidly becoming a staple in most productions. The Digital or 3D Textile and Costume Artist is responsible for all digital doubles. They work as a bridge between the Costume Designer and VFX Team. Important for them is to have sufficient knowledge of both worlds, to produce the most realistic outcome.
    3D textile is an expertise still very much in its early days, with new technologies being developed every day.  

These titles may vary from country to country, from union to union, and between TV/ film, broadway and theater. 

Of course, for smaller productions lots of these responsibilities fall on the shoulders of the Costume Designer, from shopping and budget keeping to on-set supervising.

Archival Image of Brooks Costume Company, from the New York Public Library. Costume fitting of a beautiful princcess gown.


In the end, what’s important is that everyone in the team knows what their roles and responsibilities are, so that everything can run smoothly from design to set. Everyone who has ever worked in a Costume Department knows how important it is to be aware of the needs of other people, and how proper communication and collaboration makes every little detail a team effort.

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