Career Spotlight: Costume Designers

We were so inspired by all the intricate details Mad Men costume designer Janie Bryant recently shared with Who What Wear that we decided to compile some interview tidbits for you fashionistas who’ve wondered what it’s like to design for the screen.

Not only did we find some great insight about how today’s working costume designers landed their coveted jobs, we also acquired a working idea of what it’s like to dress an entire set full of actors for all kinds of TV shows ranging from the modern socialite fashion of Gossip Girl to the Prohibition-era looks seen on Boardwalk Empire!

The creative process

John Dunn, costume designer of Boardwalk Empire: About four months before we started filming, I hit the research libraries at FIT, I went to the Brooklyn Museum, the Met. I would go to the rental houses, and I would meet with the vintage dealers. I pored over tailoring books from the period — just completely immersed myself in 1920. The entire first season all takes place that year, so I was very focused on making sure that the cut and the silhouette of the clothing was that: 1920.

Their career foundations

Lou Eyrich, costume designer of Glee: I actually had no formal training. I was in Minneapolis visiting a lighting designer for a band, I met the band’s stylist, and started to help out. I sewed and prepped outfits, and got the performers ready for shows. One day, the stylist for the band received a call to work on another project, and I stepped in and started doing fittings, designing costumes, and pulling clothing. I did that for about 6 years. I left school before I graduated and made costume design my main focus. I’m not telling anyone to drop-out of school and do what you want—an education is very important. It is so important to learn and actually be hands-on with your craft and what you want to do. You can practice and read about everything in school, but until you really get out there and try it you’ll never know if you like it or not.

Eric Daman, costume designer of Gossip Girl: I went to college in Paris at the Sorbonne for French literature, and worked at a boutique there to fund my schooling. I was randomly scouted by Steven Meisel, and a week later, I was shooting Calvin Klein campaigns and hanging out with Kate Moss, modeling. A lot of photographers, like Steven Meisel and Mario Testino, were all very encouraging for me to go into styling, and being a kid from the Midwest, I didn’t even really know what a stylist was, or if that was a possible career choice. I took their word and started doing styling for Visionaire, The Face, and i-D.

How they landed the job

Janie Bryant, costume designer on Mad Men: When I moved to NYC I was working on 7th Avenue with a fashion designer, John Scher, as his assistant. One night at a party I happened to meet a costume designer named Alexandra Welker. She told me all about her job. I was enthralled with her every word and knew I wanted to be a costume designer from that moment on.

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Lou Eyrich, left, and Janie Bryant, right, at the Television Academy's Costume Design Nominee Reception, with Bryant's Mad Men costumes in the background.

Eric Daman: I knew Patricia Field from the store I was working at, and I ran into her one day on the street. She had just finished season one of Sex and the City and was looking for a new assistant. Sarah Jessica Parker wanted somebody that had editorial background, and I ended up interviewing with Pat and Sarah Jessica and did three seasons on Sex and the City with them. We won an Emmy for season three of it, and then I ended up deciding to go my own way. I worked on a movie with a producer from Gossip Girl, and she called me and thought it would be great to do Gossip Girl.

A typical day

Janie Bryant: One thing that I have always loved about being a costume designer is that every day is different. My workday is usually around 12-14 hours if I’m lucky. A day’s work could consist of reading the script, costume meetings to talk about the script, sketching a design, working with my tailor, working with my assistant costume designer on an upcoming episode, talking with my costume supervisor about budgets and background artists, going to the fabric stores to swatch or buy fabric, going to the costume shops, and chatting about the upcoming scenes with my set costumers, who take care of the actors on set. I always have fittings, and I usually finish my workday by preparing for the next day’s scenes to be shot with my assistant costume designer and key costumer. And there’s always more…

Impact on the fashion scene

Janie Bryant: One of the things that I find so surprising is the huge influence Mad Men has had on fashion around the world.

Eric Daman: The revolution of men’s clothing via Chuck Bass and his dandyism is really exciting, because you can’t beat a man in a great suit and nice pocket square. Between Chuck Bass and Mad Men, men went from wearing casual jeans to wearing really great suits. It’s a nice progression and I’m happy to be a part of it.

Lessons for interns and assistants

Janie Bryant: I try to teach them how to navigate their way through their careers and life as strong, talented people. I also try teach them that attention to detail is very important and to appreciate the steps along the way. I also want them to enjoy their work and be happy!

Features vs. television series

Josh Dunn: When I do feature films, I generally have the complete arc of the character. I know exactly what’s going to happen to them, I know what happens to them in the middle of the movie, and I know where they are at the end. In the series, I have no information other than the script of the episode that I’m working on. I have hints of maybe what’s going to happen to their character, but it keeps you very focused on where they are in that moment. It’s more like life.

Advice for aspiring costume designers

Janie Bryant: Be clear about the things that you want. Everyone’s path is different, so it is about appreciating and learning all the steps along the way. Be true to yourself; believe in yourself; listen to yourself because you are the only one that knows what you want in life. And most importantly, be mindful of taking other people’s advice. They can only guide you from their own perspective, which is not connected to the experiences that you may have.

What would be your dream show to design costumes for?

Photo credit: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images North America