The 10 Characteristics Of A Successful Costume Designer

Wikimedia Commons Free ImageLet’s pretend for a minute that you, the reader, are interested in pursuing a career as a successful designer of theatrical costumes. Beyond having the obvious know-how of sewing a wide variety of fabrics, there are important character traits you need to have or you will never make it in this trade. Unfortunately, a deep love and respect for the traditions of the performing arts isn’t enough to turn the average admirer into the tutu maker of the century.

Here on Tutu-Love, I mention the magical, the ethereal and the splendid visual treats of the finished costumes without exploring in too much detail the unmagical truths behind what it takes to turn a dream into a reality. As the available stock of couture artists dwindles down year after year, there is a huge need for the next generation to keep this glorious trade alive. Could it be for you? The following are some of the most important character traits you will need to climb the ladder of couture dance costume success:

A Passion For Creating Something From Nothing

Wikimedia Commons free imageDo you prefer instant mash, quick oats and microwave meals to preparing food from scratch? Does the idea of spending time turning nothing into something scare you off?  Would you rather toss out an outfit that isn’t quite right, or would you find it irresistible to take it apart and reconstruct it?

If you love working on arts and crafts projects that take months to complete and involve lots of intricate details, couture work may suit your personality. If ballet performances and the drama of a stage presentation fill your heart with passion and your fingers with zeal to sew a costume of your own, you may enjoy the challenge of  making theatrical couture garments.

Self-Confidence And Faith

Nobody can succeed at a difficult craft unless they have a deep inner confidence that they can achieve their dreams. Becoming a designer of artistic costumes for dance as a hobby is one thing. Earning a real living from it is another. It will take a huge amount of faith to keep going because it takes years to perfect the art of couture. Sometimes, one stitch and hand-placed bead at a time.

Not only is self-confidence important, so is the ability to close your ears to well-meaning naysayers. Because costume making is a rare career for most people, you may find people trying to talk you out of it.

Patience And Fortitude Are A Must

Image Credit: Pschemp,, No Modifications, (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Sewing us on one at a time takes patience

If you chomp at the bit in your automobile in slow traffic, patience may not be your strong point. If you find yourself getting heart palpitations walking behind an elderly person,  you may prefer a faster pace of life and find that slow-downs feel like irritating obstacles. The chances of you enjoying the time-consuming process of sewing hundreds of Swarovski crystals to a costume by hand are going to be slim and none.

Finding satisfaction with the process of creating your design is just as important as the satisfaction that comes when your costume is finally complete.

Skilled In Dealing With Many Types Of People

When it comes to dealing with people, there are few occupations that let us earn a living in a solitary vacuum. Even a lone writer who conjures up novels in an isolated mountain cabin has to work with editors, publishers and agents. Being a provider of dance costumes means more than just having a relationship with your pretty fabric and trusty scissors. You will have to deal with:

  • Children and beginners
  • Parents, neighbors or relatives of your client
  • Teachers or instructors
  • Competition judges
  • People who may not understand how the couture system works
  • Choreographers
  • Photographers
  • You may have to deal personally with competitors and other designers

The Ability To Take Control Of Clutter

Being successful at any craft that involves couture piece work, hundreds of tiny embellishments, notions and tools means that a theatrical costume maker must create a workable system of organisation for maximum efficiency. Having bits of this and that strewn in different rooms can create chaos and confusion. Add unruly pets, a chaotic house cleaning schedule and your costumes could end up looking like leftover Halloween garb, not professionally polished ensembles that people are willing to pay for.

Highly Focused And Disciplined

FirebeadAlong with the ability to control the materials used for couture work in a way that makes sense, the successful designer must be able to focus on the task at hand  without too many distractions. Of course we all have those things that clamor for our attention, but setting up a successful couture business means cutting out distractions when costume deadlines are quickly approaching. No serious tutu maker is going to be seen cutting tulle for a client whilst doing her nails, chatting on the phone, watching her afternoon soap opera, eating biscuits and sipping tea.

Detail Oriented -Sweating The Small Stuff

Have you ever heard the expression, don’t sweat the small stuff? For the average person, that means don’t worry or fret about the tiny details. However, this is the opposite for a highly successful costume designer of couture class. The very nature of couture is in the details. Tiny stitches, miniscule placements of beading and crystals and the layering of textures and shades are made by those who do sweat the small stuff. You can see just how much detail work it takes to put it all together by hand in the pictures below. Aren’t the details simply stunning?

A Vivid Imagination-Thoughts Become Things

Before ballet ever came to fruition, it was simply a thought in someone’s mind. Isn’t that amazing? Choreography, music, movement and costume designs are imagined first, created later. It is this imagination that inspires a designer to make the perfect tutu for a ballet story or to come up with incredibly unique ways of dressing a dancer for a performance.

As I mentioned above, just because we can imagine it, doesn’t mean that we know how to bring what we imagined into perfect fruition. That takes practice.  No client wants to hear a designer mention that their costume didn’t come out the way the designer  pictured it would.

Natural Artistic Talent

Are dance couture experts born or made? In my opinion, the answer is both. I definitely feel that artistic people are genetically inclined to succeed along those paths. They are born with an artist’s eye for balance, symmetry, color and design in everything they see. They are the natural “beauty gatherers” of this world and have the ability to create a straight path from their imagination to their desired outcome.

Common Sense Business Savvy

Sewing costumes at home yourself for fun is very different from operating a real business based on working with clients, choreography restraints, budget limits and business laws. As a matter of fact, dealing with the realities of running a couture business can really let you know whether your passion is strong enough to stand the test of time.

So how would a person know when the path is clear to pursue a career in costume design? I decided to ask Monica Newell of Costume Creations exactly when and how she knew this would be her life’s work. Here is what she said:

 As a tiny child I was in love with the whole “Art Form” of Classical Ballet. I especially loved the beautiful Russian Ballet and Costumes – I fell in love with pictures of the Great Russian Ballerinas – Anna Pavlova, Galina Ulanova, Ekaterina Maximova and always wanted a tutu like theirs – so it gives me pleasure to try and produce the best I can for the new generation of dancers.

I grew up sewing with my mother – so having trained as a Dancer and Worked as a Dance and Gymnastics Coach it was a natural progression.

I decided that having considerable background knowledge in dance and gymnastics I could potentially earn from a broader market – Ballet, Tap, Modern, Greek, Freestyle, Rhythmic Gymnastics , Sports Acrobatics , Ice Skating. Also gymnastics was becoming much more “costumed” than before. I felt that having worked in so many fields I had a good understanding of “the look” required, the fit, comfort, and range of movement . I have been to many Stage Performances and Competitions to have a good understanding of the different requirements , each event has different lighting and backgrounds also.

I also have a good understanding of the “rule requirements” for competition.
As my daughter had a long career as a Contortionist/Hand Balancer and Trapeze Artist I knew I had a good understanding of Circus Costume requirements also.

It appears that fate can sometimes have a hand in what we find ourselves doing in life; especially when it is combined with our own unique talents and being around the things we love the most. Being a costume designer first-class is a rare occupation. However, it is a craft that needs a new generation of dance-loving couture artists to step forward so the show can go on.

Pink_flower_dew“Your talent determines what you can do. Your motivation determines how much you are willing to do. Your attitude determines how well you do it.” ― Lou Holtz 


  1. Wow thank you !!!! How eloquently written this is – how informative and in depth – your writing and understanding of Costume Design is incredible – thank you for writing this – I hope other readers find it as interesting as I do.

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