Costume Designer Educators
Some costume designers are finding that their most demanding—and most rewarding—jobs aren’t on the set, but in the classroom.
By Valli Herman
Every winter, Deborah Nadoolman Landis teaches a course to UCLA’s graduate film students that requires the budding directors to design costumes for their first film script. It would seem obvious to have future filmmakers understand the contribution of a major aspect of their films, and yet, the requirement is revolutionary.
“That’s huge and that’s nowhere on the planet,” says Nadoolman Landis, the Chair and Founding Director of the David C. Copley Center for the Study of Costume Design at UCLA. Founded in 2009, the center provides a prestigious home for the study of costume design history, genre research, costume illustration as an art form, and the influence of costume design on fashion and popular culture. The center’s very existence is also revolutionary: It’s the first institution of its kind worldwide, according to UCLA. Nadoolman Landis, who was president of the Guild from 2001 to 2007, teaches four courses, writes books and guides research at the university, which is now attracting international scholars.
Of all the design fields in entertainment, however, costume design has perhaps struggled the most to attain credibility—and the commensurate salary and benefits that go along with it. But a new battle is being waged in higher education classrooms, in student productions, seminars and workshops nationwide. Working costume designers are returning to campuses to teach a new generation of students in hopes of turning out design professionals who can continue to advance the field’s profile, on and off the set.
Driven also by a desire to help the next generation of designers avoid common pitfalls as they launch careers, costume designers are finding unique ways to lend their expertise to students in higher education.
Across the country, costume designers are serving as guest lecturers in college classrooms, while a select few juggle regular teaching course loads with active costume design careers. Others share their education and experience in showcase presentations about career options, through entertainment industry organizations and in textbooks (Holly Cole and Kristin Burke’s book, “Costuming for Film: The Art and the Craft” is regarded as the industry’s definitive text).
With each course or lecture comes the opportunity to burnish the profile of costume designers and to inspire colleges to add or expand courses devoted to the discipline. As a result, today’s emerging costume designers are better prepared to meet the industry’s demands in theater, film, television and animation and are poised to give back to the generations that follow.
Nadoolman Landis began teaching at AFI in 2001 because of an experience she had as a board member at Planned Parenthood. She took to heart a suggestion that sex education needed to be taught in elementary school.
“I thought, I’ll teach costume design to producers and directors when they are in elementary school—when they are at AFI and USC, so by the time they graduate from one of these very prestigious programs and come onto set with Julie Weiss, Jeffrey Kurland or Ann Roth, they’ll say, oh, we had Deborah’s class, we know what you do, and we value what you do. And when we negotiate your deal contract, we’ll pay you commensurate.”
After two years at the helm of the Copley Center, Nadoolman Landis filled a department opening with a veteran costume designer, Chrisi Karvonides, who juggles an active career (“American Horror Story,” “Big Love,” “American Dreams”) with a family and regular duties teaching graduate students the particulars of hands-on costume production.
Karvonides, who trained at Yale University in theater costume design, teaches design mostly for television, a field that’s often overlooked in higher education, though it offers the most jobs.
“The reason why I chose to go into teaching was because I was frustrated and disappointed that I couldn’t find a program where I could learn to do all three disciplines [theater, film and television]. You can’t imagine the embarrassment when you are handed a call sheet on your first movie and I had no idea what anything meant on that call sheet. Twenty-five years ago, I said, someday, I will teach so we can be at the top of our game when we are handed a call sheet.”
As a working professional and a university-educated costume designer, Karvonides was uniquely qualified to know exactly what students weren’t being taught. She’s teaching to fill in the gaps on budgeting, breaking down scripts and the knowledge gained only from experience, such as, “how to break down a script and how to pull clothing for a project where you have to dress 1,500 to 2,000 extras for 10 days of shooting and how to budget that.”
Little by little, working costume designers are teaching students just how to make the seemingly impossible happen. Their presence among film schools tends to inspire awareness of a need for specific coursework on costume design. A costume designer for 30 years, May Routh has for eight years taught Woodbury University students in the Media, Communication and Design school about fashion history. When the university launched a new film school, Routh added teaching about costume design and film production to her duties.
About six years ago, Diana Eden lent her costume design experience to a student film, “Stealing Las Vegas,” at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, which inspired her to inquire about costume design courses at the school.
“I discovered that while the theater department had a costume design course, the film department had nothing, and that, in fact, the film students seemed blissfully unaware that costume design would be a major department in their future films.
“I started to do guest teaching at UNLV to the film students to try and show them how important costumes were to a film–a visual medium,” she said.
Guest teachers like Eden also create a bridge to working professionals who are vital to landing jobs after graduation. Sometimes, the choice of school can be crucial to job success and strong industry connections. That’s the case with Eduardo Castro, who as an undergraduate at Los Angeles Community College took a life-changing job as an usher at the Los Angeles Music Center. He noticed that most of productions’ costume designers trained at Carnegie Mellon’s drama department. He eventually earned a master’s degree in costume design there and met fellow students and future Costume Designers Daniel Orlandi, Nanrose Buchman and Terry Ann Gordon.
“We’re all very connected and constantly tuning in with each other,” said Castro, who counts on his alumni network for recommendations and teaching opportunities. “The biggest thing we want to do as mentors is prepare the students for the world outside.”
An in-demand guest lecturer at his alma mater and elsewhere, Castro returns frequently to one theme: “One of the first things I say is, each and every one of you could design this show, but not a single one of you could manage it. That takes years of knowing how to handle actors, producers and directors.” He also drills them on the importance of polished presentation skills and gaining the trust of actors.
Castro and his colleagues are encouraged by university programs like those at UCLA and Carnegie Mellon, but see room for improvement. Castro is all for having working professionals guest lecture, particularly in the underrepresented fields of television and film design.
“For TV and movies, we need to educate students not only in the periods and the costumes, but also in the modern fashion world. As designers, our bread and butter is modern. We need to be able to know the difference between a J. Crew and a Banana Republic and a Gucci piece. And be aware of what things cost,” said Castro, who designs for ABC’s “Once Upon a Time.”
Meanwhile, Gordon is doing her part at the University of Southern California, where she teaches a course on costume design for TV and film, in conjunction with Costume Designer Christina Haatainen-Jones in the School of Dramatic Arts. She supplements class discussions with computer lab basics, field trips and guest lectures, with speakers culled from her extensive professional and Carnegie Mellon contacts.
Through the Carnegie Mellon Alumni Association, Gordon mentors her alma mater’s graduates during an in-depth “showcase” week where BFA and MFA students get acquainted with Los Angeles career options. Gordon says the event is much like UCLA’s popular Design Showcase West, where students present portfolio reviews, meet a variety of working professionals from every field of the industry, take studio tours and are hosted to seminars and industry-related workshops.
Gordon is also lends her expertise as a member of the Costume Peer Group for the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, where she assists with educational programs within the academy.
With every lecture, mentoring opportunity or teaching position comes progress. True to the famous movie line, “build it and they will come,” UCLA now offers the Blavatnik Family Scholarship for Costume Design in Motion Pictures. It was established to support graduate and doctoral research at the Copley Center for the Study of Design in the history of costume design in motion pictures and the influence of cinema and television costume design on global fashion, society, and international popular culture.
On a more personal level, there is the gratitude gained when costume designers share their expertise, whether inside or outside the classroom.
“The young lady I trained as a costumer on the UNLV film “ Stealing Las Vegas,” has gone on to design several small films here locally,” said Eden, “And I have just hired her to be my costume supervisor on the film I am currently working on. It will be her first union film. This makes it all worthwhile!”