Costume Designer Kristin M. Burke
By Valli Herman
Costume Designer Kristin M. Burke literally wrote the book on costume design, but she didn’t stop there.
The Los Angeles-based Burke is well known as the co-author of the seminal book, “Costuming for Film: The Art and The Craft.” She can also list to her credit a successful blog about costume design, FrockTalk.com, a TED talk about the language of clothing, a second book, “Going Hollywood: How to Get Started, Keep Going and Not Turn Into a Sleaze” and a career as an in-demand movie costume designer, who happens to be turning heads with her current work for 20th Century Fox Television’s “Sleepy Hollow,” which has been renewed for a second, 18-episode season. In her not-so-ample spare time, she makes detailed baby quilts from design project scraps.
Just as she makes quilts as presents to friends, her books have been a gift to the costume design industry. They’ve been used as textbooks in costume design classes at UCLA, Ohio University, Brigham Young University and even in New Zealand and Argentina. The books originated out of her experiences as a struggling costume designer who found few resources for students and early-career designers.
In 1991, Burke had just graduated from Northwestern University with two bachelors degrees—one in radio, TV and film and the other in French studies. Full of confidence and determination, that fall, she printed 200 resumes and sent them to every costume designer listed in an encyclopedic reference book.
“From all of those resumes, I got one response back,” she said. Patricia Zipprodt, who designed “The Graduate,” politely thanked her for her letter, but declared that she was now retired. The end.
Shocked, she summoned enough savvy to boldly talk her way into a low-budget film’s unpaid internship where she was treated, to put it politely, poorly.
“It was a catalyst to seek design employment independently,” she said, searching for the most diplomatic terms. “I found that working for other people was not a good experience.” A friend connected her to the American Film Institute, where she worked on master’s thesis films and soon met a well-connected makeup artist.
“She said, ‘Do you know about Roger Corman? He’s making a skateboard movie.’ I know that world because I come from Northern California and I knew I could totally do that job. That’s how I started,” said Burke, who spent part of her youth in Chico.
Thus, the 1993 Corman comedy, “The Skateboard Kid,” became Burke’s big break into Hollywood. (The much longer version of how she made that connection is in her costuming book.) Now her IMDB.com profile lists 52 costume designer credits on movies such as “The Conjuring,” “Paranormal Activity 2,” “Crossing Over” and “Insidious: Chapter 2.”
Writing the book on costume design
Five years into her costume design career, Costume Supervisor Pat Welch introduced Burke to Holly Cole, an Ohio University professor of costume design, and the two collaborated on “Costuming for Film,” an undertaking that stretched from 1997 to 2005.
Cole, Burke said, “Came to the table with the general organizational principles for writing a textbook and I had the practical knowledge, especially on the entry level that her students would be experiencing.”
Burke, a self-described “get ‘er done” person, realized the textbook’s scope would miss an essential element of career success—how to navigate the entertainment industry.
“It’s one thing to tell people, Here’s what we do and how we do it. But it’s not really responsible. There is just a lack of general guidance, especially for kids in high school and college. They would email me and ask how they could get into the business, and I thought, Why not just do this book?
“I had also seen people go down a pretty dark road, and I thought, It doesn’t have to go this way. My point of view was that you have options. I wanted also to reassure parents that coming to L.A. didn’t mean you had to turn into a sleazebag.”
Thus focused on ridding Hollywood of future undesirables, Burke, while also working as a designer, conducted interviews, wrote the book, took photographs and over the next year and a half, self-published “Going Hollywood.”
Both books are good sellers (though she warns publishing isn’t lucrative), but the larger goal has been met: “You hope the book helps someone in their life. I’ve been fortunate to have that happen.”
Yet the books also have a larger purpose: They improve the lot of all costume designers, even though on the surface, the books are freely dispensing precious advice that could feed the competition.
“There’s room for everyone. It’s important to give a hand to those coming up,” she said, noting that the books address important gaps in formal education.
“The better the education, the better the profession. The way Burke sees it, if costume designers can be united on processes and share vital procedures to improve communication and workflow, then costume departments will ultimately look better in the eyes of production and inside and outside the industry.
“Our job is about communication, and at the end of the day, we have to be clear,” she said.
Burke continues to lecture in classrooms about her profession and books, and also further the understanding of costume design through her Frocktalk blog’s costume-based movie reviews.
A designer is born
Her multitasking approach to life and career stems from a youth spent tackling creative projects across a range of creative disciplines. Her early childhood was spent in Long Beach, before her family moved to Travis Air Force Base in support of her father’s career. The move to Chico came in 1977 and Burke found the 4-H youth development clubs, where she learned how to use a sewing machine, make patterns and dip into other activities that allowed what she calls “physical learning through your hands.”
The clubs were a turning point, but like many creative people, Burke discovered her passion and had begun developing her skills at a very early age.
“My maternal grandmother was a sewer and she made all kinds of clothes–there were six kids. When I was maybe 4 or 5 years old, she took me into her sewing room and showed me box of patterns and told me, Tell me what you like and what color and we’ll make it. My brain exploded. That was my first education into the creative process, and the idea of the creative process being really infinite.
“For a child, that was it. I was in. I was hooked.”
For a girl who learned how to sew on a Barbie hot-glue “sewing” machine, Burke has come a long way. Now she puts a sense of storytelling into every aspect of her creative work–particularly the quilts.
“I figure, the art of making the quilt is cool because you know the quilt will outlast you. It’s lasting and has story and that’s what filmmaking is. I use scraps from all of the movies I have done…so every quilt has a story.”
The quilts are a tactile, comforting chronicle of her work in film. And even though the movies are a permanent record of her design efforts, sometimes costume designers can’t easily gauge their effectiveness.
“As costume designers, we work in a vacuum. It’s very hard for us to know what has made an impact and what has not. I do mostly movies so the impact of those movies takes years,” she said.
When asked to name her career highlights, Burke said she assesses them on a personal level: “It’s when I’ve had a good time or feel satisfied about the job.”
But of course, her work isn’t just about getting through the day; The get ‘er done switch flips on and Burke—and her peers—tackle the task at hand, heartily
Said Burke: “On every movie we do, we try to do our very best. And change the world.”