Costume Designer vs. Fashion Designer

Costume designers create clothes for characters in a show or production.
Costume designers create clothes for characters in a show or production. (Image: Hemera Technologies/ Images)

While retail fashion designers and costume designers may undergo similar training that acquires matching skill sets, costume designers take different career paths than retail fashion designers. Costume designers work in entertainment, crafting costumes for various characters, while retail fashion designers work in the commercial sector, creating and marketing a brand image to a mass market.

Fashion Design

Anyone who designs and creates original clothing, accessories or footwear is a kind of fashion designer. Both retail fashion designers and costume designers sketch clothing designs, select fabrics and patterns, and usually possess artistic, creative personalities. In fact, they often attend the same educational institutions and receive the same degrees, although aspiring costume designers may select concentrations or courses specific to their category of design. While retail fashion designers and aspiring costume designers attend the same schools and require many of the same skills, their careers end up being very different. Most retail fashion designers work for wholesale manufacturing companies, apparel brands or retailers. Costume designers work in the entertainment industry as designers for film, television, dance and theater companies.

Design Process

The motivations behind the design process for a costume designer and a retail fashion designer differ. The retail fashion industry is ultimately an industry of commerce. Regardless of a retail fashion designer's personal creative preferences, his designs must appeal to the customer in order to sell the product and make a profit. Costume designers, in contrast, design for a production in order to communicate information to an audience. Costume designers do not have to concern themselves as much with a retail market, but they must be able to create costumes that clearly convey information about a character and plot. While retail fashion designers research the market or their personal archives for inspiration, costume designers begin their design process by reading the script for a production. Costume designers must consider the story and historical era when creating their designs, and additional research is often required.

Clothing Functionality

Regardless of how creative or artistic a retail fashion designer's collection may be, his designs must serve a utilitarian purpose. Retail fashion designs must be reasonably comfortable and must protect the wearer from the elements, serving a practical function throughout the activities of daily life. Costume designs, in contrast, are judged completely by their visual impact. The shapes, colors, and textures of a costume must be striking and powerful enough to make a statement to the audience; the individual characteristics of any design may be exaggerated. The creations of a costume designer do not always have to feel good or even look good up close. The price of the costumes is less important and so quality can be sacrificed for appearance alone. Costume designers can also choose to revamp old or vintage outfits, instead of creating entirely new designs.

Business Model

A retail fashion designer's brand is their business, so they have to market themselves and their brand in order to be successful. Fashion designers work with stylists, models, journalists, photographers and editors to coordinate the communication of their designs to a mass market. They are often involved in directing fashion shows or trade show presentations. Costume designers do not work for a single brand and are hired on a case-by-case basis. A costume designer will work on a production or film until the creation is finished and then move onto the next job. While a fashion designer must release new designs season after season while maintaining a consistent brand image, when a show or production opens or airs, a costume designer's work is complete and they are free to move on to a new and unrelated project.

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