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April 13, 2024
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The World’s Top Costume Design Schools 2024

The World’s Top Costume Design Schools 2024

With more than 70 schools offering costume design instruction, what makes such a program stand out? Is it the proximity to film studios and theaters in the major entertainment hubs of L.A., London and New York? The variety of courses, from historical design to 3D fabric printing, or simply a well-rounded curriculum? Or is it the chance to network with award-winning alums and industry insiders, coupled with portfolio development and postgrad job placement? 

Whatever the consideration, students, as soon-to-be narrative storytellers, face an ever-changing field with digital design technology at the forefront as the industry tries to figure out what to do with the practice of artificial intelligence. As Bill Brewer, UNCSA’s co-director of the Costume Design & Technology program, notes, “We believe that because we tell stories about the human condition, our industry will continue to rely on the artistry of humans.” SCAD is also addressing AI, with workshops on “Artificial Intelligence: Friend or Foe?” and “AI 101: An introduction to Generative AI Tools.”

In creating its annual list — which welcomes first-timer NIDA in Sydney and second-timer Wimbledon School of Arts — THR consulted with academic professionals and costume designers on the factors that make a design school special: alumni success, curriculum, class size, extracurricular programs, reputation, and opportunities for networking. 

California Institute of the Arts (CalArts)

Valencia, California

Located just 30 minutes from most of the major Hollywood studios, CalArts boasts quite the pedigree, launching the careers of fashion icons Edith Head and Bob Mackie when the school was known as the Chouinard Art Institute. It eventually merged with the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music in 1961 (thanks to the help of Walt Disney and his brother Roy).

“CalArts provides a rigorous, story- and script-based curriculum where students can hone their skills in drawing and historical and modern research,” says faculty member Camille Benda. Importance is also placed on networking from day one, and budding designers have internships at Western Costume, the Wende Museum and Disney. An active alumni network provides entrée into the industry upon graduation, and unique classes include head of experience design Ellen McCartney’s “Fear and (C)Loathing,” as well as “Costume in Animation” as a full-year class. Benda’s six-week Studio Lab class, “Dress and Gender,” and semester-long “Conscious Fashion History” offer a deep dive into under-represented moments of fashion history.

TUITION BFA/MFA: $54,400

ALUMS Durinda Wood (Mulholland Drive), Barbara Inglehart (Scandal) 

Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

CMU is blessed with a “who’s who” alumni network of costume designers such as Ann Roth, Eduardo Castro and Daniel Orlandi. As CMU professor Susan Tsu says, “We prepare students to invent a future we cannot know and value our relationships with them years after they have graduated. Consequently, our alumni continue to be devoted to the school, return frequently to work with students, and hire them within the profession.”

Promising costume designers are exposed to a variety of genres and related fields, such as film, television, classic plays, opera, musicals and dance. “Classical art training and digital concept character illustration are encouraged, as well as building the business acumen of entrepreneurs and self-propelled designers,” says Tsu.

The school also attracts visiting international designers such as Game of Thrones’ Deborah Riley and Harry Potter’s Katrina Lindsay, who share their knowledge and help with portfolio reviews. Students gain international experience at the World Stage Design exhibition and the Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space, as well as faculty-guided trips to Manhattan and workshops in Romania and India.

TUITION BFA $64,596, MFA $37,000

ALUMS Terry Ann Gordon (president of Costume Designers Guild-IATSE 892), Matthew Hemesath (The First Lady)

David Geffen School of Drama at Yale

New Haven, Connecticut

A train ride away to Broadway and a tuition-free education (thanks to a generous donation from mogul David Geffen) makes the David Geffen School of Dram at Yale a most desirable choice. As executive director Ilonya Somogyi explains, “There are benefits to being away from the hustle and bustle and being able to focus intently. With New Haven’s location, I personally think it’s ideal — plus we have great pizza.”

Yale’s research facilities, coupled with classes that cover how to interpret the storytelling aspects of a script and the process of budgeting and project management, give students the proverbial leg up. The opportunity to work on productions equipped with a professionally staffed costume shop and working with the in-house LORT theater also has its advantages. “The nature of the Drama School’s interdisciplinary program — having directors, dramaturges, actors, stage and theater managers, playwrights, and five different types of designers all studying together as one independent cohort, is probably the most important part of how we train costume designers to work in the world,” says Somogyi.

TUITION None 

ALUMS Tom Broecker (Mean Girls), Donna Zakowska (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), Susan Hilferty (Broadway’s Wicked)

National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA)

Sydney, Australia

If walking in the footsteps of Academy Award-, BAFTA- and Tony-winning costume designer Catherine Martin appeals, look no further than Australia’s NIDA. Offering a three-year, full-time Bachelor of Costume course on costume creation and technical skills (there is also a Bachelor of Design that focuses on costume and set design), students learn the skills to compete in all areas of entertainment.

One important distinction is students train as costume makers and supervisors instead of costume designers while still learning all the basic disciplines of sewing, pattern-making and rendering along with the theoretical process of design. Small classes of six students experience a hands-on emphasis on various disciplines from corsetry, leatherwork and tailoring to millinery, fabric dyeing and costume cutting. The school encourages critical thinking and risk-taking while empowering students to create new ideas and solutions. Some of the more unique offerings include the Warrior Project which allows students to interact with costumes and prop teams, emphasizing techniques such as laser cutting, leather moldings, and sublimation printing. Upon graduation, students are equipped with the knowledge of how to design for theater, film, and mixed media.

TUITION Bachelor’s $16,560

ALUMS Edie Kurzer (NCIS: Sydney), Kym Barrett (Aquaman), Michael Wilkinson (American Hustle)

NYU Tisch School of the Arts

New York

With a faculty of industry pros, an active alumni network, a diverse group of creative students (over a third are from outside the United States), and of course location, location, location, it’s no surprise NYU Tisch is a regular on THR’s annual top 10 list.

Located in the entertainment mecca of the Big Apple, students are privy to a variety of production opportunities, mainly in the school’s two new state-of-the-art theaters. Department of Design for Stage and Film chair Justin Townsend also notes the school’s range of scholarships and numerous opportunities for collaboration “with students from graduate acting, grad film dance, graduate musical theater writing, interactive telecommunications and the Game Center at Tisch, as well as peer directors from Columbia University and the Public Theatre. In addition, Alumni stay in touch with each other and offer all types of support. The more established designers hire recent grads and alumni often find themselves as collaborators on productions.”

TUITION MFA $73,698 

ALUMS Gregg Barnes (Broadway’s Some Like It Hot), Mark Bridges (Maestro), Paul Tazewell (Wicked)

The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD)

Savannah, Georgia

With campuses in Savannah and Atlanta, SCAD offers a distinctive student experience. “Georgia is the new Hollywood, and Savannah’s film industry is booming,” says Andra Reeve-Rabb, dean of the School of Film and Acting. SCAD, which boasts the largest university film studio complex in the country.

Students design for musicals (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical) or for SCAD’s latest sitcom Tours and Attractions, or could also learn how to create historical French Provincial costumes for a short at the school’s Lacoste, France, location. Unique electives provide skillsets such as the designs of characters for gaming and cutting-edge technologies (3-D printing and laser-cutting techniques). Small class sizes allowing individual instruction is another plus.

SCAD is known for its extra-curricular Hollywood and Broadway-centered programs, with year-round programming that includes screenings, industry events, SCAD TVfest, SCAD Savannah Film Festival, and the SCAD Animation Fest, where students learn new ways to design while making valuable contacts with global studio and network execs. Mentorship through master classes is led by luminaries in costume design such as Poor Things’ Holly Waddington, Sandy Powell of May/December, Mad Men’s Janie Bryant and Trish Summerville’s The Hunger Games.

TUITION BFA $41,130, MFA $42,120

ALUMS Jo Hepburn (Pain Hustlers), Lauren Driskill (Echo), Anna Tringali (Luckiest Girl Alive), Kashish Chopra (The Survivor)

UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television

Los Angeles

UCLA’s track record for student job placement, new innovative curricula and its key location in Hollywood’s backyard are just a few of the reasons the school is perennially popular.

Under the tutelage of Deborah Nadoolman Landis, Ph.D., founding director of UCLA’s David C. Copley Center for Costume Design, and head of costume design Chrisi Karvonides-Dushenko, the program particularly excels with its extracurricular events, such as the Critical Costume conference (March 6-9), which explores the role and influence of costume design in film and TV, and the Sketch to Screen Costume Design Panel (March 9). And in association with Opera UCLA, students can design costumes for productions like the world premiere opera The Grand Hotel Tartarus; collaborate with UCLA filmmakers in creating the TV pilot Pitch Decks; or learn from an artist-in-residence, such as last year’s program with costume designer Deborah L. Scott, who designed for Titanic and Avatar.

TUITION BFA $18,197 in state, $50,771 out of state; MFA $34,284 in state, $46,529 out of state

ALUMS Rebecca Guzzi (The Morning Show), Alice Garland (Oppenheimer), Alexa Newman (That ’90s Show), Amy Higdon (Killers of the Flower Moon)

University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA)

Winston-Salem, North Carolina

Part of the School of Design & Production, UNCSA is the only stand-alone creative and performing arts conservatory of its kind (most such programs are part of a theater or film program). The 14 areas of concentration include classes in costume design and technology, wig and makeup design, scene design, sound design and stage management. Students can work on dozens of school productions each year via a 100,000-square-foot state-of-the-art production space, partnering with the schools of music, dance and filmmaking.

Budding costume designers can work on 10-15 films a year, and gain experience in all facets of design through work in the theater, opera, musicals, dance, and themed entertainment. “Expanding our focus to embrace costumes for film, the presence of the highly ranked School of Filmmaking on our campus has allowed us to continue attracting talented students and prepare them for varied and successful careers,” says Bill Brewer, co-director of costume design & technology. “Despite our location outside of a major entertainment hub, we attract students looking for hands-on experience across a variety of disciplines than can only happen in the unique arts ecosystem that is UNCSA.”

TUITION BFA $6,497 in state, $22,231 out of state; MFA, $9,696 in state, $24,399 out of state

ALUMS Paul Tazewell (Wicked), Kristen Mendez (American Horror Story

University of Southern California (USC)

Los Angeles

Concentrating on the disciplines of theater, film and TV, USC’s School of Dramatic Arts strives to continually refine its curriculum to ensure that designers graduate with the knowledge and experience to be as readily hirable as possible in a constantly shifting workforce.

This semester, the school offers a course focusing on costume crafts (including items such as shoes, hats, jewelry and working with uncommon materials such as thermoplastics and urethane resin). “It’s the perfect school for a developing costume designer,” says assistant professor of costume design Ann Closs-Farley. “We are 10 minutes from the Los Angeles fashion and fabric district, and a few miles from every film studio, costume rental house, and hair and makeup and special effects studio in this global capital of entertainment.”

Offering an undergrad-only program, the school also began a collaborative interdisciplinary Minor in Fashion with colleagues at the School of Fine Art and the School of Business that examines the intersectional characteristics of fashion.

TUITION BFA $66,640

ALUMS Sara Fox (High School Musical: The Musical: The Series)

Wimbledon College of Arts 

London

If you are interested in studying across the pond, Wimbledon College of Arts — part of the University of the Arts in London (UAL) — should suit your fancy.

Two specialist disciplines are offered — costume design and costume interpretation — and courses such as corsetry and tutu construction make the program distinctive. “Graduates are known for their strong foundation in costume design principles, innovative practices and real-world industry insights, making them attractive candidates for employment,” says BA Costume for Theater and Screen course leader Natalia Stewart. Grads have secured jobs with the Royal Opera House, the BBC and Netflix, as well as productions at Pinewood and Shepperton Studios. The school also has an ongoing collaboration with the esteemed Victoria and Albert Museum, where students engage in designing and creating costumes based on museum collections. They also vied this past year for the Golden Shears award (think Oscars of the “tailoring world”) dominating the competition.

TUITION Approximately $11,650 for British citizens, about $32,700 for international students

ALUMS Trisha Biggar (Outlander), Caroline McCall (Downton Abbey), Phoebe De Gaye (Belgravia: The Next Chapter), Georgina Chapman (the designer of clothing brand Marchesa), Jane Petrie (The King)

A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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