Back To School: A Costume Designer Shares Her Film Industry Tips

by Sarah Kathryn Cleaver on 25 May 2021

In this series, SHOWstudio speak to professionals from across the creative industries to build a transparent profile of what success and failure looks like. Here, costume designer Meghan Warren talks about her route into shows such as Bridgerton and The Great, how to make the most of an opportunity if you don't know someone in the industry and why driving lessons are the best investment.

In this series, SHOWstudio speak to professionals from across the creative industries to build a transparent profile of what success and failure looks like. Here, costume designer Meghan Warren talks about her route into shows such as Bridgerton and The Great, how to make the most of an opportunity if you don't know someone in the industry and why driving lessons are the best investment.

When thinking about the costume designers behind lavish period productions such as Netflix's Bridgerton and Hulu's The Great, it can be tempting to imagine them as historical creatures themselves–a bevy of women embroidering late into the night and somehow separate from the pressures of the professional world. For those outside of the industry, film and television production is shrouded in an aura of mystery that can be a barrier to those hoping to get in. With that in mind, SHOWstudio spoke to Junior Assistant Costume Designer Meghan Warren about her path from university to the costume departments of blockbuster shows.

Publicity still from Bridgerton (2020)

Sarah Kathryn Cleaver: How is it working in film at the moment, with all the restrictions of Covid? 

Meghan Warren: To be honest, the industry has never been busier. It's such a great time for anybody trying to get into the industry as a whole, whatever stage of your career. There are so many things going on that everyone's desperate for crew, there's almost not enough people going around for the amount of films and TV that's being made. So it's um… one good thing to come out of the last year.

SKC: Tell me a little bit about yourself and your career so far.

MW: I used to study sciences and stuff at school, I never thought I was going to go down this sort of route. I realised that I procrastinated doing so much of my work, and made clothes and played around with textiles instead. And I also had such an interest in film, that when I sat and thought about it, it kind of all just fell into place. I went and did a foundation in Art and Design at Kingston. I knew that I wanted to be going down the costume route. For me, it's the study of character, combined with clothes and how they tell a story – what they tell you about individuals and history. It's all just one big mash up of things that I really love.

SKC: Tell me about the jump from university to a career in film. How did that happen?

MW: I got quite lucky, because film or TV are difficult industries to get into when you don't have an ‘in’. A lot of people have family members or friends in the industry, it's quite hard when you don't have that connection already. It can seem really impossible. For me, it was in my second year at uni, we had a designer come in to do a talk with my class. And I went up and spoke with her and got on really well and she brought me in to assist on an advert that she was styling and then a few jobs after that.

From there, it just sort of snowballs. You meet people and you just hope to make a good impression and do a good job so that they'll ask you to do the next thing. So even if you don't know anybody, you never know what that opportunity is going to be and when it will come along, but when it does you need to chase it.

SKC: So the key is to show up and do a good job at the first opportunity?

MW: Yes it’s about working well with people. And then the more jobs you do, the more people you meet. It doesn't really matter what stage of your career you're at–that's kind of how the whole industry works.

SKC: What are the stages of a costume designer's careers? Is it quite mapped out?

MW: It’s a lot more complicated than I thought it would be. There are so many different departments within costume that I never even thought about. Even as a trainee, I've worked in so many different departments already. You have a work room where you're making, and the crowd department where you fit all of the extras, a principal team who looks after all of the principal actors, and then you have the design team. It's a fairly standard ladder in all the different departments in that you start off as a trainee, graduate to junior, assistant and then designer, but it’s definitely a long game. The best way to learn is work and you’re forever learning because it varies so much from job to job.

Pre Production image from Bridgerton (2020)

SKC: Do you have a special interest in period costume? 

MW: I actually think contemporary design in costume can be really amazing, really subtle. But I definitely have a background in period now. It's sort of where I started and it suits me quite well. I think there's a real trend in playing around with period and period accuracy and following trends that are happening in the contemporary world and understanding them through history. I think that's quite inspiring.

SKC: There does seem to be a real resurgence of period drama at the moment. Why do you think that is? 

MW: I think, especially amongst the younger generation, there's a feeling of nostalgia, even for times that we've haven't experienced. We've got a real fascination with our past. And also, I think, because as fashion and trends get faster and faster, we’ve got to the point where returning to the trends of previous decades has sped up and merged them all into one thing. Everyone has this growing fascination with what the past looked like, because it's feeding into so much of what we see every day. 

SKC: I wonder if it's also to do with kind of a longing for a life that was a bit slower, and with fewer distractions?

MW: Yeah, I think you can also even see that just in the last year. It's something that I've seen amongst a lot of my colleagues. We’re all suddenly getting really crafty again. I mean, it's because we've all been shut inside, but also I think everyone kind of is longing for those things that are slightly more handmade or craft based. Maybe that is about seeing all of these things that are mass generated, everyone's really seeking out individuality and the way that they can make something for themselves.

SKC: Can you tell me a little bit about the process of costuming a production as large as The Great or Bridgerton

MW: It’s dependent on so many things, like how many principal characters you have, and how many episodes. For The Great for example, I think we had three months of prep work and six months of shooting. For prep work it always starts with the script. Breaking that down and looking at what characters you have, where they are, and how many changes they're going to have. And then it's fabric shopping and sampling for weeks and weeks and weeks. And then finally getting them started in the workroom. There's also a lot of buying. I've become quite an expert with Etsy vintage buying, which I think is a niche, but I'm quite proud.

Every designer is different; they might start with colours, or textures, or silhouettes, everyone communicates their ideas differently. My experience has always been that there’s a lot of thought put into the way that a character's wardrobe is built–how does that impact how they move and what they do? Colour palettes, I would say are, almost always really, really selective, very specific. And fabric choices and patterns. It may not always have a hidden meaning, but it definitely has a very specific home within the character.

SKC: What part of the job is your favourite?

MW: I love fabric sourcing. I really enjoy the process of having discussions about ideas and then going and being in a room full of fabric rolls and thinking about the vision, even if it's not my own. I also really enjoy fitting. On The Great I was working in the crowd department, and all of our extras were pretty much regulars. It’s a bit like playing dress-up with people. And you have a bit of freedom because the designer doesn’t often have such a heavy hand in the crowd department. So you can play around a bit more. 

SKC: So you’re creating your own little bit of the film basically. 

MW: Exactly. Especially with a period drama like that, obviously, the dresses are so big, and so bold, and they are essentially part of the scenery in a way. So it all has to fit. It all has to work in the world that everybody has built.

SKC: It must be like a family by the end of shooting, as you spend so much time with the same people?

MW: Definitely. You practically live with each other from 5:30 in the morning to 8:30 at night and you really just have to get on with each other. 

SKC: Well you just mentioned 5:30 in the morning so I might already know the answer to this question, but what’s your least favourite part of the job?

MW: I know this is unexpected but I actually don’t mind the early mornings or long hours… although that is something that the industry should work on changing because it can make it inaccessible to a lot of people. 

I’d say my least favourite part is the pressure that people can feel like they're under. Whole teams can get really bogged down by feeling the pressure. It can be a very stressful industry. And people can get really, really wrapped up. Sometimes you just have to sit back and say ‘it's just a silly film’, and you don't need to let it get to you too much.

I’ve seen people doing a few weeks of work experience but apart from that you don’t see free labour happening.

SKC: You mentioned that the hours can make the industry inaccessible to some people. Are there other barriers that you think can prevent some people getting into film and TV?

MW: I’d say there are accessibility issues. As I’ve said before it can be quite an elitist industry that’s hard to break into if you don’t have the connections. There’s a definite lack of diversity on most jobs, and film in general is quite an uphill struggle for women–although costume is a fairly female-heavy department. 

SKC: Have you seen any change since you’ve been working? 

MW: Yes, there are moves being made with issues like sustainability, improving diversity and being more aware of sexual harassment. We get Respect the Workplace training at the beginning of every job which is something that’s only happened in the first year and a half. I’d say it’ll take a while for change to really happen on a big scale because the industry is, in a lot of ways, quite old fashioned. So change is more noticeable in the younger wave of filmmakers. 

SKC: Are unions a big presence in film crews?

MW: So, we’re part of a union called BECKTU (The Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union). But different departments have different unions so that can mean that everyone gets treated differently depending on whether they have a union, or how strong their union is. It can affect what you can fight for and can get really complicated. But again, that’s something that’s changed more in the last few years.

SKC: I’m thinking in comparison to fashion where there’s such a lot of badly paid and unpaid labour. Unions are less common in that side of the creative industries and it can be difficult to improve salaries when there’s so many people willing to take on very long unpaid internships. There’s a sense of replaceability. 

MW: Yes that’s one thing that’s definitely quite amazing. If you’re a young person in the film industry you get paid. I’ve seen people doing a few weeks of work experience but apart from that you don’t see free labour happening. 

SKC: So at least that bypasses the problem of not being able to get into an industry because you can’t afford to do a three month unpaid internship. 

MW: Exactly. Although while I’m on the subject of accessibility there's one thing I’d say to anybody looking to get into it; if you don’t drive, then you need to learn. 

SKC: That’s a good tip. 

MW: Yeah it’s something I can't really believe they didn’t emphasise to us at uni. Because it will either get you hired or not. I've seen so many people that are perfectly qualified or would be really great for a job, but they haven't been able to do it because they can't drive. Especially when you're starting out, you're driving around all over the place, picking things up and dropping them off to different sets. You're shooting in so many different locations, you need to be able to get yourself from place to place. So yeah, if you don’t drive, start learning. The best investment is driving lessons.

Meghan's 'breakthrough' job, A Christmas Carol (2019)

SKC: What was the moment where you felt you’d broken through? Do you remember feeling like this was your career now, this was viable?

MW: So while I was at uni I was doing some jobs during the holidays that my mum was still calling work experience, even though I was like ‘Mum, I’m getting paid!’ But, after uni I was working on a BBC drama–A Christmas Carol. I was just doing dailies on it, so I wasn't hired on a full contract, because I was just coming in at the end of the shoot. I was working on the Victorian crowd members. I do remember thinking after just one week, how much confidence I found in myself to just get on with it and be left to it. There's a lot of uncertainty and doubt that you obviously have when it comes to doing new things like that, trusting that you’re interpreting what people are asking you to do well enough. 

I remember realising that I knew what I was doing with a corset, that I could look at someone and be able to find a corset that would fit them enough to tie up properly. I suddenly realised I was able to absorb this information. And there were people there who were years and years my senior, and when they sort of stopped paying attention to what I was doing it meant I was doing my job well enough to be left to it.

SKC: And conversely were there moments where you felt like you made huge mistakes?

MW: Things go wrong all the time. My first time looking after principal actors I spent the whole day setting one guy’s scarf wrong. And it sounds really minor, but it's those things that people always pick up on when something changes from one shot to another, it feels like it's a really big deal in a stressful environment. There's always people telling other people to do their jobs faster. And you also don't want to look like you don't know what you're doing. But people can smell fear. You kind of have to suck it up and pretend that you're not scared, and not be afraid to ask questions. It took me a while to get over being scared of film sets. Everyone's talking on radios and using phrases that you can't know unless you've heard them like a million times before. It can be really baffling.

SKC: Is everyone frightened of film sets when they first start out?

MW: Definitely. Especially if you did something like a costume degree where they don’t necessarily tell you how film sets work. 

SKC: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned so far?

MW: Especially in the job I’m doing now it’s not to be afraid to ask questions. As long as you’ve thought them through a bit first of course, there can be such a thing as a stupid question if you’re not using your common sense. If you need to ask a question just do, because it will take you longer to correct a mistake if you don’t. 

SKC: What comes next for you? What do you hope to do in your career?

MW: I’m working in the design office at the moment and this definitely feels like the avenue I want to keep pursuing. The next stage for me would be junior assistant designer, then moving onto assistant designer and I think that’s the path I see myself on now. The excitement of set work has eased off a little bit and I’m enjoying having creative input. 

SKC: Well hopefully I’ll be interviewing again some day as the head designer for a big Hollywood film.

MW: Yeah sure, see you in 25 years!

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