Costume & Fashion Design: Differences, Crossover and Collaboration

Costume & Fashion Design: Differences, Crossover and Collaboration

It is not uncommon for people to interchange costume and fashion design. They both deal with clothes so they’re basically the same, right?


 Although they may both work with textiles, construction and even trends- the distinction lies in intention. Anna Wycoff, in an article for the Costume Designer’s Guild IATSE local 892, expertly pinpoints the difference between the two:

The Oxford English Dictionary defines costume as “A set of clothes in a style typical of a particular country or historical period,” while fashion is described as “A popular trend, especially in styles of dress and ornament or manners of behavior.” To put it another way, fashion reflects the current vogue in clothing, and costume uses clothing to evoke a personality to support a plot. For the most part, the purposes of the two mediums differ; fashion is motivated by commerce, while costumes are designed for an actor in a specific role, not for public consumption.”

 In the early 20th century, fashion designers started emerging with their brands for the first time. Beginning with designers like Charles Frederick Worth, couturiers in Europe established their own design houses to cater to their high end clientele. Other well known houses that became established during this time were Chanel and in the middle of the 20th century, Christian Dior drastically changed the look of fashion with his “New Look” collection in 1947.

And while couture fashion at the time made appearances in film, costume designers were still mindful of the purpose of the garment for the story. Here is a clip featuring legendary costume designer Edith Head,discussing the role of the Costume Designer:


But what about contemporary television shows and movies? Isn’t it just glorified styling?

 The short answer? Of course not! While it may be easier to recognize a costume in a period film like Marie Antoinette (2006) or a fantasy epic such as Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001), costuming a movie with clothing that is more familiar is often more challenging. Audiences can recognize the clothes and thus already have an expectation when they see particular styles. Arianne Phillips (whose design credits include Kingsmen: A Secret Service and 3:10 to Yuma) discusses that difficulty:

“The hardest job for a Costume Designer is working on a contemporary film because all the people making decisions about these costumes are above the line: producers, directors, actors. All these people can afford to buy product; they have access to high fashion, which makes people feel like they are experts.”

The costumes need to be effective, yet invisible- as Academy Award Winner and frequent Tim Burton collaborator Colleen Atwood said:

Costumes are the first impression that you have of the character before they open their mouth-it really does establish who they are.

Some of my favorite examples of excellent contemporary design are the costumes in Devil Wears Prada, designed by Patricia Field (whose credits also include Sex and the City). In the film, Field creates tension by contrasting the boss bitch of fictional RUNWAY magazine, Miranda Priestly (played by the fabulous Meryl Streep), with Andy Sacks (played by Anne Hathaway), a recent Northwestern graduate who has ambitions to be a journalist but finds herself recently employed as one of Miranda’s assistants.



In the scene above, Andy’s hypocritical pretension towards fashion design is called out by Prisetly, surrounded by like minded fashionistas. Andy sticks out – isolated by her unkempt appearance and vibrant cerulean sweater.

Other fantastic examples of modern costume design is The Hangover (2009), costume designed by Louise Migenbach and Inception (2010), costume designed by Jeffrey Kurland. Both films tackle predominately male casts and translates menswear to showcase the different personalities in their respective groups.

Designers use fashion to visually heighten the narrative, not arbitrarily styling just to make a character look good. That is the modus operandi of a costume designer.Our joie de vivre so to say!

Fashion inspired by Costume Design

Cinema and fashion have always cross-pollinated- film can inspire the runway, which in turn, end up on the characters on screen.  In 2007, AMC’s Mad Men turned home viewers into fashion aficionados, longing to incorporate the 1960’s appearance in their personal wardrobe. This is all thanks to the work of Costume Designer Janie Bryant. The costumes of the show became a character in itself– influencing multiple fashion shows and a Mad Men inspired collection with Banana Republic.

Vintage fashion has a wide range of appeal, packed with nostalgia for decades long gone, which is shown through the success of Bryant’s collaboration with a mainstream retailer.

What about a modern movie with featuring current street fashion?

In December of 2011, David Fincher’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo hit theatres, introducing audiences to Lisbeth Salander (played by Rooney Mara), a cool, ingenuous investigator helping Mikael Bloomkvist (Daniel Craig) solve a 40 year old murder in Sweden. Armed with leather and a grunge aesthetic, costume designer Trish Summerville launched a collection, in collaboration with H&M, inspired by Lisbeth’s closet.


On the opposite end of the style spectrum, there is a 90’s fashion resurgence so of course, Mona May’s costumes for the 1995 film Clueless have found their way back to mainstream. Even predicting current trends! Audiences feel transported when watching cinema, so that feeling translated when wearing looks presented in entertainment. They can embody the character, subtly, which creates the demand for this kind fusion of the two industries.

I mean, who hasn’t wanted to dress up like a favorite character from a movie or tv show? You should see my collection of Star Wars inspired pieces…

Well, why don’t fashion designers venture into film and television then?

Oh but they have!Of my favorite examples is couture fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier. Gaultier, known for designing the iconic cone bra for Madonna and other gender bending, expertly tailored pieces, incorporated his aesthetic in the costumes for high concept Sci-Fi film The Fifth Element.

Original costume designs and illustrations by Jean Paul Gaultier. Image Source: “The Story of ‘The Fifth Element’ by Luc Besson, Titan Books Ltd


Gaultier and Director Luc Besson created a cast of characters out of this world- from Chris Tucker playing the flamboyant Ruby Rhod to Diva Plavalaguna, a blue alien space opera singer. However, the fashion never strayed from it’s purpose- providing a visual representation of the menagerie of personalities on the cinematic screen.


In conclusion – it’s always about storytelling.

 While there may be theatrical couture or dramatic fashion (just take a look at the Spring 2003 Dior collection, by creative director John Galliano), the end result is different. Fashion is a business, creating a consumable product for the public while costume design is a narrative tool in entertainment. If you want to read more, check out my post about books on costume design to get started.

Did this post help you understand the difference between Costume and Fashion Design? Inspired to watch any of the films listed in this article? Let us know in a comment below!

Happy Unstitching!

– Laura









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