Career in Clothing: An Interview with a Professional Costume Designer


Maddie Moore ’22
Fashion Columnist

In case you didn’t know, I have a passion for fashion. However, despite being a liberal arts institution, Scripps College does not offer a major in the art of style.

So that is why I settled and became a politics major (Just kidding, politics is the best department on campus, I love you Nancy, Tom, and Mark). In all actuality, that is the story of how I ended up in Monica French’s Costume Design Stage & Screen (THEA081 PO-01) class. As the only course at the Claremont Colleges with style on the syllabus, it is my favorite class and features scrolling Pinterest for homework, Professor French’s flair for fashion, and her dog Rudy, who would often make an appearance to howl “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen.

Given that French costumed the latest Pomona Theatre Department show “Scissoring” (and given that she is one of my favorite, most fashionable professors ever), I set out to learn about her process, professional life, and personal style:

TSV: How would you describe your personal style?

MF: Such a great question… I often think that I dress up the way a kindergartener would put together clothes. Which is to say, I got dressed to make me feel happy. I love color. I love mixing patterns together. I don’t really have an overall term for [my aesthetic], but just whatever makes me happy. And I really do feel like I take power from the clothes that I wear… I like to incorporate a lot of vintage pieces for that particular reason, because I feel there’s something magical about vintage clothing and people who have worn them before you.

TSV: And what is making you happy right now in terms of what you’ve been wearing recently?

MF: The other day I wore several mixed patterns together and it was all different scales of polka dots. [The outfit had a] black and white color scheme, but [with] tiny polka dots and large polka dots… Someone told me, “You look like an essay in polka dots” and I was like, “That’s seriously the nicest thing anyone has ever told me.” So yeah, I think right now I’m really feeling patterns.

TSV: Since we’ve defined your personal style, what is your relationship with your personal style? How did it develop?

MF: Going back to harnessing power from [my clothes], I feel like as someone who hasn’t always been like 100 percent confident in their body, [my style allowed me to] spotlight my creativity. I think that that always made me feel strong in what I was, even if I wasn’t always totally confident in how I looked… And then I also think that perspective can help me. I see that in other people as well, and in characters that I’m making costumes for.

TSV: Shifting gears to your job and your career: how did you get into costuming?

MF: Here at the Claremont Colleges, actually! I went to Pitzer, and when I came in, I was very much thinking that I was going to have a “practical career.” I was going to be very serious about my education. But I also wanted to work in the costume shop because sewing is one of the skills that I came [to college] with, and I have a theater background [from] high school. I really wanted to be a very serious, academic student — but I worked in the costume shop for one semester and then declared a theater major! Once I realized that this was a valid course that could end up in a career I thought well, why deny it, if it makes me so happy. It’s exactly what I want to be doing. So, from then on, I just embraced it. I worked in the costume shop for all four years, [and] ended up designing a show for my senior theater project. From there I worked at a Shakespeare festival for the summer and in a costume rental house. And then I went to grad school, where I was able to use the base of knowledge that I got from my liberal arts education and just work a lot. I did a lot of shows, [which] led me to working with an opera company and at a theme park. So, I had high art and corporate art as part of my background. And I think both of those things really [informed] the direction my life has taken since then.

TSV: How does your personal style influence your career in costuming? Or do you keep the two separate?

MF: Yeah, I mean I have to say I feel so personally about clothing that I don’t think they’re totally separate. I think that my sensibility frames a lot of the direction of my work. But of course, the directors that I work with have their own sort of sense of style too, that I try to emulate and support. Costume design is always a conversation; It’s not just the costume designer… That all being said, I love using textiles that really have a lot of dimensions to them, so I find myself using that a lot whether I’m building stuff or shopping. And of course: color. I think that color can be a great storyteller. [For example, you could] have a strict color palette for one character that [would] carry them through a bunch of different costume changes, or [you could introduce] lots of different colors. I think those are two things from my personal life that really do kind of find themselves in my work.

TSV: Can you speak about the process of costuming the play “Scissoring?” What are your favorite details in the costumes?

MF: While developing the concept with the director, we talked a lot about personal vs. public/professional presentation and the ways we can protect parts of our identity through dressing to fit in or stand out. I wanted to highlight this with Abby and Josie, who approached this in different ways: Abby desperately wants/needs to conceal her personal life at work; therefore she dresses in a way that helps her blend with the conservative religious community at the school. Josie has nothing to hide and dresses in a way that reflects aspects of her lifestyle as an artist and lesbian. I made extensive collections of images that I shared with the director and gauged the feedback from the actors in fittings to find looks that felt authentic to each character.

Favorite details: A fair amount of time passes over the course of the play, but the lead actor never goes offstage. A fun challenge was figuring out a costume that could work in both work and home settings for Abby as well as approaching the costume changes of the supporting characters from a very realistic angle, which hopefully showed the days and months passing (and wasn’t simply a minefield of quick changes for the actors!)

There is also an element of magical realism in the play and I had a lot of fun imagining how we could embody an anthropomorphic PA system (we made a xylophone dress) as well as introduce some characters from history, but with a twist!

TSV: What advice would you give to someone who is interested in a career in costuming?

MF: There are a lot of different paths within the world, so I would say to explore! Film, theater, dance, ice skating, opera, theme parks, cosplay, historical reenactment – find something that excites you. Make sure you love it (more than a hobby) and go all in! Also, if you want to be a costume designer, learn how to sew! You don’t have to get especially good at it, but I find that a working knowledge of the technical side of garment construction makes it easier to communicate and visualize your ideas!

Image Source: Arjun Govind PO ’25

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