How to Become a Costume Designer

Meet Paloma Young, a Tony Award-winning costume designer.

For creative individuals who enjoy fashion and storytelling, becoming a costume designer is The Dream. Growing up as an avid movie fan, Paloma Young didn’t really see costume design as a viable career until after she graduated from UC Berkeley. “One night, I had a pretty rough evening at work in San Francisco where so many things were going wrong at the same time, and the next morning I woke up and said, ‘I want to go to grad school for costume design.’ That was my epiphany moment.”

She went on to become the wardrobe mastermind behind many productions, from Pride and Prejudice to Tangled the Musical. In 2012, she won a Tony Award for Best Costume Design in a Play in merit of her work on Peter and the Starcatcher.

In order to learn more about the perks of being a costume designer, we caught up with Paloma and discussed everything – from what her design process is like to her love of Law & Order.

1. What’s your background?

I was born in southern California but I moved to an island off the coast of Maine when I was a baby. My parents are both artists; my father is a photographer and my mother was a men’s surf-wear designer and painter. I grew up around art and they both wanted me to grow up to be anything but an artist.

Paloma in her studio.

2. How did you get your start in costume design?

I studied history at Berkeley, and thought I might want to work in a library. I took some costume design classes for fun. I used to watch movies and paid special attention to the costume design, probably more than the average person. I didn’t really see it as a career until after I graduated. One night, I had a pretty rough evening at work in San Francisco where so many things were going so wrong all at the same time, and the next morning I woke up and was like “I want to go to grad school for costume design.” That was my epiphany moment.

3. What’s your design process?

The first thing I do is look at all the material that available. If it’s a play, I’m reading the script. If it’s a musical, I’m reading the script and listening to the music. Then I’m talking to the director if there is anything else that I should know about the show. [Once I receive a general overview], I do a round of visual, artistic research. I go through magazines, search for pieces online, and sometimes look for a specific item that I think a character would be wearing. This helps me develop a language of shape around each of the characters: some are much more script-like – circular, flowing, romantic – where others are more angular and modern. This comes out in the clothes they will eventually wear. I take this to the director and weed out the things that don’t make sense and latch onto the ideas that resonate with the show. I start sketching out my ideas and sending them out to be made.

Another important part of the process is bringing the actor into the conversation. I take both the actor’s and director’s ideas into account and try to find a happy medium.

Some of Paloma’s sketches for costumes in the musical “Bandstand.”

4. You designed your Tony’s dress this year. What was going through your mind when you were designing for yourself? Was it different than designing for someone else?

I hadn’t done it since I designed my prom dress. It’s a little nerve-wracking because there are a lot of things that the public and peers in my field expect out of a designer, which is that the designer understands what their strengths and weaknesses are in body types and styles. If I made something ugly or it’s not flattering to me on my own body, then it’s going to reflect poorly on me as a designer. I had a couple key influences: One, I never wear dresses with big skirts. I went through a terrible break-up last winter and thought I was never going to get married so I figured if I’m going to have a big dress, this is the time and I’m going to do it just for me. Two, I wanted to reflect on The Great Comet and Bandstand, The Great Comet being the show I was nominated for a Tony. I took elements from each show and put them together. The dress is more 40s inspired, like Bandstand, as far as shape. I had the green and black plaid with gold shoes, which are more Great Comet colors.

5. What advice would you give to aspiring costume designers?

Costume design is all about telling stories. Immerse yourself in a life where you’re learning how to tell and listen to stories and observe them in the world. Don’t go to school just to be a designer if you want to be one. Reading all the design books and taking all the classes are good and all, but if there’s not an outside worldly experience behind it, then the designs will always be at a very superficial level.

Dana Green, Kalie Quñones, Joel J. Gelman, Kandis Chappell, Cor
Paloma’s work on “Pride & Prejudice.”

6. Who influences you as a designer?

Emily Rebholz does really wonderful modern dress work and real clothing work. She designed Indecent, so that was not like modern dresses, but early 20s dresses. I loved how real she made the characters feel in their clothes. Paul Tazewell does beautiful work as well. He designed Hamilton, but I have been admiring his work for years. I feel like his work is really underappreciated. He is just taking period ideas and filtering them through the music that it is being presented through.

7. What’s the biggest challenge of costume design?

The biggest challenge for me is being a good collaborator and processing all the various personalities and making every feel, not just comfortable, but excited about the choices that are being made for the show.

8. What’s your favorite thing about costume design?

The psychology behind it. When it all works together, it’s so satisfying. It’s like a mind-meld, which is a weird comic book term, but when all the minds come together it’s like we’re creating life. The character doesn’t exist. It’s not a human with a beating heart, but it’s like creating a spirit.

FullSizeRender 11
Fittings are an important part of the process.

9. What has been your favorite costume to design?

I’d say, nostalgically, Peter Pan’s costume from Peter and the Starcatcher. I worked with the actor and discussed where the holes in the clothing would be based on his character’s tics. He was fiddling with sweaters and there would develop a hole that is worn in a very particular place. Getting into the mind of this thirteen year old boy was just a very special experience and I grew a fondness for that costume.

10. What’s next for Paloma Young?

Right now, I’m working on a play at Roundabout Theatre called Time and the Conways. It’s a revival of a play that was first and last performed in New York in 1938. I get to help tell the story of the overlapping times between 1919 and 1937.


Some facts about Paloma:

  • Her favorite guilty pleasure is “Law and Order. It’s so trashy, but I love it.”
  • She prefers thrift stores to department stores. “I do a lot of shopping at Beacon’s Closet for both myself and work.”
  • If she could tell her 13-year-old self anything, it would be: “It’s okay to get bullied because you’re going to come out on top. Almost everyone I work with, we all had miserable childhoods. I’m definitely living a life that I’m happier with than most of those people who bullied me.”
  • Her most important design tip is to “always back up and squint at your design.”
  • Her go-to look contains “a black or white t-shirt.”


Brooke Stiles is a sophomore at Denison University and a contributor at When she is not in a costume shop or thrift store, she can be found snuggled up with her puppers watching “Gossip Girl” for the thousandth time.


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