Ask La Bricoleuse: Design vs. Production MFA programs

Here's the next installment of my series for costumers considering graduate school. The first incarnation of this post dates back to a query from the fall of 2006; I've edited the post to make it more concise and up-to-date for 2019. Essentially, the original querent asked about the difference between an MFA in costume design and one in costume production, and whether one was "preferred" in the working world. 

In case you (or your friends/family) wonder, "what's the difference between a focus in costume production and costume design?" I'll address that first! 

An MFA in costume production focuses specifically on construction technologies and histories. In these programs, you will learn draping, tailoring, pattern drafting (sometimes both by hand and using software), and crafts topics like dyeing, millinery, and maskmaking. Some programs may also have archiving classes on analyzing and/or preserving vintage garments (see the CoStar Vintage Clothing Archive site for one example of what type of work falls into this area), or managerial tracks for those interested in pursuing a career in costume shop management.

With an MFA in costume design, you may still have a certain amount of production coursework--draping/drafting, millinery, etc.--but your primary focus will be on designing. You will likely study rendering techniques, design theory, and ideally, have opportunities to design for actual productions. One thing to ask with design programs is how much practical experience opportunity there is for their MFA candidates--will you only design hypothetical shows that never actually get produced, or will you design several produced shows and have hands-on experience dressing actors for the stage? Will you get to design shows that have a construction budget (i.e., costumes that will be custom-built to the specs of your renderings, from fabric you buy) or will your designs have to be largely pulled and altered from stock or rentals?

Programs that focus on design or a combination of design and production are a lot more common than programs that offer a production-only area of specialty. If you are uncertain as to whether you want to specialize in design or production (or if you want to make a go at both), one of the combined-focus programs is what you should be looking for. And, you should definitely contact the directors of the programs at the schools that interest you--talk to them about their programs, make an appointment to go visit and see the facilities, perhaps even sit in on a class or two. Actually going to the department and the shops will be invaluable in helping you decide if a particular school or program is for you.

In terms of applications and interviews, start your portfolios early! The program directors will take into consideration your design and/or construction history and experience, so for design programs the portfolio should have renderings and swatches and the like in addition to photos; don't worry if all you have from your undergrad work is class projects, that's ok, put them in there. Also, do summer stock during your summers! It's fun, it's great experience, it gives you more things
 for your portfolio, and it shows you are serious about a career in the theatre.

In terms of what grad schools to consider, that depends on what areas you want to focus on, and everyone's going to have different ideas on that front. Talk to the costuming professors in undergrad--they are a good starting resource--and if there are any schools near you that you can visit in say, a weekend trip, call them up and go visit! Ask the professors, ask the students, get as many opinions as you can. Don't be afraid to reach out to professionals in the field, too--is there a regional theatre, ballet or opera company in your area or the state capitol? The costume director might have time to answer an email query about graduate school recommendations. And, make a list of what else is important to you in a grad school--geographical location, professional reputation, good funding for MFA candidates, alumni employment rates, any and all of these may be deciding factors. 

When you are researching potential programs, ask if they are fully or partially funded and with what kinds of funding. Work-study positions? Teaching assistantships? Research assistantships? Any specific grants and scholarships? Where i work, we have a combination of all of these, and many of our MFA candidates pay for their studies with several different kinds of funding aid. Some programs have no funding opportunities or assistantships (meaning, you either need to have the $ saved up to pay for it yourself or will have to take out a student loan), and nearly all graduate programs that offer funding expect you to do something in return, whether that be teach an undergrad intro course or grade exams or oversee costume donations and loans, etc. 

So, in addition to asking your teachers and any professionals in the field, how else can you find what programs are out there? Isn't there some kind of database?

Yes! The Survey of Costume Design & Technology Programs(Full disclosure: My former department head, Judy Adamson, created and maintained this site until her recent retirement.) 

I am the first to admit that its site design is not optimized for contemporary usability, but the Survey is nevertheless a great resource for anyone seeking higher education programs in costume fields. It's a one-stop compendium of this sort of info; it lists all the schools in the US and a few abroad that have costuming-oriented degree programs, both undergraduate and graduate. Each school's entry has the types of degrees offered, areas of focus (i.e., design, tailoring, history, etc), faculty/staff, contact info, and links to the programs' websites. 

The main caveat here is to remember as you search through it that the individual schools listed are responsible for making sure their entries are up-to-date and accurate. ALWAYS check the school's website or contact them directly to make sure the information on degrees offered, subjects, and staff are correct.

In terms of usability, my primary criticism of the site is that at present the programs are listed by region and alphabetically by school, but no search function by which one might, say, look for every school listed that offers an MFA in Costume Design, or a BA with a costuming focus, etc. This will however, be useful for seeking schools by geographical area, if that is an important factor for you. See what's listed in the area you want, and then ask your professors about those schools. 

For example, if you want to find a school close to family in Chicago, in the Great Lakes Region of the Survey, there are nine schools with costume MFA programs listed in Illinois, of which five offer graduate degree options. Of those five, I've heard the most good stuff about the programs at Northwestern and UI-Champaign/Urbana, but you should contact all five for more information, rather than just restricting yourself to those "big names." Most schools have more graduate applicants than available positions for incoming students, so decide whether you want to limit yourself to just your top school(s). We have had several grad students who applied and weren't accepted, asked how they might improve their candidacy, then later reapplied and got in. It all depends on your priorities!

This concludes the second in a series of ten posts about applying to grad school that I'm planning for this month. Other topics will include things like what the interview process is like, advice on writing your statement of purpose, and what it's like to go to URTA and/or LiNK.

Monogram detail on an antique parasol recently donated to our department.


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