Ask La Bricoleuse: Preparing for a costume production MFA program

Ask La Bricoleuse is a series which began back in 2006 over on the old LiveJournal version of this blog, because readers had begun to contact me with questions about all sorts of things--techniques, media for making things, and advice on applying to graduate programs or finding jobs in the field. Since it's time for people who are considering graduate study to begin preparing their applications, I thought I might go back to some of those posts, edit them for current accuracy, and share them once more. 

Regency half drape in floral cotton by third-year grad Jane Reichard

Today's post came from an original query by a woman who was then an undergraduate history major, asking specifics about how she might prepare herself to be a good candidate for a graduate program in costume production. She was particularly concerned that she was in a discipline other than drama for her bachelor's degree. Here's my (edited) response to her, in which I pontificate a bit about what makes an application stand out:

I can only really speak for our program here at UNC-Chapel Hill, but for us, your undergraduate major is not among the primary factors that impact your acceptance as a candidate for an MFA in costume production. Certainly, many applicants come with a major in theatre or film, but others come from a range of other majors—fashion, history, anthropology, sociology, a foreign language, even chemistry.

Here, beyond the basic university entrance requirements, what we look for is professional work experience, a good portfolio—actual photographs of work that you’ve done—and a good interview. 

If you are still an undergraduate, you can gain professional experience before you graduate--consider what you are going to do with your summers. As an undergrad, I did two internships with summer theatres, which were amazing and invaluable experiences. The folks who run those theatres can write you some great recommendation letters and can be good contacts for the future. I’ve gotten three jobs because people saw my summer stock experience on my resume and they had worked there themselves at some point. There are tons of Shakespeare festivals, opera companies, cruise ships, and regional or resort theatres that run summer seasons and love to hire folks in school during their summer breaks. Summer stock is an easy way to get hands-on experience while getting paid, build up your portfolio, and spend your summer somewhere cool. They often provide housing, sometimes with meals, and pay a stipend or salary.

Honing your stitching skills is a wise pursuit in general, as you’ll need them for certain in graduate school and a good balance of speed and accuracy can only help. If you can't find stitching work at a theatre, look for other opportunities: alterations work at a dry cleaner or bridal salon, and sewing for yourself, for friends, for cosplayers. 

Grad programs like to know that you’ve had practical work in your field, that you’ve worked somewhere besides your university shop—university shops are great, but they afford you only the narrow horizon of how things are done, whereas getting out into the workforce in summers  and for a couple years after undergrad gives you a broader exposure to how another shop is run, how other places push shows through their shops. It’s a good idea to start doing research now for summer work—a lot of places are posting calls for resumes now on boards like and will be doing first rounds of hiring in the early months of the new year. 

When you get to the point of applying for programs, go through all the photographs you’ve compiled of things you’ve made and pick out the best things, stuff you can talk about in an interview (how you made it, problems you had with the design if any, things you learned from the process). Ideally you want somewhere around 10-15 things. More is not necessarily better—six awesome things in a portfolio is far preferable to thirty mediocre things. 

As for the composition of the photos, I think ideally, you have close-up photos against a neutral background (black or white drop), with supplementary stage shots of the costume piece(s) on the performer. If something’s super-impressive and the only picture of it you have is on a dummy in the shop with folks standing around in the background or whatever, that’s better than nothing, since everyone knows there’s just not always time for well-planned lovely photos of things. 

That concludes my advice on how to prepare yourself for applying to grad school. If you think you're interested in more information about the application process itself, the link for our program is here and you can find contact information for other graduate programs through the Survey of Costume Design & Technology Programs site.

If you have a question I haven't answered, please leave a comment and ask! 


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