Compiling a portfolio for costume production or design

Half-drapes for period pattern class, from left:
Cami Huebert, Lauren Woods, Erin Rodgers, Jane Reichard, Ellen Cornette

This is the next installment of my series on advice for applicants to graduate programs in costumes in which I address portfolios and how to make a good one!

Unfortunately there is no standard for portfolio formatting like say, the Chicago Manual of Style for writing, so we're all left dog paddling around in the deep end, trying to figure something out that looks professional and concise. This post is primarily directed toward those readers first compiling a portfolio, those who aren't confident about their portfolios, and those with an interest in improving or streamlining a portfolio. 

Whenever you are applying for a graduate program or a job where they request a portfolio, don't be afraid to contact the head of the program or the shop manager and ask what they would like to see in that portfolio. They should be glad to tell you--one place might want to see the full range of your work from stitching to crafts to patternmaking to draping, while another may only want to see, say, your original design work and nothing else. Never hurts to ask, and if the program director or HR person or shop manager is rude and dismissive, well, IMO that in and of itself tells you something about what it might be like to work or attend school there. More than likely they will be happy you asked--it shows that you value both their time and yours.

Here are three basic things i always tell folks who ask me for portfolio set-up advice:

1.) Find a good digital host with an easy-to-adapt template. It could be or or any number of other hosts, but a digital portfolio is hands down the way to go. If you want to put together some kind of hard copy version to carry around or leave with an employer or school, you can do that as a photobook from Shutterfly or whatever, fine, but the digital portfolio is the standard now. Big hardcopy portfolios are...well, not obsolete, but seen less and less in the 21st century. Some design programs may still want to see your hard-copy designs if you render on paper with paint/markers/etc., but in production, we want a digital portfolio. If you're invited for an interview on the strength of that portfolio, it's great to bring a costume piece you made or a set of painted sketches of which you are particularly proud then, but cross that bridge if you come to it.

2.) Regarding photos of stagecraft or costumes: be discerning. One decent photo is definitely better than no photos. No photos, though, are better than a blurry crappy photo that doesn't accurately depict the subject. You are wasting people's time if you show a portfolio of poorly-lit pictures, offering an excuse of, "These are the only photos i have of these costumes...but they were really great!" All that tells the interviewer is that you neglected to obtain decent photographs documenting something you consider to be great work...which is NOT an impression you want to leave. If you don't have good photographs of something but you can still access the garment and take some, do it, soon! If you can't, take it as the hard-learned lesson that it is and make SURE you photograph things you work on, starting now. Multiple photos--different angles or detail shots or mid-process shots--are the best. Photos against a neutral backdrop are better than photos with a messy workroom in the background, but a good series of photos with a workshop background are better than no photos at all. I have a coworker hold up a sheet of muslin behind something or wheel a form in front of our fitting room curtain if i need a quick "backdrop" for a photo.

If you are interested in design and have no photos of a design you did but you have drafts or renderings, that's ok--it shows that you can and do draft or render. And, if you have anything else visual to bring along (paint chips to show the color palette for a set, swatches of fabrics from a costume or scrims/drapes/soft props/upholstered furniture, etc) do it. An ideal portfolio shows the many facets of your skills and talent. A designer who has only stage shots of the final show is only displaying one facet of their talent--good designers also produce competent renderings, research, collages, make good fabric choices, etc., so any evidence of those skills is appropriate to include. This philosophy also applies to crafts artisans--you are selling yourself short if you only have finished photos of work for the stage. If you spend your summers, say, doing elaborate event decor or making intricately adorned bridal headpieces, it is certainly appropriate to include photos of that work.

3.) Label everything completely, consistently, and accurately. If it's a class project, note that ("Lion mask, Sculpture class project, Joe Blow High School, 2015"). If it's costumes for a show that was actually produced, put a label beside the picture(s) with the show title, your job, what organization did the show, and when ("Twelfth Night, stitcher/crafts assistant, Chicago's Shakespeare in the Park", Summer 2017). It's good practice to credit the photographer (if it's a press pic) and the actor depicted. If it's a costume you made for a convention or Halloween or whatever, note that on a label, and especially if it is some type of cosplay thing, include an image of the character the costume is supposed to represent as well--assume people don't know the source material, and if your costume doesn't look all that great juxtaposed against the source material, then you shouldn't include it, period. 

Once you have your portfolio basically set up--you have your chosen template/host, all your pictures and renderings and and information together--the big question then is, how do you categorize things? 
Group things by category (perhaps Stitching, First hand, Draping, Crafts, Design) and within each subheading, by reverse-chronological order. That way, if your interviewer can choose not to scroll through any irrelevant section.

4.) Don't bog it down with too much stuff. If you have done so much work that you have a hundred portfolio pages, that's nice, but no interviewer is going to give you the time to show the whole thing. Pick your best stuff. Ten amazing things, period, are a better portfolio than forty things of which ten are amazing. It can't hurt to have a downloadable/printable PDF of your resume, too. 

Hopefully this is useful as a starting point, some advice on how to approach creating a portfolio. And, for any of you job-searching or hoping to shoot for acceptance into various educational programs in 2020, best of luck to you! That concludes this installment of my posts in which I pontificate on various concerns of those who may apply to grad school in future. :D


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