Portfolios and Resumes

PORTFOLIOS FOR ALL YOUR JOBS: Most advice on portfolios for costumers tends to center on straight design portfolios. Yet there are relatively few design jobs out there that consist solely of costume design. My own fairly typical university position at UAF is supposed to consist of equal parts of teaching, research, and public service in my field. In other words, for my job I must, in addition to costume design all shows, teach classes in costume design, costume history, stage makeup and theatre history, do research and publications in my field, do related public services like curate exhibits of costumes for museums, advise local schools about costumes and makeup for shows, teach every sort of cutting and construction in the costume shop, and do periodic displays, posters, and photos for publicity. For me to go to an interview with only a design portfolio would be to leave out more than two-thirds of my work.

SECONDARY PORTFOLIOS: So I have several small portfolios in addition to my design work that I use to highlight my other work and interests. There is a 8 1/2 x 11 booklet of my published articles, one of transcripts, certificates and awards, one for each of the classes I teach, one of cutting work I’ve done, one of costume crafts, one of posters, displays and artwork, and one of stage photographs. This is probably overkill, but it illustrates the varied kinds of things one can put into a portfolio to represent one’s work.


STUDENT PORTFOLIOS: Students, who have just begun to get experience, and who mostly are applying for lower costume positions like stitchers, crafts workers, and design assistants, should consider developing a combination portfolio that showcases their work in these areas in addition to design. When a student is just starting out, she should consider putting everything she has into her portfolio, and later pulling things out as they are replaced by newer or more important work. Examples of things you might not have thought of that can go into a general student costume portfolio, or into separate ones:
  • poster design
  • sewing
  • costume and textile crafts
  • dyeing and painting
  • draping
  • flat patterning
  • school projects
  • school grades & awards
  • museum work (cataloging)
  • historical reproductions
  • photography
  • jewelry and sculpture
  • work with dolls
  • work in other areas of theatre
  • misc. awards
  • makeup design
  • teaching experience
  • published work

So when I was much younger, and beginning my portfolio, I included cover designs for a Society for Creative Anachronism `zine I drew, many photos of my hats and other costume crafts I built for the college costume shop, photos of some historical reproduction fans I made as a gift, Xeroxes of museum cataloging I’d done as a college project, awards certificates for local costume and sewing contests I’d won with photos of the winning costumes, my transcripts, letters of reference, a few designs, and every newspaper photo or mention of my contest wins, or review of my costumes in shows that I could get. It wasn’t until much later that I could divide up into more than one portfolio, and later still before I could move on and take most of this early stuff out.

TEACHING PORTFOLIOS: Now I am most proud of my teaching portfolios. The fact is that in hiring for a teaching situation, like a university, this should be the main thing people look for. In each of mine I put a copy of my syllabus, photos of my class’s class projects, and copies of my student ratings of instruction printouts and suggestion pages. This means I need to make an effort to photograph my student’s projects in costuming and makeup, or make Xeroxes of costume history projects like patterns from antique garments as I go along, but since this also helps the students in developing their own portfolios, it is something I do anyway for them. It is just a question of making some extra copies for myself, to show the sort of projects I assign, in a simple, visual manner for anyone to see and understand.

CUTTING AND CRAFTS PORTFOLIOS: In these I mainly focus on work I did on other people’s shows. I feel that this shows that I can faithfully follow somebody else’s designs as well as my own. If I sensed, as I was working on a project, that it was suitable portfolio material, I simply asked the designer for a photo or color Xerox of the rendering. I then display a photo of the completed costume next to the copy of the rendering on which it is based. If possible, I even ask the actor to pose in the same position as the rendering, the better to show off my ability to reproduce a designer’s work exactly. If the work is of a craft nature like dyeing or painting, I’ll also save and attach swatches of dyed or painted show fabric.

WRITING PORTFOLIOS: The main key to a writing portfolio seems to be writing enough that it doesn’t seem pretentious of you to have one. Ideally you want to write enough that you can pick and choose what you put in, just like any other portfolio. It is neater and more convenient if you pull articles out of magazines and put them in plastic pages, although it is less impressive looking somehow. Oversize pages, particularly newspaper pages, are best Xeroxed and cut or reduced to binder size. Newsprint paper self destructs quickly, and so is best copied onto acid free Copysource paper before it turns too brown to do so. Taking time to find appropriate visual material for your writing before it is published, and getting visuals included in your articles, pays off in making a more visually interesting writing portfolio. However, your writing, is pretty much your writing, and can’t be cleverly manipulated in the portfolio to look more interesting than it is. It’s either good or it isn’t.

PHOTOGRAPHY PORTFOLIOS: Photography is also one of those things that you can’t make look more impressive than it is. If it isn’t good, no amount of matting, layout, or juxtaposition of examples will improve it. You should always be highly selective and ruthlessly dump your failures. If you don’t have enough good stuff left when you’re done to make a full portfolio, you shouldn’t have one. If your work is good, on the other hand, it is useful to include photos from shows you have designed. This will let viewers see your work as it was on stage, without the distraction of renderings, swatches and sketches that are in your design portfolio.
TALKING IN VISUALS: Portfolios basically exist as a teaching supplement in a job interview. Some people will best understand what you have done and learned from reading it in your resume, others will respond to hearing it from you in the interview, yet others will only “get” it when they see it in your portfolio. This has to do with the different ways people process information and learn. You should try with your portfolio to state in simple visual terms what it is that you can do, by showing pictures of what you have done. Ideally, the portfolio should be clear even to somebody who cannot read the captions. In most interviews for costumer’s jobs, the hiring decisions are being made by directors, technical directors, and non-costume designers, so it is not in the best interest of the applicant to assume the viewers have a specialized knowledge of costume construction or design. It often helps to show steps in the process like sketches, research, sources, swatches, renderings and finished products in a logical order to help people to understand how you work.

TALKING TO DIRECTORS: It is above all, necessary to demonstrate how you communicate with the director and other designers. If your design portfolio shows only photos without renderings, they will wonder “Will I be given any idea how the costumes look before first dress?” If you include renderings but no photos, they will wonder “Yes, but do they really look this good on stage?” If all the renderings and photos match each other too closely, they will probably guess you did the renderings after you made the costumes. If your renderings look like the work of God, and you have no preliminary sketches, they will wonder “Won’t she get upset if we reject a design?” Fact is directors want evidence in the design portfolio that you are flexible, that they will get early information like research and sketches from you, that they’ll see renderings before you make the costumes, and that the costumes look good. This is why it is important to save as much information as possible on each show.

BUILDING PORTFOLIOS: The main two keys to building good portfolios are simple: collect information (renderings, sketches, swatches, photos, etc.) on everything you do, and edit and remount the new information you have every six to twelve months. Ultimately the thing that will “sell” your design portfolio is the design, or other work in it. The display is just a vehicle for showing your work. This is why collecting information on your work is the most important part of the process. Working on updating every six months is just a way to make sure you (a.) don’t let the work pile up, and (b.) still can get access to your work for photos, swatches, etc. if you find you forgot to gather something important.

RECORDING THE HISTORY OF SHOWS: If you update your portfolio regularly, you also will know what renderings, photos, sketches, and swatches you don’t need. You can perform a service to your theatre, and save yourself storage space, by putting all unnecessary information into a folder for each show and donating it to the theatre archives, local library, or theatre museum. You will help to preserve the history of your theatre, provide future scholars with reference material, and assure your own (minor) immortality by doing so. This also allows you to park your car inside your garage.

ONE IDEA AT A TIME: When you are putting in a display of your work on a show, try to stick to showing one thing about the show that best illustrates your best work in it. Don’t try to get in the whole show, just this one best “idea” that made the show different from your other work. The rest you can donate to the library. For example, in my portfolio, Woyzeck only shows close-ups of its Expressionistic makeup and fabric painting, The Eagle’s Gift shows the spirit costumes made with recycled garbage, Cabaret has swatches of the show fabric next to the Otto Dix picture from which I drew the color scheme, and a few photos showing the color scheme on stage,

Qayaq has renderings directly opposite the research Xeroxes on Alaska Native dress that inspired them, and Ubu Roi shows only the three most outrageously weird cartoonish sketches I did for a show with about 60 assorted weird costumes.
KEEP THINGS SHORT, SIMPLE AND CHEAP: Once you have achieved critical density (one to three pages for a resume, 20 pages+ of design portfolio) dump out old less important stuff every time you add something new. Don’t hit folks with more information than they can grasp in one sitting. Don’t display your lack of organizational skills by showing a loose pile of photos and sketches. Don’t spend lots of money on a fancy display that looks better than your renderings do. Label things clearly and simply. If you show just a little stuff, but all of excellent quality, people will just assume all your work is of a similar quality.
PAT THE BUNNY: Wherever possible, include touchy feely stuff. Swatches help, texture helps. If you are doing a costume crafts portfolio, with photos of fabric painting, latex casting, armor, jewelry, distressing, save your test samples and swatches for each project and glue them next to the photo of the completed work. Keep the connection between photo and sample clear and simple, not junky, and label it. Keep it about as simple as the children’s book Pat the Bunny, and it’ll be OK.

LET YOUR PERSONALITY SHOW THROUGH: Don’t try to fade into the woodwork however, this is costume design, not public accounting, people do not expect you to be boring and faceless. Simple does not translate as boring. As a student many years ago I went to the URTA National Unified Auditions and was amazed. Out of dozens of design students looking for jobs, I appeared to be the only one not wearing black or brown, and not carrying one of those identical ugly black vinyl zippered portfolios. I was later told by the schools that I was the only one who didn’t send a white or beige resume. While I would like to think that my natural talent, great slides, and wonderful presentation is what got me twice as many interviews as the others, I’m inclined to think that the giant marbled portfolio, hot pink resumes, 3-D displays of crafts and sewing, and my cream white pantsuit, also made the impression that I was a designer and not a frightened rabbit. Make your portfolio look like who you are. And when you become somebody else, (and you will eventually,) change it.

RESUMES: What can I say about this? Too much has been said already, lots of “don’ts” that have more to do with how to get jobs in banks than in theatre. Lots of different confusing formats from “skills resumes” to straightforward chronological ones. Most of what you need to do should be obvious: list relevant work you’ve done, both paid and volunteer. List in a short manner when, where, and what you did. List everything when you’re young, dump older information when you get too many things to list. If you have a lot of work in several distinct categories, divide the information into headings to make it easier on the reader. Don’t advertise inefficiency with typos and bad Xeroxing.

PERSONALITY IN IMPERSONAL DOCUMENTS: I do, however, believe one thing about resumes very strongly. You need to use a resume to show people who you are professionally, not to hide who you are. If you are using your resume to hide who you think you are, you have too many insecurities, and need a new therapist not a new job. You need to let the person you are show in some way; in particular you need to be memorable without being offensive to the kind of people you would like to work with.

HOW I DO IT: What I do is this: I print the resume at the end of this chapter on my favorite color of Xerox paper, which happens to be the retina- challenging “Pulsar Pink.” I do not recommend hot pink resumes. I do recommend printing your resume on your favorite color of paper, even if that happens to be white. It will give people a clue about who you are, which is what they are really looking to find out. The sort of director who looks at a hot pink resume and thinks “this woman is too weird for me”, will probably not direct the kind of shows I like to design. It’s OK if I give her a clue not to hire me. On the other hand, it will interest the kind of loony directors I enjoy working with (“Hey, this woman looks weird enough for me!”). This is why I say you need to pick your favorite color. If you are a “Beige Marble” Xerox paper person, and you do “Pulsar Pink” because I do it, you will attract exactly the wrong sort of prospective employers. It’s like your Mom says on your first date: “Just be yourself.”

HINTS BETWEEN THE LINES: Please read the text of the resume carefully and check the notes. I include and exclude many small things to let the reader get clues about my interests, background, and professional beliefs. In an interview process it is unlikely in the extreme that the interviewers will notice all these minor clues, but by putting in many, I hope to have some noticed, and to create a subtle picture of who I am. It is therefore an advantage to seriously think about minor matters like the order in which one lists one’s accomplishments, how one refers to particular jobs, and how much “padding” or formality one uses. I often read resumes that obviously are trying to gild everything with grandeur; these things seem to announce an insecure pomposity that annoys rather than attracts. On the opposite end are self-consciously cute resumes. As a new graduate in 1981 I, myself, did one of these. They positively shout one’s inexperience from the treetops, and I got disappointingly few job offers from that resume.

RESUME FORMAT:  This also holds true for the arrangement and content of this resume. I am, and have been for some time, bending towards the academic, writing and theoretical portions of costume design. When I look for jobs, I look for academic jobs. If your inclination is not in this area, it would be monumentally stupid to follow the format of this resume. My resume is only an example of how a simple category format resume can be used as an indicator of an individual’s personality and interests. You can take a category format resume, and by altering the titles and arrangement of the categories show a totally different professional background and personality. There are also other formats which may prove more comfortable, such as chronological, or skills based resumes. You can see assortments of formats in any ordinary how-to-write-a-resume book. The important thing to see is how much a resume can be made to reflect it’s owner, and how. Apply this information to writing one that reflects your interests and abilities, in the format that suits you best.

A CAUTION TO STUDENTS: The following resume is also far too lengthy and dense for somebody who is either just starting out or who is applying for a job outside academia. The way academic job searches are conducted includes a preliminary screening of applications on a system of points. This system assigns points for each year of teaching, each additional area of related expertise, each year of working in professional theatre, etc. As a consequence, lengthy, detailed resumes tend to “rack up” more points than one page resumes, and can put applicants into the interview stage. Detailed resumes are therefore an advantage in applying for university jobs. However, nearly every other costume employment does not use this point system. In those positions, interviewers, by and large, prefer one page resumes, and would be positively irritated at one as long and detailed as mine. When applying for non-academic positions I do a one-page version that only includes information I think will be of interest to that specific employer.

EMPLOYER SPECIFIC RESUMES: If you keep a long version of your resume on disc, with little or nothing left out, you can copy the file and then cut it to length to suit the specifics of the job for which you are applying. Customizing the experiences you list to the requirements of the job can make it easier for the interviewer to figure out if you have the right qualifications, and it eliminates unnecessary detail that can distract the reader. With word processors this is now so incredibly easy you can afford to do this every time you make an application.

METAMORPHOSES: For both portfolios and resumes you need to ask yourself periodically “Who am I, and what do I want to do with my life?” Granola-headed as this sounds, it is important. As a student and young graduate I defined myself as a costume crafts worker and had a heavily tech portfolio and (after the disastrous “cute” resume) low-key brown utilitarian resume. I switched from my paper bag brown chronological resume to a hot pink category one after developing my self confidence as a designer in grad school. I started working on making teaching portfolios shortly after I realized I was mutating from a designer into a teacher. As I progressed from teacher to academic researcher I added my academic writing portfolio. Recently I have begun to paint and do creative writing (including plays), and I can almost feel another metamorphosis coming on. It’s been a decade [in 1995] of hot pink paper, and I’m getting much weirder than hot pink by the minute. I’m not exactly sure what it will be next (any more than I’m sure who I will be personally and professionally in a year’s time), but I do know, when the change becomes clear, there will be a way to reflect it in those impersonal documents used in hiring. Will I put my resume on a color Xerox of garbage? Will I consolidate my various portfolios into a holistic collage of my work? Will I switch to video? The territory of possibilities is endless, for me or for anyone, and it is a territory that is fun to explore.

Go on to Salary And Respect Issues in Costuming