I am into cosplay (short for costume play) and am working on creating my own costumes. As a result, I was given the opportunity to interview a costume designer for a locally filmed television show. Due to her schedule, the interview was done via email, but the answers to my questions were different from what you might expect. Leigh Leverett has worked on many big films and television shows, her current one is Vampire Diaries.
Why did you get into creating costumes?
Truthfully, I never set out to be a Costume Designer. It just happened to be a job that I fell into. I wanted to be an editor.
Where did you learn to costume?
I had never learned to sew and wasn’t particularly interested in clothes in the first place. I’ve pretty much learned everything on the job. I’ve worked with some really good teachers – other Costume Designers like Peggy Farrell, Helen Butler, Deb Scott and Carol Ramsey that taught me a lot of the tricks of the trade.
When did you realize that you wanted to make this a career?
When I was getting more jobs as a costumer than as a set pa(production assistant).
Did you have to get a degree to get into your line of work?
No, I have a journalism degree from the University of Georgia.
Did you do any internships or apprenticeships? If so, where and with whom?
My original film job was as the production intern on a low budget film in Atlanta back in the early 90’s called Love Crimes. From that, I met a lot of people and they started hiring me for different jobs. I’ve worked as an office pa, set pa, location scout and directors assistant. When I was working as a directors assistant on the fabulous Robocop 3 – I met the Costume Designer, Ha Nguyen. When I moved out to LA – she hired me as a costume department pa on a film. I ended up getting bumped up to set costumer and was able to join the LA costumers union.
If you weren’t doing costumes, what do you see yourself doing?
Living in the mountains rescuing animals.
Who was the biggest influence in your life?
I’ve had several -Peggy Farrell probably would be the biggest. She’s won two Emmy’s – the miniseries Holocaust and for The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles – which is where I met her. She has a great eye for period detail and keeping things looking realistic to the period.
What’s your advice to kids our age who would like a career in costuming?
Learn to sew and learn to sketch. I’ve had to teach myself both and I wish I’d learned from an actual teacher. Understanding construction of garments is really useful tool especially on period films.
What could we pursue now to prepare us?
Basic sewing class are good and figure sketching will help too. You can get by without these skills(a lot of designers do) but I definitely think it gives you a leg up on the competition. Producers love to see sketches when you go on Designer interviews. Also, about the sewing – on most shows there is a tailor but if you’re a set costumer stuck out on a set far away from your costume warehouse – if something rips or comes apart – you better be able to fix it. I’m no tailor, but my minimal sewing skills have saved my hide many times.
What do you see in the future for costuming?
Things are moving digital – like in all areas of life. There are new programs where everyone links up on their tablets and downloads continuity to a central website. We don’t do that yet on Vampire Diaries, but a lot of shows have started.
What online tools do you use for designing?
I just search the web for images and websites for things we need. I still prefer to look at costume books for most of my research.
Do you have any hobbies?
I like to garden and hike and kayak.
What do you do to relieve stress?
I’m actually working on a couple of novels. They are just for me – so that when I get home from work I can think about something other than the show I’m on.
What does a key set costumer actually do?
It actually depends on the show. On Vampire Diaries – Edee – our Key Costumer handles what we would call the truck duties. She loads the actors clothes in their rooms for appropriate scenes and takes care of any problems that might arise. On some shows – the Key Costumer is in charge of fitting the background and handling of their costumes.
What does a costumer supervisor do?
The Costume Supervisor really runs the day to day workings of the Costume department – budgeting, scheduling fittings and keeping everything on track.
How do you work with or collaborate with a team to create costumes?
On Vampire Diaries – we have a shopper that goes out and gets clothes to match the looks that I’ve come up with for the different characters. Then we do the fittings which involves the tailor and either the supervisor or another costumer. Decisions get made about what the actors are going to wear from the fittings. The clothes get altered by the tailor. Then organized by the supervisor and the key to go with the appropriate scenes. The actors get dressed. The set costumers get the notes on how things are to be worn or what kind of stunts or wounds will be expected – there is a lot of stabbing and biting and staking on this show – and then they handle everything on set.
Can you give descriptions of some of the costumes for your current show, Vampire Diaries, that you designed?
We have to create most of the period flashback costumes – the episode where we first meet Klaus – (1492),the Viking village, the episode that introduces the hunters set in Italy in about 1100- so I’ve designed most of those. I also designed Elena’s 60’s decade dance purple print mini dress.
Do you like working more on television series sets or movie sets?
Television moves a lot faster than most films do. And films usually get a longer prep time usually about a month or longer. With tv – you are prepping a new episode every 8 days in our case so you don’t have a lot of time.
Is it harder to work on a movie set or a tv set?
Definitely tv. Before high def – you could fudge some on the details – but now you really can’t.
What was your favorite costume to make? Why?
I really liked all of my Viking wear in the episode third season. We ended up having to do a lot of craft projects and aging – that is usually the fun part.
What was your favorite tv show to work on? Why?
Eastbound and Down was a lot fun to work on. The clothes were kind of goofy and fun and the actors all had fun with it.
What was your favorite movie to work on? Why?
To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday – I was the set costumer and it was just a really laid back and pleasant atmosphere.
Who was your favorite actor to work with? Why?
Will Farrell and Danny McBride were fun and goofy on Eastbound and Down. Kris Kristofferson is always a pleasure to work with – I worked with him on Bloodworth and on A Soldiers Daughter Never Cries.
Who was your favorite actress to work with? Why?
Kathy Bates from Titanic – she’s a funny and sweet and just a great person in general.
Did anything funny or weird ever happen on one of the sets you were on?
When I was the set costumer on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3 – my first set costuming gig – I didn’t know how to do anything sewing wise – so I carried around a roll of black elastic and if anything would rip or needed fixing I would whip out my roll, cut some off and just tie things up with it. I can’t say that it was my finest work but at least production was never waiting on the Costume Department. And after that I learned to sew!!