top of page

Articles to Inspire Your Personal Growth and Success

Hi I'm Emily Maguire

I'm a UK career coach and business coach for individuals in the creative and entertainment industries and passionate about helping people achieve their career goals. I'm also a top voice on LinkedIn for the Film Industry and a podcast producer and host.

  • Facebook
  • Linkedin
Emily Maguire UK Career Coach and Business Coach for the arts, creative and entertainment industry

Fringe Theatre to Marvel & Disney: Interview with Costume Designer Sarah Dearing

Updated: May 9

In episode 4 of the Inside Entertainment Industry Careers podcast, I'm joined by Sarah Dearing. Sarah has travelled the world working in costume and her costume. Her screen work as a costume cutter and maker has been featured in movies for Netflix, Marvel, and Disney, and her stage-making career has seen her work in many West End theatres, the National Theatre, RSC, and Shakespeare's Globe. 

Fringe Theatre to Marvel & Disney: Interview with Costume Designer Sarah Dearing

Sarah shares her journey into the costume industry, from her childhood dreams of being a vet to discovering her passion for costume design. She explores how our childhood dreams and experiences may not always align with our future career paths but how they can inspire us to explore different career fields.

Sarah discusses how work experience and mentorship can play crucial roles in discovering and developing a passion for a specific career. She gives insights about her work experience in a bridal shop and the decisions that led to her decision to pursue a BA in costume.

She also discusses the differences between working in screen and stage productions and the creative inspiration she draws from various sources that influence the costumes she produces. Sarah emphasises the importance of building a network and taking care of oneself in the industry, which is essential for success in the creative field.

Balancing work and personal life is important for Sarah, as well as overall well-being and happiness. Finding inspiration from various sources and staying grounded in the project's vision and character is key to creating an impactful design.


Introduction and Childhood Careers


When we're young, we have all these ideas about what career we want to do, informed by the people we meet. I know that I wanted to be a vet when I was little, but I didn't end up anywhere near that. Was that the same for you in terms of the people you met who inspired the career that you now have?



Yeah, I guess so. Strangely enough, I also wanted to be a vet, along with an archaeologist, a marine biologist, and a firefighter. So, I think it took quite a long time for me to know that costume could be a career in the way that I do it now. But I was certainly always around very creative people. I had very creative parents, and we spent a lot of time together at festivals. My mom worked at various art colleges. My dad played music, so we were just around a lot of creative types. So I knew that you could make money and you could make a career out of creativity, but it did take quite some time for me to realise that costume was my thing.



Did you have any work experience or anything that inspired that career choice?



Yeah, I mean, I always tinkered around making things. I was really into The Dark Crystal and this particularly weird BBC puppet show called The Taming of the Shrew. So, as I started trying to make things, there were people in my life who spoke to me and showed me how to make stuff: my grandma and various other friends.

But then, in terms of formal work experience, I went to a school that wasn't doing super well academically. When we did our work experience in year 10, I went off on my own to try and find something creative to do because the school didn't offer anything that really inspired me. I ended up doing some work experience in the college theatre, where my mum worked for one week, and then in a local bridal dressmaker. I just went in and asked if they would have me. I worked there for a week; they taught me to sew and then took me on to work on a weekend. So I worked from when I was about 14, learning to sew and being around fabric from that point.



What made you go to the bridal shop? If you consider that of some of our listeners, who could potentially be thinking about work experience? Did you just go in and approach them?



I was just out walking and thinking, where can I go in and ask that might take me? And I think I knew I wanted to do something to do something with sewing, theatre or making things, and I didn't feel like I had that many avenues. So, it was just a few places I walked past that I approached, to be honest, and it was very easy. I think I was incredibly lucky. It was run by two really lovely women who were sisters-in-law and had kids of their own. They just took me under their wing and decided that they would employ me to sweep up and teach me to sew, and I ended up making my prom dress with them and all kinds of things. I'm not sure how it would work now. I think the pressure on shops, retail, insurance, and stuff might have been accentuated quite a lot since I was that age, but yeah, that was a lucky break.



I love that you made your prom dress there as well. In terms of training, after that point, you undertook a BA in Costume Design. Is that correct?



I did, yeah. The wedding shop sadly closed down, but I went and did A-levels; I was going to do textiles, but the course wasn't subscribed enough. So I ended up doing a kind of art mixed media and drama, along with English and something else like film studies at a level. And then, through that, that's kind of where I really learned that you could train in costume specifically because I was looking at fashion and just found that it didn't feel like an industry, or the descriptions of the courses didn't really feel like a fit for me.

One of my tutors at A-level college suggested that I look at costume courses instead, and they just really sounded far more up my street. So I ended up going to Bournemouth straight through from A-level at 18. I didn't do an art foundation, which most people do, I think, because I had that additional experience in the Bridal Shop.



So, your bridal shop work experience helped you reach the next level, and that experience has been fundamental in helping you get a BA.



Yeah, definitely. I'm not sure that if I were my younger self again, I would potentially encourage myself to go and do the Art Foundation but explore a bit further because I think you don't, you don't realise the value of education, particularly free education when you're in it and then when you look back, you think, oh, that could have just been a year of really fun experimenting with different media, meeting different people. But at the time, I was extremely driven. I'd worked in sewing since I was 14, and I thought this was what I wanted to do, so I just went for it.


Difference Between Stage and Screen


You work on screen and stage, don't you? Do you have any preference between the two, or do you like both mediums?



I really love both, actually. They're generally considered to be quite different pathways within the industry. I think the skills are really transferable and the last few years have really shown that with the Covid crisis and the film strikes, you've seen a lot of movement between the two, I think a lot there is more than movement before.

I don't really have any preference. Film teams are a lot bigger. The hours are very, very long, but they're a lot more structured and tend to be more hierarchical, so they can be really good if you have a specialism that you're really interested in or if you want to learn lots of skills from lots of people in one go.

But I find theatre generally feels more creative. The hours are a bit more ad hoc. There's usually less of a budget, and it can be a bit more collaborative and creative in terms of technique. In terms of theatre, I find you tend to work more across the team. So you'll interact with everybody. You'll interact with the whole costume team, as opposed to on the film, where you are in film work, where you quite often just interact with your kind of hub. You're part of the team. So I absolutely love both.

Influences of Fringe Theatre



When I was researching your background, I wondered if Fringe Theatre was heavily influential in your work.



Yeah, massively. I mean, I think in some ways it sounds as though I've taken quite a traditional route into the industry, but the early part of my career was really very, very hustling.

So, straight after university, I moved back to Brighton, where I'm from and worked in a shop. I was feeling quite burnt out. I wasn't quite sure what direction to take. I'd been offered some work experience in TV in London for free, which I couldn't afford to do. I didn't have anywhere to stay, and I couldn't afford to lose my job.

So, I was working two or three jobs at a time and was just really unsure what I was going to do with myself. Then, I ended up working for a really fantastic designer called Kevin Freeman, who taught at Wimbledon on the costume course for a while. I think he's moved now, but he was fantastic. I was working freelance with him, and then I just found myself taking on extra work around the side of that.

So I did lots of work with drag artists, lots of Cirque, and lots and lots of Fringe Theatre, which all tied into my background of going to festivals and being around creative people in that environment. And I think aesthetically, that's always been my happy place. You know, my dream job at uni was Cirque du Soleil or something like that, or a big drag artist. The kind of multimedia. slightly more quirky, slightly more abstract, lots of kind of queer theatre. Those really were huge influences on me.



I imagine there's lots of colour in terms of the costumes that you actually do and with that influence as well.



Yeah, lots of colour and sparkles and frilliness, just frivolity, really. I think, you know, a large part of what I enjoy doing is making people smile, and I do some period costume, I think, as a place for kind of accurate recreation, but there are people who really are drawn to that. That's not what I'm drawn to; I'm drawn to the thing across a festival field or across the theatre or in a cabaret bar that makes you go, oh wow, you know, makes your eyes light up.


I love that. It's like you can just let your imagination run wild and do all these amazing costumes.



Yeah, and it's really about expression as well. I think that kind of early experience of working with lots of individuals, like individual performers, as well as on productions, it's about how they want to express themselves and build these characters, which is really the cornerstone of costume. It's about character building. And I think that's why it appealed to me in a way that fashion didn't, because your starting point is a person, a character, something you want to give life. Whereas I think with fashion, there's an extra step of imagination, I suppose, to come up with the person that you think might be wearing it.

Starting a Creative Business



So, how did you make the transition from working for somebody else to actually running your own business?



Like most things in my career, that was completely accidental. When I was working in Brighton, working between different jobs, I had jury service and lost one of my jobs because of it and was wandering around without money for the bus. Kevin, who I mentioned earlier, had a notice in his window looking for an assistant, and that was a freelance role, so I signed up as a freelancer right then.


And I've never looked back. I have done some jobs that are PAYE or Schedule D when I've worked in larger film workrooms. But generally, I've worked freelance since then, and I've just found that the type of work I want to do and the people I want to work with want to work with freelancers. It's obviously grown quite a lot now. I have two studio spaces at the moment, and a very regular team of freelancers who help me out, and that's just been very organic growth, really, as exciting projects come in that I can't say no to, that I need help with. I've been able to gather people around me who can do the work, and it's been a very surprising and challenging but very organic journey for me.



Do you have any tips for our listeners who are considering making the transition from freelancer to business owner?



I think it's a really difficult one. I suppose if you're already freelance, then taking on an assistant on a large job is quite an easy step. But if you're moving from a secure contract or at least a kind of regular temporary contract into freelance, it is very different; I would say it's probably a very difficult transition. But what I would say is it's very rewarding.

I would try to build up a network, which would be my main tip. The most useful thing you can have around you when you are working freelance or running your own business are people that you can rely on, either to step in physically when you're not very well, or you have things going on in your life and also just to rely on for advice or for a second pair of eyes on something if you're working on a big project and it's an important client.

Sometimes you just need someone to come in and reassure you and say that looks great, or this bit, you know, could have you thought about doing it this way? If you can create relationships where you're constantly teaching and constantly learning. I think that's where the magic happens. So, for anyone considering going freelance in the industry as it stands now, I would definitely try to make sure that you have a good WhatsApp group set up with people that you can call on before you make the leap.



That's also an important part of having a network that cycle of continual growth.



Yeah, absolutely. And I think there can be a tendency for the university to be quite competitive. I think arts training, in general, can be quite competitive, and certainly, the film industry is, and theatre is to an extent. But I think it's really important to push back against that and try and share your skills and all sorts of questions; you get further a lot faster if you can ask them something you don't know how to do, and you will end up with far better relationships if you share things that you've learned how to do openly and with good faith without being too concerned about who's standing behind you for your job because ultimately it's always a team effort. A production is always a team effort.


Costume Designer Versus Costume Maker


And you're a designer and a maker, aren't you? What's the difference between the two?



The difference between the two is massive. On the course I did, they really split it down. And I know that a lot of university courses actually split it from the beginning. You'll do a design or a construction course and almost everything about it, unless you're working in the fringe theatre where you're doing everything from the beginning, from the mood boards to the designs, to the making, to the fittings, to press night. Everything about it is different.

So design is generally a lot of research, lots of sketching, and lots of communication with the other departments, with the directors, with the showrunners, with the producers. You know, in smaller theatres, you might have a lot of interaction with the actors, and then your day-to-day job is to approve things, go to fittings, and pull things at higher shops. And so it's really, each job is kind of its own full-time capsule that you're working on. And then you also have the kind of pressure of actioning all this research that you've done and these things you've been thinking about at three in the morning.

You're actioning those to try and get audiences to understand them and to get the departments to understand them. So it's got lots of pressure. And then, in construction, you will be given anything from a stick figure to an absolutely beautiful complete illustration, and you need to work out with the designer how to make that work. So the relationship tends to be really just with the designer and the supervisor and then your team if you're working with a team. And you spend a lot more time certainly for freelance you spend a lot more time remotely. So you're doing a lot of self-directed work.

Obviously, the physical side of the job is quite heavy when you're making a lot of making. So they are kind of completely different roles with completely different skill sets, but I like to think they're more interchangeable than people think. And certainly, as a maker, the best designers, like the best relationships you have with designers, are people who allow you some creative freedom or some creative input. It becomes that really nice collaborative, you know, finishing each other's sentences kind of relationship once it's built up where someone can say, you know, it just feels needs to feel a bit jazzy or it needs to feel a bit icky. You'll just understand what they mean. But yeah, they are very, very different jobs, structurally and skills-wise.

Insights into Favourite Projects



That's interesting because I wouldn't have a clue about the difference between the two, so it's nice to get that insight. On the commercial side, you've worked on projects like Lipton and Pot Noodle, and on the costume-making side, it's been the National Theatre and the West End. What's been your favourite project out of all the projects that you've done?



If you think of anyone with a creative career, this is their least favourite question. It's the one that everyone asks you in the pub. And to be honest, for me, it's usually whatever I worked on about three months ago when you've had enough time for the dust to settle, and you're not stressed about it, and you look back at the photos and go like, that was really good. So, it's usually that.

I mean, bits of work that I'm particularly proud of is a version of A Midsummer Night's Dream I did at The Globe a few years ago, which had these wonderful carnival-inspired costumes, which I really enjoyed doing. Juliette was my first West End job as a maker, where I worked with the designer from the very beginning to really work out how those costumes were going to go together. So that's one I'll always be really proud of.

And then film work-wise, I think. To be honest, I think it's always amazing seeing your work on the big screen, so I'm kind of proud of all of it. I made some stuff, just some streetwear, for the Eternals movie and went and saw that in the BFI IMAX. And that was quite the moment when I saw my shirt, which was the size of a building. So that might be one of my favourite moments.



When you look back over your career, I know you mentioned Kevin, but did he or anybody else give you any advice and wisdom that stuck with you throughout?



Yeah, I mean, so much from so many people, and it's always still being gathered. There are a couple of phrases that I'm really fond of. One was a tutor of mine at universities who'd say; you control the fabric, darling; it does not control you. And I think anyone who's tried to wrangle anything when they're sewing will understand that that's really important. I worked with a fantastic cutter called Claire Ramsell on the Matilda film for Netflix, who said; these are hands, not wands, whenever things are a little bit too dramatic.

But I think perhaps the one I think about the most is actually from someone outside of the industry, which was my cousin when I was really struggling early on in my career and very unsure whether I would break into costume in any meaningful way and make a life out of it. And she said; we work for such a long time. If you're 25 now, if you think about getting your dream job at 35, you're going to have to do the same job for another 30 years. So you are aiming to get to your dream job when, you're like, 45 or 50. And I thought that was a really nice way of looking at it, just allowing you to take a step back and enjoy the experiences along the way and enjoy the kind of the amble of it,


Creative careers are so sprawling and so random. There are a lot of people that come out of uni and are far more motivated than I am and find a workroom that they like and a team, and they stick at it, and they have a much more kind of structured entrance to the industry. But even then, it's so volatile. You know, particularly in the last few years, it has been so volatile for everybody. I think just sort of giving yourself the space to take on lots of different opportunities to make mistakes and to have kind of just some faith that you probably will get there; it just might not be when you're 25.

Challenges and Work-Life Balance



Would you say some of those things feed into what's the most challenging aspect of doing your job?



Yeah, definitely. I think insecurity is something you have to get really used to. If you don't have the financial support of a family or network behind you or something like that, then there are going to be hard times. And I think it can be very lonely. So again, feeding back into what we spoke about before, building up a network and making sure, if you're working with a team, you trust people around you.

Unfortunately, a lot of the other challenges in costume have to do with working conditions and stuff like that. So I think it's really important to join the union. It's really important not to work for free, even though it's tempting, and try to push back against some of the more negative aspects of the industry, which I think is actually happening quite naturally anyway. But it's certainly something to be aware of and recognise your own worth.

Look after your body, particularly if you're making. It's okay if you have an evening where you can't push anymore, and you need a chocolate bar and a glass of red wine; you should do that. Or do some yoga or go for a run. It's just something that allows your body to relax and feel good and let out some of the stress physically and mentally because it's quite easy to get stuck into a loop and feel an awful lot of responsibility for everything, and things work; definitely work better when your body is functioning. And people will understand you can give and take, you can let someone go early when they need to, and you can go early when you need to. I think that's really important.

Teamwork and Collaborative Working



Yeah, it's important to look after your mind and your body, like you say. We've touched upon some things in terms of the fringe when it comes to inspiration, but is there any other inspiration that you use when you're planning the projects that you work on?



Yeah, I think a lot of the inspiration for projects comes sort of from the project itself because, as either a designer or a maker, you're introduced to something that's sort of on its way. There's a script or this part of a script, you know, with devised work, there's at least an idea of who these people might be. So I think a lot of the inspiration comes from just immersing yourself in who that person is, where they're coming from when they walk into the room, where they have been, you know, what they are thinking? I think it's really important to ground your inspiration there. Then, when you go off, you can go off and research and get very excited by this particular colour that you found somewhere.

You know, when people talk about writing, they say, delete your favourite line. I think you do have not to be too precious about it and the ideas that you found on your own and really ground everything in the piece and the project because, at the end of it, everyone's name is on the same tin. You want that piece of work to be the most coherent and the best and the most inspiring and exciting that it can be.

So I think it's casting a wide net, looking at lots of different periods and looking at lots of art. I really like making my own prints and taking colours from photographs. I like things like old theatre posters and old movie posters and stuff like that to get a vibe of the thing. But, it does always need to be weighed against the point of the production and the character and what you're trying to put out into the world, what you're trying to say with your work, really.



Again, I can hear that you have made points regarding skills like collaboration, teamwork, and communication. It's all those transferable core skills that are needed in the creative industries, isn't it?



Definitely, it's really important. It's really important.

Piece of Wisdom



So, when you look back over your career and consider the things you've been through, is there a piece of wisdom that you've learned through this life experience that would be beneficial for our listeners to hear?



I guess life wisdom always ends up being the same. When you ask, any creative, work-life balance is going to be the number one thing that they point to.


I unluckily lost most of my parents quite young. And I think whenever you go through something big in your life, you take a step back and look at what you spend your time doing. And I feel really lucky that I spend my time doing something that I love. I absolutely love this career, and I put my whole life into it. But when someone gets very ill, or something like that happens, they take over, and you realise that your life is an awful lot more than your career. And trying to bring that wisdom into the way that you work every day, I think, in an intentional way, is really positive.

I'm lucky enough to have worked with so many different amazing people and have so many colleagues and lots of friends that I do feel like I have achieved a work-life balance in terms of quality but certainly not in terms of time. I spent an awful lot of time working. And I think, in some ways, that is a necessary part of the job, and in some ways, it's a nice part of the job. It's nice to be obsessed with it, but I think you always have in your mind, am I doing this extra hour because I really have to, or because I really want to, or am I doing it because it's the culture of the industry? And I feel that I ought to, but my heart needs to be somewhere else. I think that's probably a slightly cheesy way of expressing that work-life balance is really important. My advice would be to protect it and be nice to people.



I think that's lovely. Thank you so much for sharing such personal insight there in terms of the wisdom you've learnt through life at such a young age.



Thank you. It's been lovely talking about my career.

Short Biography:

Sarah Juliet Dearing is a costume designer and maker based in South London. Originally from Brighton, she studied Costume Design at the undergraduate level in Bournemouth and started her career as a freelancer working in fringe theatre and cirque performances in her hometown. 

She has gained broad experience across the industry in film, theatre, and events, with her work taking her to the UK and destinations such as Miami, the Caribbean, and Thailand. 

Sarah's screen work as a costume cutter and maker has featured in movies for Netflix and Marvel, high-end TV for Disney, and various shows on ITV, Channel 4, and more. Her stage-making career has seen her work in many West End theatres, the National Theatre, RSC, and Shakespeare's Globe. 

She also loves to design and has increased this area of her practice with help from the Arts Council’s DYCP training grant scheme. Over the years, her business has grown, and she now works with a small, dedicated team from her studio, taking on colourful, creative and challenging makes for all mediums.  

Listen to the full podcast episode:

Learn More About How to Become a Costume Designer:

Does this career story inspire you?

Wherever you're listening, subscribe to Inside Entertainment Industry Careers on Apple iTunes here.

The podcast is also on Spotify and all major podcast platforms.

Share on social media with the hashtag #insideentertainmentindustrycareers, or follow us on Instagram @InsideEntertainmentPodcast or Linkedin.

Want to know more about Sarah Dearing?

You can find out more about Sarah on her website.

Or, view Sarah's film credits on IMDB.


Facebook: @sarahjulietsostumes

Twitter: @sarahjulietcost



bottom of page