Texas Tech University

Chasing a Career in Costume Design

Ashlyn Grotegut

October 31, 2023

Every week is like Halloween for this Texas Tech apparel design and manufacturing student, who creates costumes for her portfolio and the School of Theatre & Dance.

Tori Nerpal at work
Tori Nerpal

Halloween is not just Tori Nerpel's favorite holiday – it's her favorite day of the year. 

Tori, a fourth-year apparel design and manufacturing (ADM) major at Texas Tech University, has been known to brainstorm her costume months in advance. Not so she can hunt it down in stores, but rather so she can have enough time to design and make it herself. 

“My dress I made my second year at Texas Tech had a corset and my skirts were all tucked into it to give it more of a Renaissance feel with vines and mushrooms,” she said. “I called myself a Renaissance fairy.”

Tori won't be wearing any hand-sewn garbs this year, though. In fact, every week of this semester seems like Halloween, thanks to an opportunity to create costumes for the School of Theatre & Dance

“I knew I would get good experiences learning how to make these costumes,” she said. “I've already figured out how to make a corset because I had never made one before.”

Renaissance Fairy
"Renaissance Fairy"

Throughout high school, Tori loved theater, particularly musicals. Just as her needles and thread-created outfits that made her dolls of long ago seem more vibrant, she feels songs and lyrics boost the entertainment value of a storyline. 

However, she only enjoyed the productions as an audience member since she never had time to try out or join any programs. Her chance to finally get a foot in the door happened earlier this year, when Ashley Rougeaux-Burnes, ADM program director, passed along an invitation to help the theater costume department. 

“Before this, I felt like too much of an outsider,” Tori said. “I didn't know anything about the theater program. I couldn't tell you front, back, left or right side of the stage. I had no idea.”

Tori and two others helping in the costume department this semester are ADM students who want to learn more about costumes in addition to everyday wear. This knowledge will help Tori as she pursues her dream career options: costume design for theater or animated characters (such as in Disney movies like “Encanto”). 

Tori Nerpal at work

“This will help me because I'll have this on my resume and I'll have people who can write recommendations for me,” Tori said. “Susana, the director in the costume department, has so many great resources and she's worked with some very notable people. That's why I feel more equipped to pursue costuming.”

So far, Tori has worked on a few rehearsal costumes, but she is particularly excited about her garment that will be featured in the upcoming musical titled “The Threepenny Opera.”

This musical, set in the 1830s, requires a dress for a character named Jenny. Not only does Tori know the actress playing Jenny, but her favorite costumes to design are also historical dresses and gowns constructed with lots of fabric. 

This combination gives the project an extra-special feel for Tori.

Tori Nerpal at work

“The dress is more of an upcycling,” Tori said. “I've taken dresses that the theater department already had, but they did not match the time period or fit the actress, and I'm turning them into a new dress for the character.”

Rougeaux-Burnes is grateful the theatre department allows Tori and other students to gain vital experience creating and fitting garments for individual bodies, since most companies in the apparel industry design and develop for a standard range of sizes. 

“This allows students a chance to develop the skills necessary to find solutions to fit challenges,” she explained. “For Tori in particular, this partnership also has given her close access to the area of the industry she aspires to work in. I am sure her experience in the theater department has influenced her designs.”

As the saying goes, practice makes perfect, which is a standard Tori would like to achieve with her final project – the one that will help kickstart her career.

Tori Nerpal at work

Preparing her Portfolio

During the spring semester of their fourth year, ADM students are required to present a portfolio to be reviewed by a jury of apparel design professionals. If a conditional evaluation is received, the recommendation of the jury must be met prior to graduation.

“The portfolio Tori is creating will showcase her design and technical abilities to potential employers,” Rougeaux-Burnes said. “She will utilize this portfolio to apply for internships and career positions over the next couple of years. Her portfolio will continue to grow and evolve as she gains more experience in the apparel industry.”

This fall semester, Tori developed ideas for two separate fashion line collections. She gathered her inspiration from one of her other favorite hobbies: reading. 

Entire Line

Her first collection will be based on “Caraval” by Stephanie Garber. Tori describes the book as set in an alternate fantasy universe where the entire storyline is a game, however, none of the characters know it's a game. 

“There's actors, but you don't know who the actors are,” she continued. “It kind of feels like a darker version of ‘The Greatest Showman', where it's circus-y, magical and mysterious.”

Tori envisioned creating the costumes as if the characters had come to life for a movie or stage performance. Since the genre of the book is fantasy and the setting is a fictional time reminiscent of the early 1900s, Tori would need to incorporate elements of popular designs from this century such as corsetry and many layers. 

“I probably would have been a little intimidated if I had not known I was going to get that experience in the costume department,” Tori mused. 

From this concept, Tori began to brainstorm her customer base. She decided to center hers on a character from the book named Scarlett, who gave her the targeted age of 18 years old. 

Tori had to consider how much money her customer base would make a year to determine the price range of her designs. She contemplated what her customer base's favorite name-brand designers would be to understand what looks they like most. 

With all this background information in mind, Tori made a mood board that included pictures of circuses, costumes and magical aesthetics that would inspire her to make the line. Before she began planning her designs, she would need to figure out at least two future trends to add since the garments would not hypothetically hit the market until spring or summer 2024. 

Trend Fore

“That means we have to do trend forecasting, which is researching what is going to be popular in the next year so we can market it to a future clientele,” Tori said. “You have to market it to the future because it takes people quite a while to design, develop and actually manufacture a line.”

Tori's research determined she should add texture (like ruffles and trim) along with historical drama, which is turning clothing from another time into more modern wear. 

Then, she was able to select the fabrics she would use to “match her vibe.” For instance, not using neon for a dark and mysterious fashion line. 

Once all those steps were complete, Tori was able to move onto what she considers the fun part: drawing her designs with color and embellishments.

“That takes trial and error,” she said. “When we go into the project, our professor will give us a really big number of designs we need and we all groan and complain about having to do 20 sketches. But by the end, the ones you started with are usually not the ones you like.”

Tori used her favorite sketches to form technical flats, which are drawn as if looking from above at the clothing laid flat on a table. In the industry, this step is necessary when manufacturing garments so the company can have an idea of where the seams and zippers will be placed along with other details.

Technical Flats

After her technical flats for her “Caraval” collection were complete, Tori jumped right into this same sequence of steps all over again with her second collection idea, based on the fantasy novel “The Raven Boys” by Maggie Stiefvater. 

Instead of designing costumes for the characters this time, Tori plans to create streetwear her customer base could wear every day. She will then have to decide which collection to bring to life next semester. 

“I'm really leaning toward my “Caraval” collection,” she said, “because this was the one that my heart was in the most.”

When the spring semester arrives, Tori will begin pattern making four designs from her collection by essentially creating a blueprint of her garments using a pattern as a template to cut out fabric that matches the required specifications to sew them.

Technical Flats

“That way you can see how it's actually going to look out of a plain, unbleached fabric called muslin,” she said. “You drape it, pin it and cut it so you can make it look how you want it to be in your final fabric.”

Using math, Tori will make her patterns and transfer them onto paper. She will cut them out of muslin and edit as needed, over and over, until she can finally stitch together her mockups.

If Tori is happy with the sneak peeks of her final products in muslin, with a deep breath, she can focus her efforts on producing the real deal. 

“That's when I can finally use my expensive fabric and add fancy trims and embellishments, which I've been waiting months and months to use because I bought it way too long ago,” Tori admitted, “After a long process, I can actually make my garments.”

Dedication on Display 

What Tori is most excited about is seeing her collection in the light it was intended for: the spotlight. This will take place during the ADM Seniors Showcase Collections at the Techstyle 2024 Fashion Show in front of friends, families, and the Lubbock and Texas Tech communities. 

Tori and her classmates can select their own models to wear their designs or choose from a lineup curated by an open call from the ADM program for models who fit the standard industry size. 

“No one tells you as a fashion major how rewarding it is seeing the designs you've dedicated an entire year to on an actual person,” she said. “I can't wait to see them on a runway, moving and not just hanging in my closet.”

Mood Board

The other satisfying part of completing her senior collection is grouping each stage of the design process, from the mood board to the fashion show photos, into a physical portfolio. Beyond that, Tori said she and her classmates will also create a website that showcases their widespread talents by combining work examples from any of their four years on campus. 

“It will very much set us up for going into the industry,” Tori said. “Potential employers can see just how much detail there is, the quality of the seams and fabric and all of the work that's gone into our designs.” 

Tori may even send her “Caraval” designs to the author of the book, who frequently shares fan art on social media. Regardless, she has already received positive feedback on the collection. 

“Tori works hard to always create the best product possible,” Rougeaux-Burnes said. “It has been wonderful to watch her create the characters in her mind and conceptualize what they may wear.”

With supportive faculty behind her, Tori is having the best senior year as she brings to life the pages of her favorite books and relishes her long-awaited break into the creative efforts behind theatric performances.

While she can't believe another Halloween has come and gone, Tori is confident these formative years will lead to plenty of other costume opportunities. 

“I feel like my time at Texas Tech has honestly taught me everything I needed to learn,” she said. “Through all these resources and experiences, I feel like I can do anything now.”