Cat Thomas | Costume Designer

Photo of Cat Thomas“Kill Bill,” “A Prairie Home Companion” and “27 Dresses” have one thing in common besides being box-office hits: costumes designed by Kansas City Art Institute alumna Catherine Marie (“Cat”) Thomas (’93 fiber). For “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” and “Kill Bill: Vol. 2” she received two Costume Designers Guild award nominations.

Her career has provided Thomas with opportunities to work with some of Hollywood’s highest profile directors, including Quentin Tarantino, Robert Altman, Neil Jordan, Richard Shepard, Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Edward Burns.

“Collaboration is crucial,” she said, emphasizing that any motion picture is the product of hard work and creative input by many individuals. “There are so many elements that go into making a film. It’s the actor’s voice, the director’s voice and my voice.”

Thomas gained valuable insight into group dynamics during her studio courses at KCAI, and she acknowledged that working with a group is not always smooth going. “Having a critique and being analyzed by a group of peers is probably the hardest thing for anyone to do,” Thomas said, noting that the experience taught her how to be open to modifying her ideas.

After leaving KCAI, she moved to New York and worked as an intern in the costume department at the The Juilliard School. “I applied because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” she said. “I thought it would be a great opportunity to be in New York and work in a professional costume shop.” There she made the contacts that allowed her to find work in film, and in 1995 she began designing for motion pictures.

Thomas begins a new project by reading the script and conferring with the director before planning and overseeing construction of all the clothing that appears onscreen.

“As a costume designer, you have to be true to the script and the director,” she said. “You are creating a character. You are helping the actor or actress find who they are through clothing.” Both actor and designer must keep their own tastes at bay. “What you like personally may not be what is right for the character,” Thomas said. “A great actor or actress is able to separate their personal aesthetic from the character.”

She finds ideas for costumes on eBay and in resale shops. “You’d be surprised at how many bridesmaid dresses are littered in thrift shops and vintage stores,” she said. “It’s interesting to see what people discard.”

She advises art and design students to “keep yourself open to new and different opportunities.” “There are all types of employment and career paths for artists besides going on for an M.F.A., getting a teaching job or showing in galleries,” she said. When it comes to seeking a career in movies, she emphasized the importance of perseverance and networking. “Keep at it and don’t settle,” she said. “The film industry is a very tough business, and very competitive.”

She feels her own hard work has paid off. She gets to swap ideas with some of the most brilliant minds in the industry and pursue a career that never gets stale. Her job is constantly changing, as each new film presents a new set of challenges. She travels and is doing something she loves. “Being able to be creative everyday is a pleasure,” she said. “I feel very fortunate about that.”
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