Common Myths About Costuming

Upon telling people I work in Costumes, I immediately get several responses and exclamations.  As with any job, people jump to conclusions and envision the daily ins and outs of another person’s professional life.  While their words of encouragement and gratitude are greatly appreciated, I feel it is time to paint a clearer picture of how the world of Theatrical Costuming works.  These are few common myths I experience about Costumes as a Stitcher and Dresser:

Clothesline and Dancebelt

Laundry at the Denver Center Theatre Company‘s Wardrobe Deparment. The photo on the right is a Dance Belt, you can imagine what those are for. Consult a dancewear company for more info.

You work in Costumes?!?  That must be so glamorous!  Working backstage at night as a Dresser and assisting Actors with costume changes requires certain responsibilities.  One of those is doing laundry at the end of the night.  Doing other people’s laundry is NOT glamorous.  Ironing someone’s sweaty shirt in between a matinee and evening performance is NOT glamorous.  My work as a Stitcher during the day in the Costume Shop constructing and altering Costumes also follows this protocol.  Pulling costumes for a production from storage is not always a pretty sight–there may be sweat stains and odors, old and torn pieces needing laborious multiple repairs, and costumes that make you wonder, “Who made this?  Who wore this?”  Not to mention various insect culprits like moths and silverfish.  Yeah.  And just about any Stitcher can tell you sewing on sequined knit fabric and using metallic thread is NOT glamorous.  It’s a lot of work and a pain in the ass.

Wait, you do the actors’ laundry?  They don’t take it home and do it themselves?  Everything that is in the show stays at the theatre.  It’s only human nature to leave something at home that you take home.  We make sure actors have everything from undershirts to socks to tights to pantyhose.  It’s part of being the back-up support.

Costume Myths

This photo from People Magazine (November 11, 2013 , p. 14) illustrates my role. I’m not Natalie Portman.

So, wait a second, are you  Costume Designer?  No.  And not everyone wants to be a Costume Designer.  The basic order of the Costume Department works like this:

Costume Designer: Decides the overall style and time period for the show in addition to designing individual looks for each character based on the Director’s vision for the show and collaboration with Scenic and Lighting Designer.  They also consult with Drapers about how a garment will be constructed.  Most designers I’ve worked for have 2 or 3 other shows across the country they’re designing for and often have to leave during rehearsals or not show up until Dress Rehearsal because of commitments. Important Note: Most Designers DO NOT sew.  However, Designers I prefer to work with know how to sew and realize what they’re asking of the Costume Shop and Crew.

Assistant Costume Designer:  Assists the Designer with purchasing and renting costumes and buying supplies for costumes that are going to be built.  Also serves as a liaison during fittings and rehearsals between the Designer and the Costume Shop when the Designer is out of town.

Costume Shop Manager: Responsible for hiring and supervising the Costume Shop Staff in addition to ordering supplies and equipment for the shows and the Costume Shop.  Attends Staff and Production Meetings to manage requirements for shows.  My favorite description from The Costume Technician’s Handbook: “Remembers everything.”

Draper/Tailor: Determines the procedures and methods for constructing, altering, and rigging a costume.  Also takes measurements to make patterns for costume pieces and attends fittings with Actors to determine how to adjust patterns and costume pieces.

First Hand: Takes the pattern pieces and cuts them out of muslin for mock-ups or the actual fabric to prep the costume for building.  Also supervises Stitchers and assists the Draper.

Stitcher: Sews the pieces together to make the costume.  Also assists with alterations and rigging garments for quick changes.

Costume Crafts: Builds costume accessories and odds and ends like armor, jewelry, hats, and masks.

Wardrobe Supervisor: Coordinates the time and place of changes with each actor as well as consulting how a costume needs to be rigged for changes and onstage movement.  Also determines supplies needed for backstage repairs and changes (i.e. shoe horns, water bottles, kleenex, sewing supplies, etc.).  Responsible for supervising the Wardrobe Crew and maintaining costumes in a show once the show is open.  You could insert the memory description for the Shop Manager from The Costume Technician’s Handbook here too.

Wardrobe Crew/Dressers: Runs the show by helping actors get dressed in dressing rooms and backstage for quick changes.  Responsible for tracking costumes backstage for changes, laundering costumes, and repairing and maintaining costumes.

Wig Designer: Determines the styles and colors of wig and hair for each character.  This also includes facial hair.

Wig Assistant: Builds and maintains wig styles and re-sets wigs during the course of the show.  Preps facial hair with toupee tape and preps Actors’ hair for wigs as well as assisting with wig changes.

*It is also important to note that depending on the size and budget of the theatre company, some of these jobs may be combined into one.  For example, in a Costume Shop with an Opera I worked for, the Costume Shop Manager was also a Designer for one of the shows and the Draper for the shop.  The Wardrobe Supervisor was also the First Hand and I and another Stitcher were also Dressers.  In some cases, 6 jobs may all be molded into one depending on the size of the company and its Costume budget.


Georgia Costumes 3 copy

Costumes from “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” Denver Center Theatre Company World Premiere 2014, Costume Designer: Dane Laffrey

Since you know how to sew, you must sew for yourself all the time.  I hardly ever sew for myself.  I have many projects arranged, but not started.  After all, do you go home after an office job and do more office work for fun?  If you have a deadline, I’m sure that happens unfortunately, but I’m guessing you don’t do it because you want to.  Same here.  After a full day of sewing, I don’t want to go home and do MORE sewing.  Same goes for sewing for other people.  I don’t do it for free or for a cheap price because it takes lots of planning and time management to get it done.

As a Stitcher, you must know how to sew everything.  Sewing is so easy and fast.  If sewing were easy and fast, everyone would do it for a living.  If that were the case, there would be a lot more people in this business and sewing would not be a dying art.  You only get better and faster from lots and lots of practice.  As a Stitcher I gain new insights and new skills everyday.  Every Draper I work with exposes me to a unique step within their construction procedures.  There’s a great deal of costumes I haven’t sewn or worked on but I enjoy taking on this challenge of learning something new every show.

You sew?  That’s so quaint and refined.  No wonder you’re so prim and proper.  There is nothing quaint and refined about the men and women I work with.  Have I mentioned the Draper who rides motorcycles?  Or the Draper who translates “Sugar Daddy” on her cell phone?  Don’t forget about Safety Meetings!  Just wait until you visit the Wardrobe Department…

If you work in the Technical Department you have no creativity.  This could not be further from the truth.  Plenty of Stitchers and Dressers I work with do not want to be Designers, but that does not mean they aren’t creative.  Those constructing a garment can look at a design from a different angle and will have a specific opinion about the overall look and style.  When things go wrong or a step in the sewing process is misunderstood, as a Stitcher, you have to be ready to think of a way to problem-solve and repair your mistake.  If a costume change goes awry backstage, as a Dresser you have to think creatively to quickly remedy a problem with safety pins or replacements during a costume change.  As they say, “The show must go on.”

Wait a second, you help people get dressed?  That must be soooooo easy.  How can that be a physically demanding job?  It sounds easy, but throw in a mix of various age groups, religious beliefs, political opinions, and personalities and you never know what you’ll get.  Some Actors are laidback, others can be more demanding.  Everyone has a different comfort level and set of needs.  No matter what happens, as a Dresser you have to put aside any distractions and remain completely calm.  Any sort of freak out will throw off an Actor and distract their performance.  As a Dresser and a team player this is the last thing I want.  Another important thing to note is that although some shows may be not as demanding, there have been plenty I can recall in which I had to run from change to change and track several laundry baskets of clothes for Actors to change back into.  There are many shows in which I have Actors changing at the same time in different places and had to set-up costumes on chairs or hooks and filter my time between the two.  A show about Drag Queens had full changes into tights, fishnets, body padding, dress, shoes, make-up, wig, and jewelry in under 2 minutes . . . could you change that fast every morning?  As a Stitcher, I see various physical injuries all the time.  People in their late twenties have injuries and surgeries for wrist, hand, and arm problems from repetitive motions and requirements from Costume Construction.

39 Steps Overdress Opening copy

Costume from “The 39 Steps,” Denver Center Theatre Company 2010, Costume Designer: David Kay Mickelsen

So, you must be able to adjust costumes for any crazy onstage movement or fast backstage change.  Costumes are not invincible.  A costume is still a piece of clothing, it doesn’t have twice the normal resistance because it’s a costume.  It still can rip or tear or have restrictions as to what it can do, like all articles of clothing.

You work with Actors?!?  Have you met anyone famous?!?  Do you perform?  Actors are people, just like everyone else.  They put their pants on the same way . . . usually.  Even if I had met someone famous, they would still have quirks, concerns, and their own personality, like everyone else.  Although there are some Dressers who want to perform, most people I work with have no desire to be onstage.  Most people assume you have to be extremely talkative and enjoy being in the spotlight, but that is not the case.  Some Actors I know can be quiet and shy.  They enjoy being onstage to become someone else and tell a story.  The goal of any good performer is to tell a story, not necessarily be the center of attention.

When do you get to see the show?  I don’t.  You don’t?!?  That’s weird.  The only time I see the show is during a Run-Thru in a rehearsal space.  There’s costume pieces and mock-ups for rehearsals, as well as set pieces and props, but I never actually get to see the show in the actual space.  I don’t have day I can call in sick and watch the show.  I don’t have understudies like actors.  There isn’t someone to cover me, unless I’m on my deathbed and the Wardrobe Supervisor fills in.  We are required to list all of the costume changes and pieces we track during the show so the Wardrobe Supervisor can fill in, if needed, but most people show up to work sick.  If we all called in sick to work, who would be there to cover us?  The Wardrobe Supervisor can’t run all the shows by himself or herself.  One of my co-workers had food poisoning one night and still decided to show up to work.  Another co-worker injured himself during a show and had surgery.  Although the Wardrobe Supervisor covered his spot, he still showed up to help field problems.  We need the paycheck.

If you only work nights you must have so much free time to get everything done.  Unwinding from a show when I get home at night is not as easy as it sounds.  Sometimes I get home and my energy level can’t settle until after midnight.  Working at nights I become a vampire and curse the sun that pours into my bedroom every morning.  Perhaps my annoyance towards the sun is why I have a Vitamin D Deficiency.  It is nice to have Monday mornings off to go to the grocery store and avoid crowds, but most of my co-workers have more than one job.  Many times I’ve had 2 or 3 jobs, which is necessary when you work in a field that is temporary and seasonal.  There are times where I’ve had a couple of months off before I start another gig and that second job comes in handy.  When it comes to theatre work is abundant or sparse: Feast or Famine.  In addition to work I’ve taken classes in patterning, handicrafts, and writing to help advance my skills.  Many of my co-workers have a business on the side, which if any of you have started a business, whether it’s on Etsy or an independent store front, you know how much work it is.  Most importantly giving up free time to work when others are playing makes it harder to meet new people.  Most recently, my sister asked what I was doing for Easter Sunday.  Working.  Really?  Yes.  So, when you go see a performance on Thanksgiving, Christmas, or the Fourth of July, remember there’s people in dressed in black making it happen.

Then why stay in Denver?  Why not move to New York or Los Angeles?  Because people working in the Union on Broadway or Hollywood have trouble staying afloat and finding steady work.  Although people like Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep have Make-up Artists, Hair Stylists, and Dressers they use all the time, that’s only one person who has steady work in a sea of many job-seekers.  It’s competitive no matter where you go and going to a new place means starting completely over from scratch.  When I left for the summer for a job in San Diego, everyone assumed I’d be moving to California because there would be more work.  However, if I had chosen that path, I would have start all over again making contacts and getting people to hire me.  As I found from co-workers, work in San Diego was sparse.  Instead, I returned to Denver where I had steady work for the next 9 months.  Besides, not everyone wants to live in NYC or LA.

So you get to travel to different cities for work?  Do you go on tour?  That must be fun to travel around.  Actually, I don’t go on tour.  Because Regional Theatre is temporary and only has shows specific times of the year, I have to jump from job to job, hoping there will be a position and a need for someone like me.  Traveling around to new cities is fun, but it can be incredibly stressful.  For instance when I decided to go to San Diego for the past two summers, I had to decide: Should I sublet my place in Denver?  If not, where should I put my stuff?  Where will I find a place that will allow me to have a short lease at an affordable price? What if I don’t have a job for some reason when I return to Denver?  Many of my co-workers and supervisors talk about how they had to pack up one place and then start finding a new place to move into temporarily for another job.  Often, people register their cars and residency with family.  With residencies in a different state and W-2s from all over, it’ s certain tax season won’t be boring.

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Costume Lists posted backstage for “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” Denver Center Theatre Company World Premiere, 2014

If it’s always temporary, why not get a new job?  Because most people don’t think I know how to use computers or technology.  Most people outside of my field think we’re completely unreliable and flighty.  NOT TRUE.  We have to be grounded and think ahead.  Putting up a show requires organization, collaboration, and communication.  You have to figure out how an actor is going to change and if certain pieces need to be taken from one place to another to be added on for another scene if that character returns to the play.  If pieces need to be tracked, when and where does it need to happen and when can it happen?  We use Excel spreadsheets to map out these processes to see where Actors and Dressers are at during any given time in the show.  I type up my Run Order of the show on squares to glue on 3″ X 5″ cards to flip through during the show–this means I have to know a thing or two about Microsoft Word.  And, up until putting my portfolio on a website, I managed it with PowerPoint to e-mail to prospective employers.  With set changes and lighting and sound cues managed on automation and technology, you have to know computers to keep up with the ever-changing world of theatre technology.

This job must be so exciting.  What you do is so creative.  Sometimes.  I pursued this job because it wasn’t your typical desk job.  It always presented new challenges and opportunities.  Although there are some accepted methods as to how a successful Costume Shop and Wardrobe Department works, every company is different.  Some are restricted by budgets and require you to think and adapt to a show’s demands.  Others have specific rules or regulations or schedules that work for them.  Being a part of something bigger than myself was always my main career focus.  Being a part of story-telling and inspiring others is a calling for me.  People often think all Actors are divas, but in my experience that’s not true.  There are many Actors I love working with and my experiences with them I could not and would not replace.  Anytime the going gets tough, I remind myself that there are those who are irreplaceable.  We are all human and make mistakes, we all have something valuable to offer the world.  These are lessons that have made my experiences in theatre exceptional, whether I am a Stitcher or a Dresser.

Now that I’m about to experience a period of Famine, I’m off to consider a new adventure to enjoy some extra cash I’ve stashed away during my Feasting.  Perhaps somewhere with a beach and sunlight to help with that Vitamin D Deficiency.

Pegs Backstage copy

Pegs with labels for Costume Pre-Sets backstage for “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” Denver Center Theatre Company World Premiere 2014, Costume Designer: Dane Laffrey

(Image Credit for Title: Costumes from “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” Denver Center Theatre Company World Premiere 2014, Costume Designer: Dane Laffrey, Wig Master: Diana Ben-Kiki)

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