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4. Not The Designer

The response of Philip Prowse, my college tutor to questions about what proportion of his students became successful designers alarmed me very much at the time: he felt that about 1/10 had the talent, but only 1/20 had the temperament to go with it. Even if he was being unduly gloomy, that still leaves a large number of students who may have the instincts of a designer but, for whatever reason, may not make much headway. And those people I would encourage to think laterally. There are plenty of other equally valuable jobs you can do in theatrical costume, and in fact all of them can be done better if you bring a designer’s imagination to bear on them. We sent out a questionnaire to a range of ancillary costume workers and the one thing all of them agreed on was the pleasure they got from working as part of a team and seeing their handiwork up on stage or in front of the camera.

If you’re wondering whether your’s is the temperament of a costume designer you might like to try asking yourself the following questions;

Are you bossy enough? Much of the work consists of making other people, often older or more experienced than you are, work for you. Will you be able to deal with half-hearted or uninspired workmanship, and find a way of making it better? On the other hand, are you too bossy? Must you have your own way? If flexibility and compromise seem like defeat, then the frustrations of the designer’s position of pig-in-the-middle between directors, makers and performers will drive you mad.

Because of the costume designers’ position in the production hierarchy, it is uniquely stressful. Almost all my friends in the business have a degree of irritable bowel syndrome, that is when they don’t have actual stomach ulcers! Unless you are successful enough to go from film to film, or be lucky enough to have a percentage in a long running musical, it is very badly paid. There is precious little part-time teaching any more, and it is hard to find other paid jobs that are compatible with the erratic hours that one is required to work. Moreover there is absolutely no job security! However admired and successful you might be, fashion, the economy, budget cuts or the configuration of the planets can conspire to put you out of work at any point (ask me! I’ve just had eight months between projects) and if you have a mortgage and dependants it’s no joke. The worry about where your next job is coming from never really goes away for long, and although this can be tolerable, exhilarating even, when you are young, single and free of dependants, when your account is hæmorrhaging money on a daily basis, and nothing is coming in to top it up, the emotional stress can be quite terrifying. It’s made worse because you feel that to talk about it is to endanger what is left of your reputation. And God help you if your partner is also freelance and hits a bad patch at the same time!

When teaching I always feel an obligation to discourage anyone who isn’t completely determined. Becoming a designer who never makes quite enough money to get by is a miserable existence, but with a little ingenuity, some lateral thought and a bit of reprogramming such a person could easily become a happy, successful and potentially first-rate cutter, milliner, textile expert, or supervisor.

There are too many designers already for the limited amount of work available, so if I succeed in putting you off, then it wouldn’t be the life for you anyway. As a way of life, designing costumes has a number of drawbacks that need to be coolly considered before any irrevocable decisions are made. There are very few female costume designers who have managed to combine a career and children, and fewer still who have managed to continue to cohabit with their children’s father. That is a serious price to pay. In that respect I have been lucky, but it hasn’t been easy keeping the whole thing together. If the uncertainties of such a life does not appeal, or your nerves -or health- are less than rudely robust, but you love the whole ethos of the costumier’s world, well, there are many other options that could be every bit as satisfying, and rather less angst ridden.

Making costumes is very definitely a group activity. Every designer needs support of a team of skilled crafts people and technicians who will translate her sketches into wearable garments, deliver the same to stage or film set and look after them once they are there. There are many job specifications within this framework that could provide a happy alternative to the actual design process. If it sounds patronising to describe someone as a second fiddle, try imagining a String Quartet without one. Helpful support creatively given by someone imaginative is worth it’s weight in gold, and will often find its reward in continuous employment, because if you’re real value-for-money and fun to have around who wouldn’t want you on their team?

We did an informal survey of a couple of dozen salaried and freelance workers in a variety of professions connected with Costume and found that nearly all of them experienced a high degree of job satisfaction because they felt they were collaborating with others to produce a result which demanded all their skills and ingenuity. They found particular pleasure in their freedom to interpret designs creatively and took pride in seeing the results on stage and screen. ‘I enjoy the new people I meet’ was a recurring response. The Wardrobe Manager for a successful touring theatre company said that the variety and excitement of places visited amply compensated for the long hours and low pay.

Among downsides quoted was ‘being on your feet for 12 hours in pouring rain’ (Film Wardrobe Asst), ‘costume designers who can’t make themselves clear and then blame you for misunderstanding them’ (Cutter), ‘not enough sleep when things get hectic’ (Asst Theatre Costume Designer), ‘trying to be nice to an actor who has just spilt coffee on their costume when every available hand is busy just before a Dress Rehearsal’ (Costume Supervisor). Everybody agreed that the worst part of their job was having to produce a professional result when there wasn’t a proper budget, or the production team created an ungenerous or mistrustful atmosphere..

The two most important qualities for working in Costume were judged to be patience and a good self-organisation. One Cutter added ‘and the ability to bite your tongue in fittings!’, while another pointed out that the atmosphere in a fitting made a tremendous difference to the actor’s attitude to the costume. A Costume Supervisor mentioned that anyone in a responsible position had to be able to interpret a script as well as simply reading it.

We asked people if they ever experience ‘life-threatening’ periods of unemployment. Most freelances said they did, but that the rewards outweighed the disadvantages. Some people could put their professional skills to good use elsewhere, and others said they had developed side-lines to tide them over. People who had moved into Lecturing or Curating said that apart from a secure salary, one advantage of a regular job was that you got weekends to yourself. People’s earning ranged from £17K-£38K, tho a well-established maker said that earnings of over £60K could be achieved by hard work. The earnings in film are much higher, in some cases nearly double, what theatre pays, but were also much more unpredictable.

Everyone emphasised that those interested in this kind of career need to pay their dues by working for one of the larger organisations for a period of time so as to get on the scene and acclimatise themselves to the working practices of the industry.

Here are some options.
(There is, by the way, a general presumption that the term Costume in a job title applies to costume production, while Wardrobe applies to maintenance of existing costumes.)

Wardrobe Director. This is a managerial post, with creative implications. The larger theatres and opera companies have wardrobe directors to manage the whole operation of costume production, with all its departments. For instance, the Royal Opera House Wardrobe produces costumes for the Royal Ballet as well as the opera. This means that there are four main workrooms, Opera Ladies, Opera Men’s Tailoring, Ballet Costumes, and the Tutu Room. There are also departments for the making of hats, and jewellery, the dye-room, the buyers and supervisors office (known as the pattern room) a large stock-room of basic and specialist fabrics, the shoe room and the wardrobe production office. It is the Wardrobe Director’s job to manage all this, while liaising with the main scheduling department -the dreaded Opera Planning, who are never happier than when organising three or four vast chorus operas in the space of a month- sorting out the budgets, engaging supervisors and acting as a buck-stops-here support system when the incipient megalomania of some half-baked director boils over, upsetting the world-famous soprano who has hysterics, and the designer, who having a long threatened nervous breakdown, is discovered weeping helplessly in the stock room.

Costumier for a hire company. These hard-working souls are the people who work with, and it must be said, sometimes in spite of, the designers, pulling out garments from the over-stuffed rails and turning them into convincing costumes in the fitting room. You will work with all kinds of performers from extras to major movie stars. It has to be the best way of learning about period costume, and a number of good costumiers have used their knowledge to become successful designers in their own right. I have often thought that if you were working in Angels for six months, you really would meet everyone in the business, it has to be the best place in London for the serious networker!

Wardrobe Mistress/Master. Responsible for the maintenance of costumes once they have been delivered to the theatre or film set. If you are one of life’s carers, this might appeal to you. You also need to take pride in producing an endless supply of clean, beautifully ironed shirts often in trying circumstances, such as the back of a truck, or the dusty attic of a provincial theatre. A good natured, competent WM is highly valued within the company, often becoming something of a mother-figure to the actors.

Costume Supervisor (Theatre) – Wardrobe chief (Film). If the above domesticity sounds like your vision of hell, then the life of a Costume Supervisor might be more appealing. Good supervisors are worth their weight in gold, and the experienced ones are seldom out of work for long. The first films I did were all but ruined as experiences because the supervisors were either unsupportive or obstructive; obversely, frighteningly difficult projects have been rendered positive, even happy events with the help and companionship of good colleagues. The designer is responsible for producing the design choices, but the supervisor is responsible for more or less everything else. The job suits hyper-active compulsive organisers who never give up until every last sock and its spare is in position. You also need the ability to bond deeply with your designer, becoming friend, partner and confidante.

On films, the wardrobe chief is also responsible for arranging such things as the hire of the wardrobe truck, fitting and work-room space, as well as organising crowd fittings, It is often possible to become a designer, using your experience as a supervisor, especially on modern dress projects, but if you do see supervising as a stepping stone to other things, it is not wise to go on too much about your ambitions while working as one, or you will upset the concentration and fragile ego of your current designer!

Costume or Wardrobe Assistant. For many, this is the accepted way in to the business and yet, one of the best assistants I know is a grandmother several times over! This job definition only really exists in film and television, for some reason. In large scale theatre there is more likely to be an assistant supervisor or three, and perhaps more than one buyer. The main qualification, over and above the obvious practical skills, is an unquenchable desire to be helpful, and a willingness to learn. You would be expected to help with buying, stock fittings, “standing by” on the set, dressing, breaking down costumes, making bits and pieces, and generally being useful.

Buyer. The perfect job for the compulsive shopaholic! The buyer will need to know where to find anything that might be needed, bring back samples for the designer to choose, and then go and collect it all from the store or shop. You will end up knowing your town better than anyone else in the building, and will be greeted as a long lost relation in all the most useful shops. On a film the wardrobe buyer is usually also a costume assistant, moving from one job to another as and when necessary, but if you are interested in props as well as costumes, the Art Department always employs specialist buyers, as do the larger opera houses.

Costume Maker; Cutter, Tailor. Some Makers like to work by themselves in the front room, or in rented space in one of the many business parks or warehouses now available. Others work with a partner, or employ help as and when they need it, or run large workrooms. Those who prefer the security of a regular wage work for one of the larger opera companies or costume houses, according to temperament. Good cutters are always in demand, and I know of at least three companies, worldwide, who are looking for first class cutters of men’s costume, even as I write. These are excellent occupations for creative and skilled individuals who need to work to the highest possible standards, but who might find the breadth of responsibility, and position in the firing line as inhabited by the designer, unattractive. When I think of the most brilliant cutter I ever worked with, Stephen Skaptason, formerly Head Cutter at the National Theatre but now alas dead, words cannot describe the joy of seeing his interpretations of my designs, it was pure music. His sensitivity, flair and instinct for line were God-given and belied his considerable size. Tragically his love of, and commitment to, his work undermined his health.

The main qualification, apart from couture standard technical skills, is an ability to see through the designers eyes, so that you can find a way of interpreting their sketches, since not all designers know all that much about cutting, and will welcome sensitive help to manifest their own designs.

Hat Maker. Jeweller. Mask-maker. All the above remarks apply, but the telepathic element is even more important, since the designer is likely to know even less about millinery, jewellery or mask making, than they do about cutting, and the drawings will probably will be scrappier and less informative.

Textile Crafts. Dyeing, Printing, Breaking-down. This is an area that interests me very much. Certain projects, especially ones that are set in the past, before the invention of chemical dyes or artificial fibres, rely heavily on hand processed fabric. It is fairly unusual to find material that is the right weight, colour and pattern, at a price that you can afford, and often, the patterns that you do find are somehow too small and mechanical [or too large and crude] for the effect you want. I have been known to process every piece of fabric on certain shows, buying the cloth wholesale in a raw state from mills such as Whaleys of Bradford, and dying, distressing and printing it before it is cut. Certain chemistry skills are needed if you which to progress beyond the Dylon-in-the-washing-machine stage, as you experiment with resist and discharge, silk-screen and stencil, or any combination thereof. A few large subsidised theatres run a dye-room, but nowadays most dyers are freelance, working for film, stage or even the fashion industry according to demand.

Costume research and conservation. It came as something as a surprise to me to discover just how much interest there is in the academic side of period costume. If you are more interested in antique textiles and museum quality garments as distinct from the somewhat rougher world of getting performers into frocks, working with one of the costume collections, dealing in vintage clothing, or doing research for designers and social historians might appeal.

Teaching. I very much enjoy teaching, but there is not much opportunity for part time work nowadays. This is a great shame for the students, as it is important for them to come into contact with working designers who are actually out there, doing it.

The specialist stage design courses are naturally the main sources of employment, and will be well known to anyone who is established enough to consider teaching others. The many drama departments in the UK have a fairly poor record when it comes to the study of the visual side of the business, and it would be nice to think that they could be persuaded to employ designers from time to time to rectify this. That having been said many costume technicians do a couple of days teaching a week, to the benefit of the students, and, because it is regular work, of their bank managers.

One of the great joys of working in Stratford is the collection of superbly talented people who work in the production wardrobe. If you can’t produce a decent set of costumes for the RST then you are probably -no definitely- in the wrong job. There was, and still is, an amazingly dedicated team of cutters, milliners, armourers, dyers and seamstresses that are seemingly able to do anything that a designer can think up, and more besides. It is a tragic and unnoticed scandal that the last 15 years has seen the decimation of first-class wardrobes at the BBC, the RNT and the ROH, victims of short-term cost-cutting by the accountants and bureaucrats who pay themselves 300-500% more than anyone in the wardrobe ever got.

The real long-term disaster is that each of these establishments represents an irreplaceable body of knowledge and a focus for the development of traditional labour-intensive craft skills which could never be viable as stand-alone business units in a commercial environment - but which are absolutely essential to first-class work in theatre or film.