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Sewing that's Retro, Geek, and Chic
I am a “costumer” according to my resume, but not a “designer”. I seem to be explaining this to someone at least once a week right now. (Granted, I have done a couple of shows in the past as the designer, but I do not like designing.)
The confusion probably stems from the fact that “costume designers” get top billing in the credits in film and theatre, and people who are not in the business don’t realize there are so many different classifications of costumers within the “costume department”.
Let’s face it, “designer” simply sounds more impressive to outsiders.
Allow me to clarify (and introduce you to) some of the lesser known titles within the costume world (there are a lot of parallels within the fashion world but I am less familiar with the specifics in that industry).
A costume designer is the “idea” person. Most designers work closely with the director and actors to create costumes that coincide with the director’s artistic vision for the look of a production.
Just as a director usually gets overall credit for a movie or theatre production, despite having a crew of behind-the-scenes artisans, a costume designer is often assumed to be capable of doing everything from sketching the ideas to actually constructing a physical garment to match.
While some designers work their way up through the costume construction ranks, many do not.
Simply put, some designers are artists who can draw and paint beautifully, making it easy for the other costumers under them to understand what they want to create. Others are very good with verbally explaining their ideas either to a hired sketch artist or the costumers who actually build (or shop for) the costumes.
Some designers don’t know how to sew a single stitch. Others know the basics (but may not be very good at construction) and are able to communicate well with those who are hired to sew. Occasionally, a designer will have started out constructing for other designers (but this is rare, as most of us who love to build enjoy the actual building process too much to give it up). Designers deal more with concepts, meetings, and paperwork (including budgets).
A good designer is opinionated enough to decide what every individual character should wear and the general look of the costumes in a production. This is the main reason I do not consider myself a designer – I don’t care enough about what everyone is wearing. But I do care that they are wearing their clothing well. I have a need to tweak and adjust costumes on actors but I do not feel compelled to tell them what they should be wearing. I tend to focus more on the details.
The term costumer is a very broad title. It can include everyone from the person who sews to the person who does the laundry for a show. It’s often used because those who work in a costume department/shop frequently do more than one thing, depending on skills and how the team is organized to work together. (Part of the fun is the variety!)
Some productions have as few as two people doing all of the costume work, while others employ multiple costumers who divide the work into very specific tasks.
And not all costumers can sew.
Finally, “wardrobe” is used interchangeably with “costume” – wardrobe department is the same as costume department on productions. You may hear one director calling for “wardrobe” while another calls for “costumes”. (I answer to either.)
The costume supervisor ranks below the costume designer on a film crew. Duties include scheduling & being there for fittings, dealing with producers and actors directly, and generally overseeing anything that may come up during the shoot when the designer is not present. Supervisors tend to bounce back and forth between set and basecamp during filming. They also help with paperwork.
A set costumer goes to the film set when there are actors filming and keeps an eye on costume continuity during the shoot. The Key Set Costumer usually works with the leading actors and manages any other set costumers that might be there to help during the larger scenes.
In stage theatre, the term dresser is used for costumers who help actors backstage with costume changes during a live performance.
I’ve only ever seen this title on a call sheet (the daily shoot schedule & times that crew is called in to work), but the costumer who is working on the wardrobe trailer at basecamp makes sure that actors’ wardrobe is laid out in their dressing rooms/trailers throughout the day. When they’re not doing this, they may do some laundry and prep for the next day of shooting by pulling & steaming/ironing anything scheduled to be worn.
The entire costume department reports to the wardrobe trailer and may take turns working there during the day, but one designated costumer is usually assigned to work there full time. They generally keep the wardrobe trailer organized as well.
A costume shop supervisor or manager is similar to costume supervisor but oversees a costume shop, whether it is for film or theatre. A costume shop is usually set up during pre-production and may shut down once a show has reached the filming or performance stage. A costume shop manager makes phone calls, does paperwork, and supervises the work being done in the shop.
The cutter/draper is the costume shop patternmaker and the highest level of actual construction. They usually use a combination of flat-patterning and draping to create the patterns to match the designer’s sketches. A cutter/draper frequently builds the muslin mockups to test their patterns before using the fancy fabrics. They often calculate the amount of materials needed and cut the fabric.
After the pieces have been patterned and cut, the cutter/draper explains the methods and order of construction to the stitchers working under them. The cutter/draper does the actual fitting on the actor and makes any necessary corrections to the patterns.
A cutter/draper will often help sew when everything for a production has been patterned and cut.
A first hand is the cutter/draper’s assistant. They help with cutting and may do some of the patterning and sewing. Not all costume shops have a designated first hand.
Stitchers (aka seamstresses and sometimes “costume technicians”) are the builders in the costume shop.
They take the pile of pieces from the cutter/draper and assemble them according to the cutter/draper’s direction. Construction is usually completed to a point for a fitting with the actor and then finished after the fitting.
A stitcher is not the same as a tailor although there is some overlap.
A craftsperson may be a milliner or someone who paints or dyes fabric. Often the duties of a craftsperson overlap with those of a props person in that they create the accessories that go with an actor’s costume.
Glue & paint are used more often than a needle & thread by a craftsperson.
A shopper is the person who buys whatever supplies or clothing can be purchased for a production. They are also responsible for receipt paperwork and returning unused items to the store from which they were bought.
A costume intern (or PA in film) is usually someone still in school or just recently graduated who helps in a costume shop or production office with anything from paperwork to overnight laundry.
So that’s the basic breakdown – the bigger the costume department/shop, the more specific titles and positions there are beyond those I’ve listed.
Even though I’ve done various amounts of all the above positions, I consider myself to be mostly a Costumer and a Stitcher. I’m happiest as a builder because it’s my favorite part of the costuming process. I just wish I could do it full time.
For those of you who love to sew, which costuming position sounds the most appealing to you? Do you consider yourself more of a stitcher like I do?
When I mention that I’m a professional costumer, people often get wide-eyed and respond with an awed “ooohhh…” While costuming has it’s moments of “wow, I love my job!”, in reality, most of what I do is simply just work – and by work, I mean the dirty physical-labor kind.
(Why I’m not a designer explained in this post.)
Being a costumer is more than sewing. There are those costumers who do spend a lot of their time in a costume shop (and I admit that is my favorite place to be!), but even working in a shop involves more than just putting together pretty period garments for film or theatre.
There are tasks like making repairs to old (sometimes stinky!) costumes, polishing shoes, and rigging a costume so that it can be put on or taken off quickly. There is also the distressing of clothing & shoes to make something look old or worn, and there is dyeing fabric – both of which are messy and require true artistic skills that I have not completely mastered.
If an article of clothing has a brand logo, I might get the assignment of “greeking it out” – film slang for blurring or obscuring an emblem so it’s not visible or recognizable on camera. Sharpies in various colors come in handy for that, and when I watch a TV show (especially Reality TV), I can often tell when something has been intentionally greeked out. (As a last minute on-set fix, there’s always creative use of gaff tape for greeking.)
Then there is basic stuff like laundry. It’s never-ending! I may be able to look inside a designer labeled outfit and touch amazing custom garments, but I also have to collect sweaty socks at the end of a day. Sometimes laundry has to come home with me and go back clean the next morning (and that’s after a 12+ hour workday!).
During the last few days, I was hired to do some stitching for a Nike commercial that was filming in Dallas. (You can view it in this post.) I hemmed some pants, took in some t-shirts, and tailored a few suits. But I also helped unpack shipments of clothes that arrived by mail. I did a lot of clothes hanging, and I folded & sorted something like 600 t-shirts!
During the actual shoot days, I spent most of one morning steaming a couple racks of clothes, a few hours heat-setting some logos on basketball uniforms (that was fun because I got to use an industrial press), dressed some extras, collected dirty clothes, and helped pack everything back on the truck. (Wardrobe always involves a lot of heavy-lifting of clothes and shoes.)
It was grueling, but the costume designer & wardrobe crew I was working with were really great people and I’m glad I was able to meet them. I’m sure I will cross paths with them again at some point – it always amazes me how small Hollywood is (instead of 6 degrees of separation, it’s more like 1 or 2)!
On some of the bigger shows where I’ve been hired on as part of wardrobe department, we have a full-sized semi-trailer for all the costumes.
On filming days, a crew shows up (usually before the sun rises) and finds Basecamp set up in some random parking lot near the shooting location. Half the time, it is easy to forget where you are because the trailers are usually set up in the same basic configuration.
Inside a wardrobe trailer, there is often a stacked washer/dryer, a small sink, and a few cabinets and counters in the nose. All the way down the sides are locking clothes racks, and a ramp on a lift at the back end.
Aside from lugging costumes and pushing racks of clothing all over the place, I’ve met and talked to countless interesting people, seen the other side of many “do not enter” doors (I often joke that I don’t know how to enter a building through the public front door), learned how “boring” action scenes & how “funny” horror scenes can be while filming them, worked some 19 hour days (the standard minimum day is 12 hours on most jobs), and been a part of some truly amazing teams.
My job as a costumer involves so much more than sewing (and I didn’t even mention the on-set work!) that it’s hard to summarize when someone asks what I do. Costuming (and any film or theatre job for that matter) is a calling – one that sounds glamorous and usually isn’t.
It can be miserable and completely exhausting at times, but despite all the hard work involved, I would never trade what I do for a normal desk job!
The Bride’s sister wore white?! Isn’t that… improper? Inappropriate? BAD FORM??
Did you know that brides and their maids in ancient times actually dressed identically (including heavy veiling) because they hoped to confuse evil spirits? The superstition was that a mischievous spirit wouldn’t be able to figure out who was the real bride, and she would be kept safe from its horrible curses. This is why there are stories of bridegrooms being duped into marrying the wrong woman – he couldn’t see his bride’s face until after the ceremony, and sometimes a family could pull a switcheroo and marry off a different girl. Shakespeare even made use of the surprise bride in plays like Much Ado About Nothing.
Modern weddings use traditional etiquette standards that are customary, but aren’t always as old-fashioned as you might think.
Up until and even during Victorian times, western brides usually wore their “best” dress (which wasn’t always new) as their wedding attire because a white dress was expensive and hard to keep clean, unless you were upper class. One new trend that has become modern tradition began when Queen Victoria chose to wear white as a bride in 1840. (She even dressed her attendants in white.) Before white dresses were common and affordable, western brides would often accessorize with white (the symbol of purity) – white bonnets, white feathers on a colored hat, or white flowers.
Modern day brides tend to choose bridesmaid dresses in one of their wedding colors. And up until recently, it seemed many brides selected ugly dresses for their attendants so that the bridal gown would not be out-shone. (Ironically, a fashion faux-paus can be even more distracting than something pretty!)
And that’s your quickie history lesson for the day! Here’s why Pippa’s dress actually worked:
Misconception: If I wear a size 10 store-bought dress, I need to buy a size 10 sewing pattern.
True! – if you’re talking 1976, that is.
But seriously, this is the 21st century, and women’s clothing-makers have since resorted to a type of “psychological” sizing. (You may have already sensed this was the case.) Let’s look at this simple example:
Brand A sells the same type of garment as Brand B. They may even be in the same price range.
But to compete with Brand A, Brand B starts labeling its clothes with smaller numbers, all while keeping its prices roughly the same as Brand A’s. So a Size 10 at Store A becomes a Size 6 at Store B.
Now B’s size 6 is selling better than Brand A’s 10 because, after all, what woman wouldn’t rather (claim to) be a 6?
The result: “big designer” clothing labels often have smaller size numbers – and higher prices – than the mid-priced department stores. And consumers buy into all of it! Seems the clothing industry changes the size systems as often as the women change their clothes, doesn’t it?
(By the way, you also may have noticed men’s clothing isn’t as grossly affected by these mind games, partially because of the way men shop, but also because men’s clothing has traditionally been labeled by actual measurements anyway.)
Luckily, sewing patterns are different. Their size systems don’t change as often as retail clothing’s do. Pattern sizing was first standardized in the 1940s, but those standards were not universally accepted until the 1960s.
Thus, sewing patterns you find in the fabric store today are most likely using the same system in place since Kennedy was president, and the size numbers have not changed either.
Rule of thumb: It is best to take your current body measurements before buying a pattern because it is common for your pattern size to go up as much as 6 numbers from your store-bought size.
Let’s look at another example: a woman shopping at the mall buys clothes in the 0-4 range for Womens and 1-3 range for Juniors, her size shifting slightly depending on whether she’s at Banana Republic, Old Navy, or Delia’s. (Check out those links to see what I mean.) But according to her measurements, her pattern size at a store like JoAnn Fabrics winds up being a Womens 6 and a Juniors size 7 or 8.
To top it all off, any given sewing pattern may even need to go up or down by a size, after the pattern style & included amount of ease (or “breathing room”) are taken into consideration.
I have sewn for multiple women who have given me a pattern they’ve purchased, believing it to be their size. In most cases, they’d chosen something way too small, and then I’ve had to discretely buy them the correct size so they wouldn’t freak out. Seriously.
So remember: whether you’re shopping “off-the-rack” or looking for a sewing pattern, don’t become obsessed with a size “number” – no one will think about your garment’s numeric size, as long as what you are wearing fits correctly on you. (And besides, custom-made clothing won’t even have a size label for anyone to check!)
Misconception: Altering a store-bought garment is easier for the seamstress than sewing one from “scratch.”
This is a common belief that is easy to accept because it seems so logical. After all, it makes sense to think that since half the work is already done, lots of time will be saved by not having to cut and sew the garment.
In reality, however, alterations to a finished piece of clothing can actually be twice the work of starting at the beginning. This is because the garment must first be taken apart before the alteration can be made (unless the alteration is simply shortening a hem). Once the outfit has been taken apart, the alteration can be made and the outfit must then be re-assembled. Any detail, like beadwork, must be redone. This is why bridal alterations can double the price of a store-bought dress.
When clothing is made from “scratch,” a seamstress can control the number of alterations by making a mock-up first and doing the alterations during the stages of construction before the garment is completed.
Alterations are often an annoyance to a professional seamstress who enjoys building clothing from the beginning of the process. A tailor shop usually employs a group of seamstresses that specializes in alterations and may be more experienced at building custom suits for men. In most cases, those employed in a tailor shop are paid a flat rate per alteration, making it more profitable for them to be exceptionally fast with alterations and repairs.
While I believe that bridal & formal store chains have their value, it has been my personal experience that there are many things they won’t tell you or explain to you until it is too late. This means you will need to know enough on your own to work “around” them.
Over the years, after examining & fitting so many wedding & bridesmaid dresses from chain stores, I have made an interesting observation – one that almost always guarantees the customer will need alterations. The sales clerks will convince you that you need a dress at least one size bigger than you actually do. When they determine your size, they only measure bust, waist, and hips. Then they refer to a size chart that shows the standard body measurements that are used by the company to make the dresses they carry in the store. In most cases, your bust & waist measurements will fall into one size, while your hips will be in the next size or two up. So you are told to order the size that fits your hips, since “you can always have the rest taken in.”
Unless the skirt is a form-fitting pencil style, the hips should not determine the size you order. It is always best to use your bust measurement when ordering your size because it’s the part of the dress with the most fit. Formal dresses typically have extra-large seam allowances, and can be let out an inch or two if there is an area that fits a little too tightly – provided there is no beadwork in the area that needs to be let out. Straps and hems almost always need to be shortened no matter how well the rest of the dress fits. (And if the sample you’re trying on fits, don’t let anyone convince you to buy a bigger size!)
I consulted with one bride who had tried on a spaghetti-strap dress at a chain store and it fit her almost perfectly. Then they measured her and told her she needed one size larger according to her measurements. She questioned them about it since the sample had fit so well. They told her the sample was probably “stretched-out” from being tried on by so many people.
Trusting their advice, she ultimately had them order the larger size, and it wound up being about two sizes too big in the bust – the only part of the dress that was supposed to be tight! She didn’t learn how expensive the alterations would be until she had paid for the dress, and then it couldn’t be returned or exchanged.
She learned that many of the clerks at chain stores do not know much about the construction of dresses and are only following the company procedures when helping you choose your size. Unfortunately for you, this almost always guarantees the store makes a profit from alterations in addition to the sale. By the time you have your heart set on your dream dress, you have to be willing to pay for the necessary alterations – which can often cost as much as the gown itself.
I was like many a bride-to-be and did not know what style gown I wanted to wear on the Big Day. I decided to go to a chain store, but only because there was no charge to try on dresses. I had a general list of styles I knew I did not want, so I suspected many of the dresses I took into the fitting room probably wouldn’t thrill me. Because I am so small, all of the dresses available were one size too large. So I knew that no matter what, any dress would require alterations.
The night I tried on wedding gowns was during the week, so it was a very light customer night with only one other betrothed in the store with me. The sales floor associate would only pause for a few seconds to tell me that I looked “beautiful” each time I emerged in a new dress to consult the mirror. It seemed she was only out to make a sale and really didn’t care which one I chose. A few times I tried to tell her why a style was “wrong” for my body, at which she would disagree with a quizzical look on her face. She apparently had little to no training on how to dress different body-types.
After analyzing the different dress styles on my body, I was able to decide which looked best on me. While the cut & silhouette of the off-the-rack dress was great – despite being too big on me – there were other things I didn’t like about it. Mainly, the cheap, scratchy tulle (or net) on the outside felt horrible when I put my arms down at my sides. I also noticed many of the fake pearl beads covering the bodice & scattered over the rest of the dress were loose – I had already seen a few roll away as I stood there. The dress had not even left the store and it was already losing beads! The materials were cheap, and the machine-sewn beadwork was poorly done.
There was only one thing I could do. I decided to make my own dress in the same style, but with a sheer organza overlay instead of scratchy tulle, and with prettier & more secure hand-sewn beadwork. It fit me perfectly, and it was the first of many other wedding dresses I have constructed. I also made my veil.
After learning of the plight of so many women in their dealings with bridal chain stores, I realized there were many who would appreciate all that is a custom dress.