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Sewing that's Retro, Geek, and Chic
I honestly did not mean to take such a long break (a full year!) from blogging – where did 2015 go??
For the first few months of the year, I was finishing up the second half of the season at The Dallas Opera and the long commute across town eats about 3 hours each day. So, needless to say, blogging at the end of a day didn’t hold much appeal.
When the opera season wrapped up at the end of April, I unexpectedly found the motivation to do a bunch of sewing for myself – I was whipping up a lot of things I had been wanting to make myself and didn’t want to risk losing enthusiasm by stopping to blog. (I did Instagram most of it though so I have a few crummy selfies & construction shots.)
My husband and I were also slowly working our way through a home office makeover on the weekends from the middle of February to the end of May. So the computer wasn’t properly set up at times during the DIY mess.
And then the phone rang with a job offer and I was driving over to Louisiana on Memorial Day to work on a TV series filming in Baton Rouge.
I was promised a week of work. I packed for a month.
Television shooting schedules are a bit insane. I worked at least 12 hours a day and even worked one 18-hour day in the costume shop at the production office. (So glad I wasn’t working on set in the humid Louisiana summer heat!)
It was the middle of week 5 before I found myself driving home. I’ve worked in the film world long enough to know that once someone puts you to work and you don’t fail spectacularly, they will try to keep you as long as possible.
The day after I got home, a collarless pug showed up at my door. Luckily, I was able to track down the owner by the next afternoon thanks to DFW Pug Rescue. (If she had been chipped, it would have been easier – please have your pets micro-chipped!)
I think I spent about a week just staring at the wall after everything got back to normal.
And a couple weeks later, I found myself going back to Baton Rouge. Good thing I hadn’t bothered to unpack my sewing machine from the first trip!
I only let them have me 2 weeks, and then I came home again.
I had about a month before the new opera season started, so I tried to finish up a bedroom makeover I had started between Louisiana trips.
I recently made myself a new wool coat during daily breaks at the opera. And I even managed to get photos! I’ve been working on a blog post about the coat, but I decided to briefly put it aside because I found a TV promo of the show I worked on in Louisiana.
So here’s the first tiny (and I mean tiny) peek at a ball gown I miraculously cranked out in only 6 days, at about the 0:27 mark. You mostly just see the petticoat someone else made.
UPDATE 6/4/16: The original teaser I linked to disappeared, but I found a full length trailer instead. The ball gown is now at about the 1:48 mark:
Underground premieres March 9, 2016 on WGN for those of you who are interested in watching it.
Aside from a couple other projects that I’ll be able to talk more about in the coming months, that pretty much sums up my 2015.
I promise my next blog post will not be a year away!
Happy New Year, everyone!
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?
The concept of time is such a strange thing when you work in the film business, especially when you can spend 6 hours or more filming a scene that will end up being 2 minutes in the final cut. It feels like at least 3 months have passed since I’ve been able to blog, yet it’s only been a little more than a month!
I was sucked into the One Heart movie filming bubble on October 8 and it abruptly popped in the early morning hours of November 10 after the production had some money problems and paychecks were delayed. (There was threat of the Teamsters shutting us down at lunch, but they generously allowed us to finish our day.) For now the movie is on hiatus.
There were three weeks of night shooting because football games take place at night and the sky needed to be dark. On one of the first nights of the shoot, I was sent back to the wardrobe trailer (it was basically the same as the one pictured here) to do some sewing at 3am, and man, is it hard to thread a needle when you are a little punchy and still trying to switch over to night-shift!
It’s really weird trying to comprehend time when you are sleeping during the day and working through the night. I saw many sunrises on my way home from work.
As is normal on most shows I’ve worked as a costumer, I was lucky if I managed to get 6 hours of sleep before I had to get up and do it again. I found myself looking around at the rest of the crew and seeing that they all looked as tired as I felt. It’s truly amazing with such minimal sleep that there aren’t injuries on film sets all the time – if you think about it, you hardly ever hear about film shoots making the news because of accidents! That’s rather incredible considering most days are about 14-16 hours long with little sleep between.
We had many days (or actually nights) of 400-500 extras. That’s a lot people to dress and a lot of herding to do! Our biggest day for extras was over 2000 (most were volunteers). They quickly learned how boring and uncomfortable it can be as an extra, and we usually lost about half of them at lunch every day.
I usually wear a hat whenever I am working outside, and I have a large collection of different kinds (some of which I made). For this job, I bought myself a silver sequined hat to wear on set when we had large numbers of extras. That way I could be found easily from a distance by cast & crew in the middle of football stadiums full of people.
The weather did its annual “Texas-can’t-decide-if-it’s-summer-or-winter” thing and some nights were pleasant while others were cold & miserable. The crew could dress according to actual temperature (winter coats usually came out before a night was over) but actors had to dress according to script. On cold nights, this meant I had to collect actors’ coats just before we rolled and hold them during takes.
There is only one week of shooting left to finish the movie, and I sincerely hope that the money issues resolve themselves so that the movie can be completed – it really is a wonderful story and all that has been accomplished so far has been fantastic. It would be sad if all the hard work just ends up being put on a shelf in an incomplete state.
Overall, the production itself was great but my personal experience with the project simply wasn’t fun. I love what I do, but this movie made me hate my job. I’ve always believed that there is a reason I get every job I get, even if it’s just to meet a new friend in the business. And I know I at least managed to accomplish that. =)
Here’s hoping the next job is more enjoyable. I’m glad I can now get back to my blog and some of my personal sewing projects!
My upcoming costuming gig is for a movie. A movie about… football. Specifically, high school football.
I know lots about costumes, but almost nothing about football (I think I only attended one football game while in high school & my college didn’t have a football team during the time I attended), so this should be interesting. It’s been a year of sports for me – first all the basketball uniforms and now football.
I just finished reading the script, and guys, it’s really good! And I don’t even like sports! (I guess I’ve always been too academic and into the Arts to truly appreciate sports.)
The plot is based on a true story about a special football game back in 2008 between the Grapevine Faith Lions and the Gainesville State Tornadoes that is now an annual event and has spread to other schools in the surrounding Texas area. The script is curse-word free and inspiring – totally family friendly (there is a little violence though). I think the world can always use another feel-good movie.
I actually teared up a little, and that’s saying a lot because scripts always read slightly cheesy no matter how good they are! (There’s just something about script-formatting that reads awkward on the page, but can be something amazingly wonderful when cast & crew bring it to life.)
Of course, I won’t be able to share many details during the production (you’ll just have to wait and see it in theaters), but I can share a few links for now. And I’m sure I will have a few non-proprietary behind-the-scenes work stories I can reveal. =)
The movie is called One Heart. Here’s the website of the organization behind it and there is also the official movie site (it’s a bit slow to load, but I promise it does load eventually). Almost 400 football players showed up to audition for it!
There’s also a book about Coach Kris Hogan (the movie’s central character) and his football team (the Faith Christian Lions) called Remember Why You Play by David Thomas. It’s available in physical form from both Amazon and Barnes & Noble. I just downloaded the eBook version for my nook a couple days ago. And there’s also a Kindle version available.
Because it’s a movie about football and football games, there’s going to be quite a bit of exterior night shooting. So far, it looks like the first 3 weeks will put me on graveyard shift. I’ll probably be all turned around (6pm will be my 6am), but I won’t have to wear sunscreen at work – yay! And right now, the nights are beautiful here in Texas.
(I can’t imagine doing night work on an epic film like Lord of the Rings – one of those movies had 6 months of night shooting for the battle scenes! Yuck, how depressing when you go that long without seeing the sun!)
Come mid-October, I’ll probably still be around online, just at really odd hours (North American time anyway), especially on the weekends. So read the preview of the book online and buy it if you’re interested, and I look forward to sharing the work related stories I can legally talk about.
You guys like stories about laundry, right? *grin*
Despite the crazy hours and all the sports stuff, I’m really looking forward to this job!
Hooray, it’s my first real rant post!
As a costumer, I’ve been trained to have a critical eye when it comes to costumes & clothing on stage & camera. The more time you spend in a costume shop or on a film crew, the more details you start to notice (in all aspects of a production) and taking note becomes second-nature.
It’s a habit that can be annoying and hard to turn off – just ask my poor husband.
Husband (pushing pause): What.
Me: The actor’s tie-knot keeps changing position from shot to shot – it’s distracting.
Husband: Have you even heard the characters’ conversation?
Me: Umm… sort of… no, not really. Could you… rewind it a little?
Yeah, it’s not always easy to just let entertainment be exactly that – entertainment. Work-mode is always running just below the surface. (Eep, I’ve become a costume drone!)
I really dislike black fabrics or anything dark without texture. On camera, the shadows disappear and you just see a dark blob. Because they look so striking on camera, deep blacks are usually reserved for well-lit funeral scenes. And if black clothing is used, it’s in limited amounts and is usually a soft black.
Meanwhile, gleaming white is usually too bright (or hot) on camera, and it seems to glow and pull the focus to the white object. This is why I am usually compelled to dim the white a little with a slight brown or grey over-dye – like the tea-dyed lace for my 1912 Princess Slip. (In the business, this is known as “tech”-ing it.)
Large high-contrast prints (especially black & white ones) can look like home décor and usually overwhelm the wearer.
Small high-contrast prints (like bright pinstripes) can look like they are vibrating, especially in HD. Would somebody please advise the evening news anchors about this?
I cringe when I see groups of matchy-matchy outfits (think family Christmas photos of everyone in the same silly sweater & jeans). Coordinating is good, but it’s best to keep everyone different enough to share focus (or make one person stand out to force focus, if that is the point of a scene).
I could go on for days with the little do’s and don’ts for dressing someone for camera, but I’ll just say that there are times that my costuming skills can also help when planning for photos. Since photography is just non-motion film, a lot of the same conventions still apply. (I like to think that my aversion to white-white also helped Camille’s wedding dress photograph so well for her nighttime wedding.)
This brings me to another side effect of being a film costumer (theatre costuming is similar but there are subtle differences): my professional training bleeds over into my view of everyday fashion as well. My closet is full of outfits that reflect my costuming preferences, and I dress for “the part” depending on circumstances & events.
I’m currently working on a personal sewing project with the goal of redoing my blog banner and possibly my avatar. I’ve had the general concept in mind for over a year, but I’m still working out all the details.
I had an orange fabric with white polka dots picked out for a retro dress, but I decided to do a screen test with it and another orange fabric with smaller dots. (My costuming instincts were raising red flags about my first choice, so I had to make sure.)
I took a few photos of both fabrics draped over a chair in the setting I plan to use for my photo shoot, and then I could compare them on the computer screen more objectively.
After seeing the fabrics on screen, I changed my mind about my fabric – I liked the smaller polka dot better in the setting. The orange disappears on my original choice and doesn’t stand out from my bright blue fridge and chartreuse walls, especially as a smaller photo. I want my dress – not my fridge – to be the focus of my banner (even though the icebox is really cool and eye-catching).
Conclusion from my screen test: the fabric I ended up liking better was one I thought was a little too bright in person but it looks amazing on camera and from a distance.
Now if I could just decide if I need to fuss with toning down the overall brightness of the fabric just a little, I could cut out my 50’s style dress and start building… There’s that dang costumer-mode trying to take over again!
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!