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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?
So much has been going on since I last posted, I’m not really sure where to begin! I guess I’ll just jump right in with the most unexpected news:
My sewing machine is terminal.
If I were superstitious, I could say that Macbeth killed my machine, but I know that I’ve made my machine work harder in a day or two than most sewing machines ever even come close to working after somebody takes them out of the box.
Honestly, I’m rather surprised that I’ve managed to make a modern, overly-plastic domestic sewing machine last for almost 14 years! I’ve had to sew things I knew would abuse my poor little machine many times. But I’ve seen modern domestic machines bite the dust after only 3 or 4 years of mileage in a costume shop, so I think I was pretty good to mine, considering.
I noticed a little weirdness with it near the very end of the Nike commercial shoot. I thought it was because I was sewing so many sports jerseys. That fabric had a residue to it, which I thought might have built up on my machine, causing it to protest.
Two days later, before I could even unpack my machine from the Nike gig, I got a last minute call to go sew for some promos for the show “Big Rich Texas”. They wanted a pleather cover for a mechanical bull to look like a Chanel purse (yes, I get paid to do the weirdest things!), and my machine didn’t give me any trouble then.
When I came home from that, I cleaned my machine up a little, put in a new needle, and leisurely started sewing some mockups. It seemed to be just fine.
Then I did a 13 hour day, an 11 hour day, and a 12 hour day of Shakespeare sewing at my home shop (it became a rather big build when it wasn’t supposed to be that kind of show), and in my pedal-to-the-floor sewing, my machine started sporadically acting up – for no apparent reason.
I would be sewing a long straight seam (on two layers of cotton bedsheet fabric) and suddenly, halfway through the seam there was bobbin vomit. Now usually bobbin vomit (lots of loopy, loose stitching on the bottom of the seam) is easy to fix if you just unthread and rethread your machine.
So I did. And sew I did.
But it kept happening. On every. Single. Seam. ARG!
I just plain didn’t have the time (or patience) for it, so I put my machine aside with plans to take it to the doctor when I had a day off, and I pulled out my backup machine for the remainder of the build.
I finished the 31 costume pieces that needed to be built at home (it still looks like Scotland barfed in my sewing room), and I did a bunch of alterations at the theatre itself – they have a vintage Kenmore sewing machine for backstage repairs that I rather liked, even if it needs a little tune-up.
Since the play officially opened on Friday, my job on the show is finished. I have another job coming up in October for a movie shoot that will probably wrap around the first week of December.
So I suppose my machine picked the most convenient time to act up – I have work, which means I have the money to do something about it.
When I dropped my machine off at the “hospital” I was able to pick up one of my other machines that I had taken in for service recently. It is a vintage Singer Featherweight 221 that I inherited a couple of years ago from my grandmother.
When my grandmother died, I told my mom while she and her siblings were going through their mom’s stuff that I would take the sewing machine if no one else wanted it. No one did, and much to my surprise, they handed me two sewing machines – the modern one I remembered my grandmother using (which I used when I went to visit her) when I was a kid AND the little vintage Singer!
I had no idea she had the old Singer (it was probably in her closet for decades) and I *may* have squealed and jumped around for a few days after it was given to me.
The only reason I didn’t start using it immediately after I got it was because the casing on the power cord was brittle & cracked, and I was concerned I would end up shocking myself.
A couple of days after dropping off my workhorse machine, I got a call from one of the repair guys at the place where I took it.
It was sad news: my little modern machine had two “cracks” in the timing mechanism and 3 cracks in some other part I’ve forgotten. Newer Singers are essentially disposable because almost as soon as a machine is built, they stop making parts for it. So it’s not really fixable.
(Now before you start to feel sorry for me, let me just say that I had a plan and solution in motion 24 hours after I was given the grim diagnosis.)
Part of me got a little nostalgic about my machine. It was the first machine I bought for myself and it never gave me any problems until recently.
I used it for my wedding, my sister’s wedding, Camille’s wedding dress, and for at least 4 other wedding gowns over the years. But the very first things I built with it were two rabbit puppets I designed for a children’s theatre production of The Velveteen Rabbit my sophomore year in college.
I let some of the other theatre majors at the time do the distressing of the “older” version of the puppet and then I “patched” it up. They literally had to run over the poor thing with someone’s car just to make it look loved enough to be seen from the audience. (I’m glad I wasn’t there to watch!) Ahh, memory lane…
Anyway, back to my dying sewing machine. (Maybe like the velveteen rabbit, a fairy will come save it from the trash heap.)
But another part of me was really excited because this would be the first time I would be looking for a machine after having sewn on countless machines both new & old in a variety of industrial & domestic versions throughout my career.
Now I can confidently say what features I like and what I dislike in a sewing machine. And because I am so sure about what I want, I can almost immediately narrow down my choices by about 80% leaving only a few options to research fully.
My grandmother’s vintage Singer isn’t a good replacement option because it cannot do a zigzag stitch – it’s a straight stitch only machine (unless you use a fancy attachment). And I absolutely MUST have a zigzag stitch.
It’s also really tiny, which would make it difficult to do some of the bulky costume work I’ve been called to do – like, oh, pleather mechanical bull covers.
Who knows what it was that caused me to damage my sewing machine in the first place. I may have been sewing for years with cracked parts – they just weren’t bad enough to cause problems until now. My machine served me well and it worked hard for as long as it could. Even in the end, it kept trying.
I have my plan in motion to replace my workhorse machine – I’m just watching my mailbox for my next paycheck at this point.
Stay tuned for And here’s my solution… Even if you don’t sew, I think you’ll like it. =)
So I was in the middle of (and making decent progress on) lots of my own projects last weekend when the phone rang. And suddenly my schedule is completely different! That’s the life of a freelancer.
I was offered a job helping the costume designer for Shakespeare Dallas’s fall show – it’s a modern dress version of “that Scottish play” (aka Macbeth for those of you unfamiliar with theatre superstition). It opens in just three weeks and between the two of us, we have to come up with around 75 costumes. Ahh, the joys of low budget theatre!
Luckily, we have some costumer friends at The Dallas Theater Center and the University of Dallas who let us pull what we could use from their costume storage places. So we have spent the week digging through piles of clothes & shoes and then lugging it all back to our space.
Shakespeare Dallas also has some stock of its own; unfortunately, it’s in an old warehouse with no electricity or water. Ahh. The joys. Of low budget… theatre…
I was rather shocked that there was so much in SD’s storage! And sadly, it’s not exactly ideal conditions for costume storage. It was a bit depressing to see so many items (including bolts of fabric!) exposed to the elements knowing that they would eventually become unusable.
(I would like to apologize for the following crummy cell phone photos – no electricity and bad lighting make cell pics look even worse than normal and I cleaned them up as much as I could.)
So we walked into SD’s storage warehouse and it was a bit of a scavenger hunt:
I started pulling shoes and the designer went sifting through the racks of costumes in the far back corner:
My biggest goal was to find matching pairs of shoes – they weren’t all attached in pairs and it was dark. I pulled a bunch of shoe bins out of the dark area and closer to the door and began pairing them.
The laces of many pairs had been knotted together on the ends – one of my biggest pet peeves! This meant that they tangle around other pairs in the same bin and are impossible to pull out without grabbing a giant clump of shoes all at once.
After I pulled a bunch of shoes, I joined in the search through the racks for clothing:
I’m glad we only spent about 2 hours in the hot warehouse before we stuffed everything into the car and took it back to the theatre space. Ahh, the joys of… yeah.
I will be making a few simple things, and fittings are coming up next week – I hope most of the costumes we pulled will fit the actors!
And to make up a little for the not so great photos, here’s one of Wensley when he went to work with my husband earlier this week:
Apparently, this wasn’t a one-time thing and he likes to migrate from lap to desk.