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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!