Costume Shop Space, People, Food and Safety

Note: since I wrote this in the Mid 1990s I peeled off most safety issues to Costume Crafts At 50o Below: The Fairbanks Non-Toxic Crafts Cookbook

I also have, since writing this, switched from referring to my work space as a “Costume Shop” to a “Costume Studio”. For more on this topic, see Naming the Workspace: Costume Shop vs Costume Studio

SHOP SPACE, PEOPLE, FOOD AND SAFETY: While I feel that nearly everything that is important to say about the proper equipment, operations and maintenance of costume shops has been more than adequately described in Ingham/Covey’s The Costumer’s Handbook, I do have a few stray thoughts of my own on shop space, people, food and safety. A costume shop is not only a working environment for the production of costumes, but a whole small world in itself that can be joyful or hellish dependent on those four factors. Since theatre people are often escaping the unpleasantness of the outside world, and since it is common for theatre people to spend long hours in the shop, it is imperative to the psychological well being of these people that everything reasonable be done to make a costume shop an artistic haven instead of a sweatshop.

MAKING A SHOP LIKE A KINDERGARTEN: I have been fortunate in having a series of costume shop managers who have consciously worked on re designing our work space into an organized playroom for the costumicaly deranged. My first, Diane Swanson, (1990-92) was inspired by an article I found on improving teaching in college. In essence it said that college should try to make teaching more like kindergarten, where students are encouraged to draw, paint, sing, build things, dance, etc. without regard to predetermined categories of “talent”. This in theory would make learning feel more like playing and, therefore, be more easily absorbed. Diane took this idea and ran with it. The costume shop not only regularly engaged in play activities like parties, silly hat days, and experimental messing about with new materials, but was physically transformed bit by bit till it looked like a playroom.

The UAF Shop

PAINTING THE FURNITURE: Diane was given a homemade chair by an admiring tech-guy in the shape of a giant blue ankh, and quickly all the other furniture followed. Whenever somebody had spare shop time, or needed a sanity break from regular work, they were sent to beg for spare paint from the scene shop and set to work decorating the furniture. The phone table soon announced RING RING RING in big yellow letters down the side, the main mirror was inexplicably surrounded with soft sculpture potatoes, a sewing machine table was decorated with rainbow colored cow splotches, a stuffed stool became a sexy “French Maid” with black satin and fake fur, lavishly trimmed with white lace and bows, every possible piece of furniture came under attack till the place looked like Pee Wee’s Playhouse.

ALMOST WALLPAPER: I found this so inspiring, I no longer limited my own efforts at wall decoration to a few tasteful posters, but decided to entirely encrust the surface of the walls with posters, photos, renderings, fabrics, junk, and in fact anything that was inspiring and could be effectively hot glued to the cement.

The result between rainbow furniture and wall to wall photos, was an orgy of Byzantine visual imagery difficult to imagine without seeing it. People when first entering our hidden basement palace are usually struck dumb for a few moments in sheer amazement at the fun of the place. A costume shop in the bowels of a theatre is commonly assumed to be some sort of dim depressing little sweatshop, ours, thanks to the decor, is not.

The Costume Shop Hall. Note the posters.

IDIOT PROOFING: My next shop manager, Molly Johnson, (1992-94) had a lot of experience working with the high school kids who take over the costume shop during the summer months, unintentionally wreaking havoc on our stock and shop. Molly’s goal was to redesign parts of the space to make it so any 13 year old could both find and put away things. Her best contribution was in re-ordering storage by length of garment and color.

The idea being, that sorting by period requires that the sorter know costume history. Since the students and summer kids usually didn’t, sorting by length and color caused far fewer mistakes. Similar logic was applied to shoes and accessories. Now, 24 years later, working in California I have also ordered much of DVC’c storage in this same simple, color-coded, method that works well for smaller costume storage places with workers of limited knowledge.

THE WIZARD OF ORGANIZATION: Another shop manager, Jeannine Patane (Shop manager 1994-96) took over as I left for Russia in 1994-5. Molly and I had chosen her because she had, in her work as a Stage Manager, been a wizard of organization.

While in Russia, I received from her a letter, from which I will quote liberally, to show the final apotheosis of the costume shop into a state of operational Nirvana:

“My first project was tearing down that antique cabinet…recycled the cabinet wood for shelving around the file cabinets…there is now netting on the fabric bins to catch falling fabric. I separated the fabric by three sizes…swatch bins…scrap bins…shelf fabric-material at least a yard selvage to selvage…more shelves for notions…I taped the floor for proper mannequin placement

and designated one shelf for ironing stuff…made a fabric catcher for the ironing boards…I wanted to put all crafts at one part of the shop and all patterns at another…All the rulers hang on the sides of the shelves…I built a thread rack too…the glue gun table now has a power strip which is in front of a wood box unit to hold glue guns and sticks. That wording on the front of the box is instructions on glue guns and the difference between hot and cool melt. For the idiots of course… separating crafts tables and cutting tables has worked also…I marked the cutting table every 1/4 yard for a guide. Under the crafts tables is…junk…feathers, flowers, hexcelite…electrical stuff…I moved all the manuals and MSDS to the desk…Paperwork! I overhauled every form…alphabetical order of actors measurements…cleaned up the MSDS so any Joe can understand…safety…Purchasing a new respirator helped and we built a storage box for it to stay clean…Risk Management happy by posting OSHA stuff on the bulletin board, as well as shop rules. There is also a costume resource area on the board for anyone who wants to further their career…four new shop aprons-2 black for dressers and 2 white for cutters…freshly stocked first aid kit is also on the desk. I’m on the final stages for a dressers handbook too. The pocket bag practicum student time card slots…I cut 50 new luan name tags w/a new design…wont fall off the rack…made another 10’x 3′ bulletin board…I’m in the process of making eyeglass holder…w/Velcro closing and acetate to see through…built a hat rack addition

that holds head forms and has hooks to hold odd/heavy hats too…the base from that antique cabinet…and made a separated laundry basket on casters…”


Jeannine had been in the job less than two months when she wrote this letter! All this ergonomic retrofitting of the space helps to make keeping the space neat on a daily basis easier, by removing opportunities for confusion about where things belong. Jeanine now does freelance consulting and contracting to do this sort of work.