Salary and Respect Issues in Costuming

This page contains my opinions that I posted many years ago to a thread on The Costumer’s Manifesto eGroup  about salary and respect issues for costumers. To see other posts by people on this thread, go to the eGroup:

No one seems to have mentioned the key to the low salaries for costumers and other stitchers: It is “Women’s Work”.

The bottom paid job in every country in the world is that of seamstress, and as costuming relates closely to stitching, and is done by a workforce that is 95% female, it is often paid in a similar fashion.

You can look in theatre departments across the US and you will also find that the costume designer is usually the lowest paid faculty, and in many cases is lower paid “staff” when all other positions are tenured faculty. It is rather unusual for the costume designer to feel she is taken as seriously as an artist by directors or other designers. It isn’t unheard of for a costume designer to be rated as an equal, and I’m happy to say UAF is one place where we (the theatre faculty) all agree this is the proper way to do things, but even at UAF, once the level goes up a rung to administration, it isn’t necessarily the case. I’m the only faculty in Theatre with a Ph.D., and yet I’m still lowest paid of those who came in when I did, because our former dean set our incoming salaries when we were hired. Magically, a female costumer was “worth” substantially less than either male stage director, a salary differential that widened as time wore on.

There are lots of things costumers do, even in faculty positions that encourage colleagues to think less of their design skills however. Some things to remember if you want more respect:

See to it that more of your designs look like they were made by an artist than a seamstress. Others don’t care if you stitched it like God, on the contrary, the less a costume looks like something bought in a store, made by mom, or pulled out of a museum, and the more it looks like something from an art gallery, carnival, or a Disney parade the more they will recognize your work as art. Remember you are an artist who happens to have sewing as one of a multiplicity of skills you can use to make your art, you are not (only) a seamstress. Make sure everyone else knows it.

Do renderings and sketches and make sure EVERYONE sees them, including the actors. If you make extra copies of your renderings (Xeroxes ok) you can post them in the lobby, or theatre department display cases to encourage ticket sales. People value you more if you are helping them generate income. Costume drawings are not just diagrams for your helpers to follow, they are a primary tool for gaining respect and the name of an artist.

Actors take you far more seriously if you give them lots of information about their costumes, and even input into their costumes, as early as they can get it. Treat them as if they have brains, but don’t assume they can read your mind or intentions. Don’t just measure new actors, but explain why you are measuring them, what you intend to do with their costumes, when they are likely to be called for fittings, and who the people are in your shop. Respect them, and respect in turn from the actors will get you respect from everyone else. Directors get the idea you are brilliant and friendly, or stupid and rude, direct from their actors.

Don’t try to push your vision on a director, nor try to fight a director against his/her own vision, no matter how weird and misguided. If your director asks for some wacked idea set to go straight off of a cliff, go jump off it with him/her. If anything, take it even further, with great daring. Then you are supporting the director’s vision, and if it fails he/she gets the blame, and you will still be praised, if it succeeds, you get double points. Look at all the praise and Oscar nominations the designers who assist Julie Taymor (Titus, Frida) garner even though the films haven’t been big box office (and many critics with wimpy tastes criticize her brilliant visions). Daring weird design work makes people sit up and take notice.

Keep all whining and gossip to a minimum. You can’t stop people coming to you with their gossip, but you can refuse to EVER dis a colleague yourself. No matter how stupid your director is being, you hurt the morale of your assistants and actors if you appear to think your show is going over a cliff. Even when it is, keep the pep talks up about how good some aspect of the experience will be. Act like you think the glass is half full, even if you privately think it is totally empty.

If you are in a faculty position at a university, for heaven’s sake, PUBLISH. Get a Ph.D. if you can, do displays of your costumes at the university art gallery, treat your classes and research obligations seriously. Accept the horror of being the Dept chair at least once, and do faculty senate, Union office holding, and committee work. Don’t do these all at once, but you should be doing at least a trickle of this stuff in any given year. Don’t expect to ever get tenure if you don’t. Even if your colleagues understand you are buried under a mountain of fabric in the basement, the university wide promotion and tenure committee will never excuse the omission.

Don’t bury yourself under a mountain of fabric in the basement all the time. Every show need not be done in such a way to max out your staff or yourself. This is not a competition for seeing who can get most burnt out before each show opens. Always think about ways to make the designs less labor intensive. Just because you have the skills to make perfect period wear, does not mean you need do it all the time. You don’t need to build a costume to last 10 years if it is only getting used for five performances and three rehearsals. If you do one show a year for your theatre where everyone says “wow” about your designs, and the rest of your show designs are low-key and let either the actors, lighting, or set grab the limelight, everyone will be grateful, and you will have time to breathe.

Use your budget for the purpose of saying “no” and saving time. Spend money on things that save you time (pre-beaded thrift store items, good ready-mades, pre-ruffled trims, rentals), not that tasty fabric that makes you want to do extra sewing. When you are pressured by a director to come up with far more costumes than can reasonably be made by you, explain how you will have to either keep them simple, rent them, or pull from stock in order to not waste the budget. Get them to prioritize what costumes are most important, and what they see as filler, and you will be amazed at how much of a show they view as filler, or walking scenery, that can recede in importance, and work for you.

These tips can help you do less work and get taken more seriously. Salary, of course, is based on market value, which is the pits in any female profession, especially one as desirable as this one seems to be for so many. Your market value will depend on many factors, (education, experience, reputation, pool of area talent) but much more of the variable is the actual place of work. Universities and colleges end up paying tenure track costume faculty like low end faculty (starting $35,000) and staff like low end part time staff (starting $10,000), regional theatres pay less usually, and community theatres often don’t pay at all. Union work pays decently if you can get it, and is hourly. Generally the higher up the theatre is in the status order, the better paid the staff, and vice versa.

Because there are so many willing would-be costumers, nearly any theatre can get a costume designer practically for free, but the quality that is produced is not always reliable since people working for free or nearly are usually just learning their trade. Many “free” community theatre costumers are great, but the great ones have more sense than to take on every show, and the slow learners fill the gaps. The more $$$ a theatre spends on a designer and staff the more likely they will attract those with experience and talent to match the salary. So my answer about how much should the theatre spend: As much as they can afford, and be sure it is as much (or little) as the lighting or set designer makes unless you want a lot of resentment among the design staff.