The Costumer Within

Please note, if you are getting this out of context, this essay was written as part of a Costumer’s self-help book of advice back in January 1995

“I, MYSELF, AM STRANGE AND UNUSUAL”: Just because I’m giving out advice, please do not assume I am in any way “well-adjusted” or (God forbid) “normal.” I am, and have been, to my earliest memories, one of life’s outcasts. The Weird One. Born as one of those crazy artist people who is oh-so-creative but really, cannot possibly deal with the real world. I do not mean to say I am helpless. Quite the contrary. Being strange and unusual means you are pretty much on your own most of the time, and you get very good in dealing with problems from moving to finances to flat tires on your own. But I am the sort of person who decides to enliven a dull day by going out in a false mustache, monocle and frock coat for the evening. I’ll sit at home, watching the same videotaped TV show over and over while I paint giant twisted faces on canvas night after night. Or write this book in my flat for days, when I should go out shopping, because I think “another day of using newspaper for the toilet won’t be so bad.” So I’m giving advice, not as one of those superior “cured” people, who has found Jesus, or is listening to Prozac or whatever, but as one of the sick crazy people, who wants to remain a costumer, remain strange, remain unusual, because, really, art (self-expression) is more important to me than toilet paper.

WHY I BECAME A COSTUMER: Being strange and unusual has a price. Generally speaking, although the non-artistic world claims to love art and artists, it’s no secret that the NEA receives less government funding than military bands. The outside world mistrusts, degrades, and fears strange and unusual arty people. As an undeclared student in college I found myself disdained in History classes as a “damned average raiser,” stared at and snickered over in Fashion Merchandising as a “weirdo” for wearing historical costumes, and otherwise ostracized for being one of those subversive strange arty types. The notable exception was in theatre, particularly costuming, where I was judgedto be not only a perfectly normal addition to an already weird group, but valuable, precisely because of the strange obsessions I had with old clothes, classical music, history, and books. Several forays after graduation into “normal” professions in banks, offices, and even a factory, confirmed what I’d suspected for years. Costuming was the only profession where my personality was an advantage, not an embarrassment.

WHY SO MANY GAY MEN BECOME COSTUMERS: I don’t presume to speak for all the individual reasons of each member of this group, but it is clear that there are unusually high numbers of gay men in the costume profession. A great many had experiences not dissimilar to my own, up above. A young man goes away to college and realizes that this is his first real chance to safely tiptoe out of the closet. What does he find? Uncloseted homosexuals are often objects of subtle pity, derision and discrimination outside the Fine Arts. The department on campus with the least problems with their orientation? Theatre. The subsection with the least discrimination? Costuming. Ian McKellan once put it succinctly that as a young man he went into theatre “mainly because I’d heard that I might meet a few queers there – and I did!” In other words, uncloseted gays end up in theatre for the same reasons so many black men end up getting stuck in pro sports, because they are discriminated against nearly everywhere else. Being strange and unusual, as I say, has a price.

WHY NEARLY EVERYBODY FANTASIZES ABOUT BEING A COSTUMER: Well, not everybody, but an amazingly large amount of normal people who have sane middle class jobs and perfectly nice split level homes, do think costuming would be a sort of dream job. They are right. Costuming is one of the closest things to being paid to play there is. You get to mess about every day with satins and velvets and laces that most women wear only to their senior prom or wedding. You can paint and glue and dye with all the latest crafts materials. You can order grown men to take off their clothes, or put on tights. You can deliberately make clothes look dirty and revolting. You can work Noon to nine if it suits you. You can shop for hours with somebody else’s money. You can watch old movies and call it research. You can photograph rehearsals and call it work. You can write off big coffee table art and take costume books off from your taxes. Naturally normal sane people think it is a dream job. It is. Problem is, being a dream job, competition is so fierce it both pays badly, or requires the most lofty of credentials or talent simply to get a middle income job. Sane normal people do not spend years apprenticing and getting PhD’s for jobs in the $25-35,000 range.

THE LAND OF THE FREE, THE HOME OF THE STRANGE: So costuming self selects out the people who either must costume or die, and those who really cannot remake themselves into the sort of people that fit in the real world. Many costumers are both. The result is that costume shops are inhabited by people who are either strongly individualistic personalities, or who are passionate about costuming, generally both. A costume shop therefore is a weird place. It is, more or less the antithesis of working at a bank. At a bank are many nice quiet men and women, neatly and conservatively dressed, who understand that their personalities can only be revealed in acceptable, conservative bounds: small office plants, little collectibles, flirting at the coffee machine, etc. A costume shop is a bit more like a zoo with the animals in charge. People sweep in and out singing, reciting, and otherwise being exhibitionists. Super introverted types hide in their adopted corners, stitching and listening feverishly. Actors come in, in various stages of undress. A tape machine blares The Dead Kennedy’s, Stravinsky, Enigma or Gilbert and Sullivan, depending on who loaded the tape. It’s all a bit like an Edna Ferber comedy operating in protracted Real Time without a plot.

“`WE’RE ALL MAD HERE’: said the Cheshire Cat, `I’m Mad, you’re mad’…`How do you know I’m Mad?’ asked Alice. `You’re here aren’t you?’ replied the Cat.” Just as the normal world tends to reject the strange and unusual, so too does the theatre tend to discriminate against the normal. At no time is this more apparent than when a couple of people who really would be happier working at a bank sign up to do hours in the costume shop. Only last year I remember two girls who dressed like Preppies coming in to do their weekly hours. They sat, calmly gossiping about friends, complaining about the heaviness of class assignments, and talking about plans to party on the weekend. They looked quietly shocked whenever anyone said or did anything unusual. They declined to wear stupid hats on Stupid Hat Day. They watched the clock and did their assigned work and no more. Nothing anyone said or did encouraged them to loosen up, play, take initiative, or interact with the shop regulars. Molly my shop manager would breath an audible sigh of relief when they left each day. The regulars complained about them when they were gone, finding irritation in their every word and gesture. The “normal” are abnormal in our shop.

SHOP SANITY WHY BOTHER?: As a consequence, I’m always bemused that the USITT (United States Institute for Theatre Technology) newsletter Sightlines devotes its back page each month to promoting better health through sanity and stress management in the theatre. Certainly it would be beneficial if we all cut down on the causes of stress and collectively chilled out, but it seems to me that encouraging deliberate, pleasant insanity in the shop, helps to avert unpleasant psychoses. In fact I regularly make it a habit to do deranged things in order to preserve my mental health. Although I’m 43, I go, dressed appropriately, with the students to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, I painted my office by flinging multicolored paint and glitter at the walls and letting it run down and mix together, I impersonate Tristan Tzara at regular intervals, and spent a year living in Russia for the Hell of it. Embracing and even cultivating ones own eccentricities make one happier, healthier, and more creative. Creativity is, after all, one’s job.

DISEASES OF THE PROFESSION: Apart from stress, which has been discussed quite adequately, even exhaustively in Sightlines, costumers have a few psychological fears endemic to the profession. Competition in costuming being quite fierce, they center around feeling not talented enough, not educated enough, not paid enough, not appreciated enough, and not happy with one’s work. Most of this is caused by the tiny proportion of jobs available to a large number of applicants. We all fear at some time or another not being good enough to get a position (me too in my darker hours), and all those with positions at one time or another fear we are underpaid, under appreciated, and can lose our jobs to the competition. Unfortunately, fear is paralyzing, and discourages one from fixing one’s problems, which of course leads to more fear.

THE MAIN NECESSITY FOR SUCCESS IN COSTUMING: It is not talent, it definitely is not good taste, it is not even education. It is confidence in one’s self and the drive to make others think as well of you as you do yourself. Without it talent goes nowhere. There is simply too much competition for it to survive alone. On the contrary, costuming is more a profession for the Salieri’s of this world than the Mozart’s. This is not to say talent isn’t a great help. But it is true that a little talent with a lot of drive will usually go further than a lot of talent with none. Costuming as a profession requires tremendous self confidence and push. If you do not have it to begin with you must develop it. Above all, you need to confront your fears and deal with them.

GETTING OVER NOT BEING BRILLIANT: “But how can I be confident when there are people around me who are brilliant, and I’m not?” I don’t recall ever being the best student designer in any of the seven costume design classes I took. There was always one or two people out there ahead of me. There were also, I must admit, usually about 5-10 others behind. There is always somebody out there you think is more talented than you. There always will be. You need to look past the surface brilliance of your competitors designs and look for ideas: This person toted up about five good ones on their assignment, you toted up only three, another had two, and many others didn’t even have one. Often what passes for brilliance is simply good rendering technique. Rendering is a learn-able skill–start work on learning it. If you are a few ideas short of your ideal, look for more–do research, study the play more, work harder. Creativity is a learn-able skill like any other. You can start with a tiny talent and stretch it, if you can get over the idea that inspiration is supposed to tap you on the shoulder instead of your going out to find it. Some people simply have to look harder for it than others to begin with.

GETTING OVER YOUR LIMITATIONS:  This does not mean claiming you can do something when you can’t. This means you need to figure out what it is you do badly, or what it is you don’t know, and piece by piece, learn to do it tolerably, learn to do it nicely, and then finally, learn to do it very well. There is no time limit. You have your whole lifetime to work on it. Just for costuming you need to be able to sew, cut, drape, paint, dye, render, do makeup, know theatre and costume history, write articles, speak at production meetings, organize storage, budgets, and work, relate well to workers, actors, and directors, photograph, repair machines, and deal with reporters. I have yet to meet anybody who was good in all these areas to begin with. I, myself, took nearly a decade just to learn to sew with what I regard as minimum basic competency for managing a costume shop. I had to take “Bonehead” English in college because I didn’t know how to write a paragraph or a two page essay. Yet I’m now publishing articles so often it finally seemed easier to just write a whole online book. Recognizing you have a limitation is not a cause for fear but an opportunity to learn a whole new area of skills. Learning new stuff is fun.

CONVINCING PEOPLE YOU ARE BRILLIANT (AND MODEST): In a job interview it is unfortunately necessary to toot one’s own horn. However, once you have a job, continuing to do this merely irritates people. On the contrary, once you have a job you have the time to quietly convince people you are brilliant. This is the point where insecure people fail by getting both defensive and offensive whenever they suspect they are not getting proper credit. A secure person knows that their ability will eventually speak for itself. Further, if you cloak your ego in a polite (not excessive) veil of false modesty, if you lavishly praise others whenever credit is due, if you freely share all your best ideas with everyone (so they know they are there), soon everybody else will toot your horn for you. People are far more apt to praise people who neglect to criticize others than praise people who are always praising themselves.

CONVINCING YOURSELF YOU ARE GOOD ENOUGH: A major part of this is looking at your skills and seeing your cup as half full, rather than half empty. Itemize what it is you can do, and strive for excellence in these areas. In areas where you don’t know what to do, ask how. Often what is necessary is that a person be willing to try to do something, not that they be an instant expert. If you don’t feel you are good enough doing something, ask for lessons from somebody who does well. They will get flattered, and you will learn faster. Tell yourself: “Nobody was born knowing how to draw, to sew, or to design.” Tell others: “I’m real good at A, B and C, but I’d like to try learning D, E and F.” And since the most valued skill in any employee in any profession is dependability, say to yourself “Even if I’m not the most talented, I’m the most dependable.” Then be dependable, and you will find people depend on you and value you more than on the “most talented.”

MONEY, DON’T LEAVE HOME WITHOUT IT: Because costuming is an overstocked area of employment, it pays badly, and a student seeking an entry level position will usually find that one cannot live on one’s salary. Higher paying positions are mainly in academia, and consequently require MFA’s or PhD’s to get them. Film work also pays well, but requires a long stint of living hand to mouth in LA or another expensive big city while trying to get into the Union. What is my point? Getting into costuming is a protracted, expensive business, best done by people who have the financial support of parents, spouses, trust funds or other income to fill in the gap while in the early stages. It is not impossible to become a successful costumer without this support, but it is much harder. Be aware that in entering this profession you virtually guarantee yourself years of semi-poverty before becoming borderline affluent. I personally found it worth it. If you don’t, instead, go into a more lucrative profession, and simply costume for community theatres as a hobby. There is a whole costume society for highly talented amateurs that puts on a yearly “CostumeCon” with competitions, publications, and social events. It is not necessary that everybody who likes to costume be employed doing it. In fact many “amateur” costumers would balk at the limitations, sloppiness, drudgery, and unglamorousness of much of professional costume work, far preferring to make beautiful, perfectly made, lavish costumes they can wear for fun.

ARE WE HAVING FUN YET?: Sometimes, even working in theatre, the work is not fun. Every person, in every profession, every day needs to ask her self the great question of life: “Are we having fun yet?” If you are not, if the answer keeps coming back day after day as NO, you need to do something about it. You need to find out what it is that needs fixing: you, your job, your personal life, and set to work to change it or run away from it. Costume jobs, like any other job, can be made miserable by bosses, coworkers, workload, hours, pay, or general atmosphere. Sometimes these things can be fixed by working on them, others are better walked away from. Sometimes costuming itself is best walked away from. Burnout is common, and best treated with respect. I’ve known theatre people to end up losing their jobs, going in the hospital, or screwing up their personal lives, simply by not knowing when to stop and take a break. Above all, to survive in this profession, you need to know how to make it fun, both for you and the people around you. You need to spread joy and insanity, and be willing to succumb to both.

LIVE AN EXTRAORDINARY LIFE: To this end I encourage all and sundry to make a conscious effort to live an extraordinary life. Be strange. Be unusual. Be weird. You only have one life anyhow, why not make it as many different lives as you can, all at once? Cultivate a taste for eclectic music: Tibetan Chants, Philip Glass, Noel Coward, German Lieder and Purcell. Better still, cultivate a taste for all music. Same with art, same with movies, same with literature. When somebody asks you if you will go doing something totally odd on the weekend (ice fishing, feeding the homeless, having a FIMO party) do it. Whenever you are bored, strive to make art—any kind of art, (poetry, painting, stuffed cat toys), instead of sitting about complaining. Try to be a “Renaissance [Wo]man,” and dare to look stupid trying. Don’t succumb to good taste or proper behavior or sanity. Do make an effort to learn about anything you can. Nothing is wasted. Go places. See things. Take copious notes. Send strange postcards. Wherever possible, do the unexpected. After all, why not?

SEARCH FOR ROLE MODELS: Dead or alive. They help you to see success is possible. I found tremendous comfort as a struggling costume student reading Cecil Beaton’s diaries. Beaton was best known as the designer of the films Gigi and My Fair Lady, and the court photographer for the British Royal Family. However as a young man in his twenties he wrote long and hard on his fears that he wasn’t talented enough, his frustrations at not getting jobs, his jealousy at seeing others his age rich and successful when he was still living at home. It was all very familiar, and very comforting. Other heroes and heroines serve as models, or givers of advice. Cynthia Heimel, for instance, convinced me to “Eschew everything that is trivial, and embrace everything that is frivolous,” and, “never turn down a trip to South America because you haven’t got anything to wear,” in her immortal comedy advice book: Sex Tips For Girls. Tristan Tzara, back when everybody else in art or politics was writing manifestos demanding things like the “International revolutionary union of all creative men and women on the basis of radical Communism,” or “glorify war — the world’s only hygiene — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for women.” he instead wrote a manifesto where he demanded the right to “shit in different colors, so we may bedeck the zoo of art with all the flags of all the consulates.” Role models let you know somebody was there before you, walking a similar path, your struggles are not singular. They also can give you the benefit of their experience, so your struggles need not be as hard. Above all they can be an inspiration to living an extraordinary life. You see how they did, so you know how you can.