Independents and “The Industry”

Over the years, I have had the good fortune to be hired as a freelance costume design specialist by a few in “the Industry. The Industry is the machine that runs the entertainment world. This includes television, film, and large scale theatrical productions. The entertainment world means big business. And big business means maximum profits.

I had been working freelance for several years before I got noticed. And I will admit, I knew very little about how it all worked when I was hired. I know more now than I did then, and here are a few notes I have made over the years. But first, let’s look quickly at how it all works.

The Costume Designer whom you see credited onscreen and in the playbook is the lead costume designer. He/She is the one who meets with the producers and directors to generate a color palette, designs the overall look and feel of the costuming, and oversees the artistic direction of wardrobe. Sometimes the lead costume designer has complete creative control but always has to coordinate with the production/set designers and all must follow the direction of the producers. (They are the ones who allocate funding.) As you can imagine, there is much collaboration and jockeying for budgets that occurs in these meetings.

Costume Designer Extraordinaire- Sandy Powell.
Image courtesy Manhattan Costume Supply.

The lead costume designer then creates all the sketches, shops for fabrics, and handles the “business end” of the wardrobe department. Depending on budget, he/she may or may not actually build the costumes. If budget allows, the lead costume designer has the power to hire an array of costume assistants. These positions range from other designers, drapers, sewers, dyers and painters, distressers, milliners, cobblers, jewelry makers, and dressers. (Hair and make-up is usually its own department.) Depending on the production, outsourcing is sometimes used in lieu of an in house costume team or is used to augment what is being produced on location.

If a costume designer is attempting to recreate an authentic historical look and feel to his/her production then they hire me. Since I am a historical clothing specialist, it is my job to advise on historical and cultural accuracy. Remember costume design encompasses everything from modern fashion to fantasy and not all costume designers specialize in, or are intimately acquainted with, historical garments. So it makes sense for them to hire a specialist.

Award winning Colleen Atwood is known for her highly authentic historical costuming- as illustrated in her 1994 production of Little Women.

Usually, my job involves helping construct historical garments for the lead costume designer. Sometimes I work with his/her sketches but much of the time, I work with one of my designs using their fabric.

So if I am making one of my designs for their production, shouldn’t I be credited as one of the designers (or at minimum, part of the crew)? Not necessarily. And here’s why.

Unions. Unions establish working conditions and negotiate pay minimums, royalties, creative rights, and combat piracy issues. In addition, they lobby Congress for changes in legislature. Lead costume designers, and oftentimes the crew, are almost always part of a Costumer’s Guild or Union. This is important because costume designers are relatively low in the industry pecking order. Other creatives such as screenwriters, set designers, and musical composers have their creative rights protected under law. Not so with costumes. The costume designer’s sketches and photographs are protected but not the actual finished garments. This legal dismissal tends to devalue the work of costumers and the role the designer plays. The industry also places costume designers in the “technical category,” further removing acknowledgement of creative conceptualization and instead focusing on skill. Other technicals include lighting, sound, and set builders- all of which are seriously underpaid.

Pecking Order. If costume designers are relatively low on the industrial food chain, contracted costume personnel are near the very bottom. As a nonunion contract employee, one becomes relegated to the status of “a supplier.” This is someone who has provided a product for the wardrobe department. When this happens, there is no acknowledgement of intellectual or creative contribution. No recognition of the consult given as a specialist. No listing in the credits or playbill. It is unfortunate, but this is the way the industry operates.

Recent Instagram posting from Theatrical Costumer’s Union

However, for me, the trade off is worth it because unions have specific bylaws under which members must abide. This often includes how, when, and for which productions members can work. Unions are most beneficial for those working consistently in the industry. It is also important to note that when a costume designer is hired on with a production company, unless specifically negotiated in the costumer’s contract in advance, all sketches, photographs, and finished garments become the property of the parent company. For example, unless she negotiated ahead of time, all the fantastically beautiful and wildly popular costumes Terry Dresbach designed for the Outlander series now belong to Sony and Starz. Not Terry Dresbach. And no, she receives no royalties for any offshoots affiliated with Outlander costumes.

Photo courtesy Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Paley Center

So that means, if I create one of my own designs for a production (say a previous NBC job), I could technically be giving up rights to my own design?

Not happening.

Another lesson I learned is be open and sharing in creative collaboration… but with select information. When I landed my first big gig, I naively shared one of my fabric sources with a lead costume designer. The agreement between the costume designer and my studio was to use my vendor’s catalog to select fabric (because I did not keep a large inventory on hand) and I would order them, stitch them, and then send the finished garments to the costume shop in LA. It didn’t work that way. Somewhere along the line, things went astray and I got a call from my fabric rep informing me that (unbeknownst to me) the production company was attempting to order fabric under my account to be shipped directly to LA. Fortunately, the owner of the fabric company put a stop to it but apparently there was a heated argument with one of the Sony producers.

Not cool.

Finally, even though the industry wants to place costume designers et al into the bottom half of the pecking order, you do not have to let them. As an independent, you are not part of the machine. You are ancillary. You set your own wages and work hours. You can dictate your own contracts. You have the luxury of saying, Yes or No. And most importantly, you can have a life outside of the industry.

Yes, you may not receive the fame and glory, but in the industry, the majority of those who do the work don’t anyway. Also, creatives in the industry tend to stick together. If you are privileged enough to work with really fantastic lead costume designers, tell them. Thank them for choosing you to be their +1. They most likely will call on you again for their next production. Conversely, if you find yourself working with a designer from hell, (like the ones who always have “an assistant” call you- AVOID THESE) remember you are independent. Smile politely, finish the job, and walk away and never look back.

Business Bevies is a series designed to address small business topics for creatives.

About Susan

My interest in historical costume began at a very early age. I knew by age 5 I wanted to be a designer. Over the years I have been fortunate enough to turn my passion into a full time business. You can find my costumes onstage in NYC, on the big screen, and in museums around the globe.