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March 2017

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pret-a-porter, made-to-measure, and bespoke costume production

I've had this one art exhibit review on my list of things to write about for quite awhile, but i keep finding that it makes me so angry, i don't know that i can write an objective, considered post about it without sneaking up on it from the side. So, i think i'm going to make a related post this morning about a related topic, hopefully less contentious, because it's just some groundwork discussion rather than conjecture and artistic interpretation. And, if i can swing it right, it'll flow into a forthcoming sane response to the review, followed by more discussion of related issues in one or two future posts. (Ha, vague enough?)

Today, i want to talk about the levels of artistry in costume production, because it's one of the most misunderstood topics for those outside of the field, and even sometimes for those coming into the field. It's also a favored old saw for professional grousing, which, fine, airing frustrations is healthier than stifling them, but how can we expect people to know what we do on different levels unless we lay it out there and explain it? That's what i'm hoping to do with this post, with analogies and terminology that aren't industry-specific. I hope.

My students say this is the most common exchange when they tell someone they are in graduate school for costuming:

Friend/Family: What are you studying?
Student: Costume Production.
F/F: Is that like, design?
Student: No, it's production. Like making the costume from the design.
F/F: Why do you need an MFA to learn how to sew?


Somehow, with fiber art, it sure feels like people have a harder time than with other media making the leap from the concept of the skill to the art. I would love to know whether anyone has ever said something like, "Dang, Chihuly, why did you need an MFA to learn to blow glass?" (Who knows, they probably have.)

Here's what i wish i had a dollar for every time i've heard it said at a symposium, convention, or even in workplaces (usually after a particularly challenging production or design meeting):

They think we're just picking out clothes.


Which, we do a certain amount of "picking out clothes," so that statement is true in the same way that it is (reductive, but) true to say that a woodworker is "manufacturing sawdust," or an electrician is "flipping switches," or a muralist is "slapping paint on a wall." Even at the most elementary level, the clothes which are "picked out" still have to be steamed ("revived") and pressed and altered to fit the performers.

At a basic level of production, that's where most people start in this field: pulling costumes from a stock, or buying/renting them and making them fit the actors. That's what i like to think of as pret-a-porter costuming, and it's probably where almost all of us began. It's the type of costuming at which some companies and designers operate as a matter of course, particularly in the areas of community theatre, highschool and undergraduate drama productions, and small regional and summer theatres.

I'm borrowing the term pret-a-porter from the fashion industry, because it's something we all are familiar with in our own wardrobes. You go to the Gap (or Macy's, or the Diesel store, or wherever), you buy a pair of jeans, and you pick the pair that comes closest to fitting you--maybe they're a bit big in the waist, or maybe they're a tad too long in the leg, but if you fold up the cuff or cut them off at the hem or wear a belt they don't fall off your body or give you a killer wedge so they're "your size," they're the ones you pick. Maybe you even make the poor fit into a feature, strut around in them like you are just ROCKING those turned-up cuffs or baggy crotch seam or gaping waist that shows cute, carefully chosen pretty underpants. Most people on earth wear mass-produced clothes that were not originally made to fit their body--we all understand this kind of costuming because it IS how we clothe ourselves.

And, lest this seem like i'm stigmatizing it as something limited to "amateur" productions or bagging on the skills of pret-a-porter costumers, "find it out there somewhere and make it fit" costuming is also a big business in professional ballet and opera--the companies whose costume shops do custom-made fully-produced new operas are making a great investment, because they often generate revenue over the next decade-plus by renting the entire opera or ballet to other companies around the world. Often, big opera and ballet companies' costume shops will build that into the budget and the production calendar: devote the greater part of the materials and labor to spending six months making a whole new Rosenkavalier, while planning to use the Falstaff and Orphee costumes from eight seasons ago and renting Tosca from [Other Opera Company].

(Incidentally, opera and ballet almost always rent as a complete package; when you have a big-framed actor in a theatre production and it's a pret-a-porter costume process, don't expect to get his stuff from an opera company "since they have a lot of larger performers" because they don't split shows.)

The pret-a-porter school of costuming operates as a component of productions up the ladder of regional theatre and performance--you might have a large show at a LORT theatre where the supporting roles are all rented or pulled and altered costumes, but the main characters are newly-made. From a production standpoint, alterations of rented or pulled costumes are going to be an ongoing component of most professional costumers' workflow. You can, with luck and connections and a stylist's eye, assemble creatively complex, cohesively-conceptualized shows' costumes from bought, borrowed, and rented stock, and sometimes that might be the most effective use of available budget and labor.

However, it's not the sole mode of operation. I mentioned that many companies will choose to custom-make the lead roles' costumes, and this is where the differentiation comes in that can be hard to explain and hard to grasp, and from what i gather, the same holds true in the fashion industry as well: the difference between a garment which has been made-to-measure and a garment which is couture/bespoke. (Again, i'm yanking the jargon from the fashion folk. Even within the costume industry people will say made-to-measure for both of these processes. So, i might be pushing an envelope with adopting bespoke, but so be it.)

So, a costumer is working for a theatre company where they want to make the main characters' clothes in a production of Romeo and Juliet. The designer draws a sketch of Juliet's costume, picks out some fabric and trim, and gives it to the costume shop folks. Makes sense so far, from what most people know about sewing, right?

In a shop that operates within a made-to-measure paradigm, the costumer then goes to the pattern files and looks for a commercial pattern that is as close as possible to the style lines in the Juliet sketch. It might be a McCall's "medieval lady" Halloween pattern, or a Folkwear historical-garment reproduction pattern, or a pattern from one of the many companies who cater to historical and fantasy costumers. The made-to-measure costumer consults the measurements of the actress playing Juliet and chooses which pattern size is best for her. Perhaps the costumer even does some Frankensteining--the bodice of this pattern with the sleeve of that one, with a few adjustments and changing up the shape of the neckline will work great! Or, in order to fit a particularly petite but busty actress, she'll need to cut the bodice as a size 14, the sleeves and skirt as a size 10, and shorten the skirt six inches...

Someone who works in this way will quickly develop an excellent mental reference chart for her/his pattern library--this company's patterns tend to be very longwaisted, while that one always cuts their sleeves a bit short. S/he will also be (ideally) very adept at pattern alteration, and will know where to raise a shoulderseam to add some pads to pump up sloping shoulders, or how to draft in a gusset so Juliet can vigorously stab herself without tearing her sleeve out of the armscye every night. The key here is, in this kind of production process, the patterns largely already exist, or are adaptations of extant patterns.

Made-to-measure costumers find the Great Pattern Review (a feedback archive, often with photos of finished garments, for all commercial pattern companies that offer historical styles, hosted by the Greater Bay Area Costumer's Guild) to be an invaluable reference. They are also often active subscribers to the Vintage Pattern Lending Library and/or the Commercial Pattern Archive. In most cases, made-to-measure shops aren't just "sewing together clothes from patterns," but rather *are* doing quite a bit of pattern adjustment and fitting as well. They can be highly skilled artists who produce lovely costumes which fit their stars beautifully. Cool, yes? I think so. It's a great and effective way to work.

It's not how our shop or program operates though. Bespoke costuming is what we do, and is what they do in shops that produce costumes for Broadway and Cirque de Soleil and Disney on Ice and big-big-budget regional theatre/opera/ballet. Bespoke costuming is what we teach in our graduate program at UNC. Bespoke differs from made-to-measure in that there is no pattern for a costume until the production artist creates it by drafting or draping. The draper or tailor or craftsperson has the costume design sketch and a sheet of measurements, the knowledge in her or his head and a library of historical and modern reference sources, and generates the pattern (and, the costume) by drawing upon that knowledge and set of measurements to interpret the designer's vision and turn the sketch into reality. The costume created is specific to that design for that production for that actor's body, much in the way that genuine haute couture (in the original Charles Worth sense of the phrase) is a unique design made expressly for a single customer, exact to her or his measurements.

In addition to a bespoke costumer's general knowledge of textiles and surface design and garment construction methods, s/he also draws from a background of study in art history, psychology and sociology of dress, design and technical collaboration, historical clothing construction systems (example: Menswear students learn 19th-century tailoring systems), and couture technique. This is (IMO) what makes our program a Master of Fine Arts, that kind of focus within a structured academic course of study, layered in with high-quality skilled output and aesthetically artistic costume interpretation.

So, lest that sound priggish and snobby in the textual toneless mode of text-on-the-net, i'm not saying that these kinds of things don't also inform the decisions and production processes of made-to-measure costumers, or costumers who don't have production-concentration MFAs, nor am i saying that there aren't folks who swing between the two methods, sometimes working from extant patterns and other times drafting or draping their own. I'm saying, there is a difference between the two modes of production, and bespoke is what we teach in our program, in addition to practical production topics.

Incidentally, PlayMakers is fairly unusual for its level of regional theatre, that we operate on basically a bespoke paradigm. (Obviously for a show as big as, say, Nicholas Nickleby, we'll have bespoke costumes produced in-house up on stage next to pret-a-porter ones we've begged/borrowed/bought, simply because five drapers, a tailor, three first hands, and two crafts artisans cannot produce over 600 bespoke costume pieces in two months.) We're not a "big" LORT theatre but because of our grad program and its alliance with PRC, we CAN make unusual and stylized things in-house at a high level of interpretive accuracy; designers are often thrilled to find that they have the kind of creative freedom and constructive collaboration that bespoke production processes allow.

The head of our program has spoken on numerous occasions about the terminological handicaps she feels that American professional costumers work under--i'm paraphrasing, but she doesn't care for "costume technology" or "costume production" as descriptors, because those terms in the common parlance aren't allied with practitioners of fine art. She prefers the British tradition of describing the field as "costume interpretation;" i can certainly appreciate that differentiation, and i don't think it's something to be dismissed as pedantry or splitting semantic hairs. Sometimes to engender understanding, you have to choose the right words, and perhaps we as costumers need to adopt and utilize more evocative terms when discussing what we do.

Pret-a-porter costumers aren't "just picking out outfits and doing alterations," they're interpreting dramatic themes. They're illustrating the characters with the costume equivalent of a big set of colored pencils. You can do inspired and beautiful work that way.

Made-to-measure costumers aren't "just sewing clothes," they're creating actualized designs utilizing a broad skill set. If the pret-a-porter folks have colored pencils, the made-to-measure folks are using watercolors and acrylics and blending several tubes together to get just the right colors.

And, to push my analogy to extremes, bespoke costumers often choose to go to grad school to learn things like which boars have the best bristles for making your own brushes, how to find and harvest and grind your own pigments to mix with which types of oils, ways to look at color and light and anatomy and composition so that, by the time you graduate, you'll know what you need if you want to paint like Vermeer. It's not everybody's bag, bespoke costuming, and that's cool. There's room for everybody. But no, nobody goes to grad school so they can "learn how to sew."

Aight, that's it for me today. I've got a bus to catch and then about a dozen rented Nickleby hats to drop linings into. Seriously, it is off the hook how many places don't finish the interiors of hats. And i get that sometimes there's not enough time--i've sent a hat onstage with no lining because it HAD to go on RIGHT THEN...but i digress. Let's just say that, our Nickleby rentals, since they come on and off onstage in a millinery shop, NEED nice linings, so they will be going back to their owners in far better condition than they arrived! So rent to us, i'll line all your hats! :D

On that topic, i've heard that this week is going to be Costume Designer week over at nicknickleby, which will hopefully feature some of the beautiful renderings we've been perusing and planning from...

Oh! And, whichever-few of you reader-folk were lusting after that bustle ensemble in our CoStar archive that's depicted in the icon on this post, you'll be thrilled to know that one of our 3rd year grads has chosen it for the historical repro thesis segment, so there will be an analysis, pattern, and repro images for that one at some point in the soon-ish (i.e., year or so) future.

One last note--if i get to the rest of this discussion soon, great, but i'll be blogging the USITT Southeast Conference this weekend. Our program director and i and several of our students will be attending, so if you're going, see you there! I'm entering some millinery in the Design/Tech Expo, and hopefully checking out a couple of the master classes, so i'll be reporting on that. If you've never been to a regional USITT conference, it'll give you an idea of what they're like, and why you might choose to attending regional in addition to or instead of national.

Comments

I *love* the re-design of CoStar, its so much easier to use now!

On the old site it was easy to find the ones that had the patterns, how does one find them on the new site?
That's on the list of things to troubleshoot. Our new CoStar research assistant just started last week, so she's getting her bearings and then we'll be adding new features. I'll announce it in here when we do, but for now the answer is, click on things and hope. :/
I wish I was in the same continent as you and your MFA - it sounds so interesting, and right in line with my ideals. I've just finished a degree in bespoke tailoring (with a view to working in costume) so I am familiar with this discussion... and also with trying to explain to people why I'm not grateful when they ask me to hem their store-bought jeans.

I did some work for a major costume-production company here in the UK a couple of years ago and they don't sell anything - it's written into the contract that all of the work they produce, even though it is commissioned as bespoke for a particular artist in a particular production, goes back into stock after the production is finished. Thus, they get paid for the bespoke work, then they hire that costume out later, too. Plus that means the size of their hiring-out stock is always increasing. I think they have to be careful with timings though - if something's been on a major character in a major BBC TV series, there'll be a specified time gap before they're allowed to hire that costume out again.

Theatres with producing wardrobes are few and far between here in the UK, but I've never come across anywhere that uses commercial patterns as a starting point - it's all altered stock or bespoke as far as I'm aware.

I know few people who will give technicians due respect for their craft who have not worked in the industry in some shape or form. It's amazing how people think everything just materializes out of thin air (or that the lights focus themselves, or the cues are called automatically) for different productions.

I've done (very, very basic) costuming for a couple of productions and have learned so much about fabric, pattern, period, construction. . . but what I know could fill a thimble. I like to think I get more out of the performance if I can appreciate the work that went into all the aspects of it!