Elissa Iberti is the head of the Metropolitan Opera’s costume shop, where she oversees the production of nearly 800 outfits for five productions opening this fall. No detail is too small for the costumes adorning some of the world’s biggest opera stars. Indeed, every piece of lace trim, button and sash is important.

Poppy Cannon-Reese, the manager of the Costume Department at Universal Studios leads us on an exclusive tour of the Universal Costume Department, housed in the iconic Edith Head building...

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines a Costumer as a person or company that makes or supplies theatrical or fancy-dress costumes. ORIGIN mid 19th cent.: from French costumier. Indeed, it is a rather large umbrella that encompases us while we work in collaboration on amazing and beautiful costumes.


Place to Start

The very definition of a Costumer makes clear that even on your first day of work you bring with you a set of skills; no doubt you are able to do one or several of the following;

basic hand sewing

operate a basic domestic sewing machine

iron fabric or a garment

follow step-by-step directions

understand a pattern

follow basic dyeing or fabric painting techniques

basic laundry techniques

You might not know it, but of all the things on the above list, the ability to follow directions is one of the most important skills you bring to any work situation; and, taking notes with a pen and paper shows you don't want to forget a single item.

 

 

Some costumers work as Costume Designers or their Assistants for stage or film; there is a full array of jobs within the Wardrobe Department so there is room for everybody. But, each job designation brings along with it certain duties and responsibilities. Have no fear; experienced costumers are nearby and they help you learn to accomplish each task as it comes along. 

Most costumers are used to showing new crew members the proper method to accomplish the work. There is a lot to learn about in the world of sewing and no one can know everything all at once. Even if you think you'll never do that job again, you may find yourself teaching someone how to do that work on a later gig. Be as spongelike as possible; the more you know, the more you can do. For instance, if you walked by these tables, wouldn't you be interested in what is going on? 

Why, there's some sewing, beading and fabric painting ...

 

     
     

 Costume ageing or breakdown, pattern drafting and costume organizing and storage .... indeed, there is a job for everyone if they are interested to work in the wardrobe department. Sometimes, the Costume Shop even plays host to some important visitors ...

 

 Each task you learn and master, is like a separate chapter in your own book of Being a Costumer, if you will. Each skill can be added to your resume with confidence. Sometime you may get a very specific call for Cutter, Stitcher or Breakdown Artist. Dyers and Dressers may also be called separately; the mantle of Costumer includes many separate beautiful threads, all working together. As you work more, your resume begins to reflect all your abilities and talents, as well as your skills.

 

 

You may begin your career being a bit star-struck, and that's ok, because we have all been caught in that situation, and it is truly awesome to be talking with a performer whose career you, yourself has followed. Now, here you are, right in front of them; talking with them  like you know what you're doing! Oh yes, I think we have all been there. But after a while, and the more you learn about performers in general, you realize their day is much like your own; filled with precise times and locations, scheduled meals and breaks and plenty of time to work. The experience you gain shows clearly to others; you are able to take situations in hand and keep the day and project moving along.

 

 

For example, the more times you inspect, clean and maintain shoes, the better you are at identifying issues with those very important wardrobe items. Suppose you are working as designer on this gig; you will save your budget by buying or renting only footwear that is in good condition; to endure the production. If you are the buyer, you don't want to buy poorly-made or unsuitable expensive footwear, only to return them later, when you really don't have time. Dressers and costumers know how to care for wardrobe items but the work is much harder when the items are not sturdy enough or impractical for the job to begin with. Knowledge is revealed by experience.

 

Experience can take you into the Costume Shop or Workroom.  There, you work with other costumers, and the costumes. Now you have the opportunity to speak with them all; the Shop Manager, Cutter, Stitchers, Tailors, Breakdown Artists and other Costumers. Talk with them about their process, what they like about the work and, what they dislike too. The conversation is usually interrupted if someone finds an amazing textile, button or trim, worthy of sharing; or a costume labelled with the name of a very famous actor.

 

 

 

Approach the work like any other builder; you begin at the bottom and with nothing but an idea. Next comes a drawing,pattern or plan. Materials are gathered and the work of creation begins. The work is accomplished, painted, shined and polished until finally, it is given away or shared with others. Collect as many skills and abilities as you can; everything helps in this business - and make sure you include it on your resume. Go forth. Costumers, and conquer.

In conclusion, a little hand sewing zen .... 

Carol Hammond is the Costume Shop Manager at the Atlanta Alliance Theatre. In this video, Carol shows us around the costume shop and explains her various duties; from overseeing the building of costumes, fittings, budgeting, hiring and supervising staff and more. I think you'll enjoy this ...

Scissors are not just a basic tool used in costuming, they are a bridge to the ancient Mesopotamian past. In fact,the first scissors may have been used in ancient Egypt and their modern cousins, the spring scissor type are still in use today. Spring snips have two blades connected at the handle, squeeze the blades together to cut, and then release to pull them apart. I have a pair of these squeeze snips in my sewing kit; alongside paper scissors, embroidery scissors, cutting shears and pinking shears. 

The Costumer's Notebook,

The book The Costumer's Notebook is a 295 page comprehensive handbook for Costumers for stage and film including a full Glossary of stage and film industry terms. Sections include methods and tricks for laundry, dyeing, breakdown, Dresser guidelines and protocols for Stage or Film and various size charts for men and women from shoes to gloves. Other Sections include diagrams showing How to Iron A Shirt, How to Tie a Tie and How to Tie a Bow Tie. Costume fittings, costume lay out and costume storage are also discussed.