Thousands of costumers reacted furiously to Royal Opera House costume head Fay Fullerton’s comments that the costume industry is “almost dying” because of a skills shortage – and many of the reasons given prove that this was rightly so.
Firstly, an apology. Many of you believed The Costume Rag endorsed the comment wholeheartedly when we were simply reporting on what had been said in an interview with theatrical magazine The Stage. Indeed we should have taken a more hardline approach to challenging the viewpoint. We reached out to Fay Fullerton and the Royal Opera House press office to question the comments further but received no response from her. Our mission statement is to stand for costumers around the world and to raise awareness of the issues they face, hence we devote a whole category to the profession but this agenda was not made clear in the single article.
Your responses were powerful and passionate, forming the ultimate proof that costume making is not under a threat from skills shortages but through a critical lack of investment and a lack of understanding about the nature of working and training in costume.
Exposure Doesn’t Pay the Bills
One response was from Frock Flicks writer Sarah Bellem in Mode Historique. “The art isn’t dying — the career path is just a nonstarter for many of us with the skills to do the job. Take me, for instance. I have 25-years of sewing, draping, and drafting experience under my belt, an undergraduate degree in clothing and textile design and a Master’s in Art History. In order for me to take a job in the costume industry I would have to settle for less than minimum-wage, part-time work with no health benefits or retirement and an insanely-demanding schedule that would routinely require me to work 60, 70, or 80+ hour work weeks. Factor in that most of the entry-level positions available in theatre tech are paid in ‘exposure’ or ‘for the love of the craft.’ Exposure doesn’t pay the bills.”
Given Up Hope
The same story was told throughout the comments on our original story. “I graduated from WAAPA in Australia in 2012 and moved to London looking for work. I have now been here six years, applied for hundreds of costumes roles around the country and have only had two interviews,” said one. “I have now given up hope and am resigned to the fact, I will have to work in finance my entire life and not be happy. It’s very much who you know in the industry, as opposed to what you know. Everyone wants someone with experience, but how am I supposed to gain any when no-one will give me a chance? I have even resorted to offering my services for a week unpaid to prove my worth but to no avail. Saying there is a lack of skills is insulting and a blatant lie.”
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Another said “there are at least 6 superb degree courses in costume making and/or design in the UK with around 600+ costume students graduating each year. There really isn’t a skill shortage here at all. However, there is a shortage of people with 10 years plus experience willing to work for minimum wage full time in a theatre wardrobe when they can earn twice or three times that as a freelancer with their own business. Sadly many very talented and enthusiastic graduates are simply not getting opportunities to get that first job, or they are treated very badly with long hours going uncompensated and they leave the industry just as they are getting really good. There really isn’t a shortage of skills, there is a shortage of longsighted, honest and responsible employers.”
You can read the rest of the comments to see the real issues faced by the costume industry under the original article.