Opinion: Is There a Costume Skills Shortage?

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Is there a costume skills shortage? According to certain articles, which pop up regularly, particularly on social media, it would seem so. However, these articles are usually countered with outraged responses from costume makers struggling to find training or employment opportunities. I’ve been one of those makers. So what is going on?

There are, in my opinion, a few major problems with education and training in the costume industry, but they all seem to stem – if not entirely, then at least partly – from one common source: money, or funding.

More To Life Than Degrees

If we start with the formal training setting: most people who want a career in costume train at college, obtaining some type of degree in costume. Many are design-focused but some do focus more on construction. Even so, any degree requires at least 50% of course content to be theoretical. Degree courses typically have in the region of 600 tutored hours of making over the entire course, or about 15 weeks of full-time work in a workroom. The colleges are somewhat restricted in what they can do about this; if they want their course to be accredited – and thus funded – they have to comply with the regulations set out by the government.

I don’t think it was helpful that a certain highly respected institution merged their design course with their construction course. The courses have previously run as separate courses, producing excellent designers as well as excellent makers. However, the merger has resulted in the design students doing less designing and the construction students doing less making.

Personally, I gained my training from a short, practical course in historical costume-making. It is unaccredited and not funded by the government. Yet during the course I received 600 tutored hours just like the majority of degree students. True, I may not have all the theoretical and historical knowledge of a degree student, but the theoretical and historical knowledge is something you build along the way anyway. In any case, I would still have over two years to cover the that knowledge. I think it’s a real shame that courses like this aren’t being recognised by the government as a valid way of training; and not just in the costume industry, but across the entire range of practical skills.

After Training in Costume

The recent debate, however, was about what happens after you gain your qualification, whatever form it takes. Theatres need people who can do the work straight away without having to spend time training new staff up to the right level – that level obviously can vary from institution to institution.

But how do you gain that expertise if you haven’t got it from your degree course or wherever else you trained? The problem for the theatres is that while they might want to take in new talent and train them, doing so takes time and resources and therefore cost money. That’s money they haven’t got.

As arts funding continues to get cut (and the value of the arts continue to be undermined by the disregard for them in education up to A-level level), theatres struggle to fund productions, e.g. the growing number of shows being performed in modern dress, not necessarily because it adds a new dimension, but because it’s cheaper to produce!

While the costume department struggles to costume each show within ever-tighter budgets, there is little to spend on developing new talent. Even the apprenticeship schemes don’t cover the gap. Anyone from a degree course is over-qualified for consideration for an apprenticeship (at least the costume related ones, as the scheme stands today), and taking a graduate on as an apprentice would take a place away from someone who really needs the help, and be tantamount to using them as cheap labour. That would be immoral, not to mention illegal.

So where does this leave us? I think that producing theatres have a major role to play and for several reasons: they are the ones who really need the highly skilled workforce. They have a huge amount of talented people with a vast knowledge of the craft to pass on and they sit naturally within the national arts world as someone who promotes the arts and continue to raise the standard.

But they can’t do it without funding. The continuing decrease in funding of the arts have far-reaching, long-term consequences and it’s time to act if we want to continue to produce world-leading work. But funding in itself isn’t going to address discrepancies between what is being taught in colleges and and what is needed within the industry. I don’t see why a theatre couldn’t team up with a training institution and provide training and development in tandem. The ensuing dialogue between industry and learning provider would surely be beneficial for both sides!