“Costume-Making is Dying. We Can’t Get the Skills.”

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The Team Keeps Me Going

With the production process starting 18 months before a show opens and each department working on three or four shows at once, Fullerton told The Stage that it’s her 180-strong team that keeps her going. “They are so driven, so clever. The whole design process works so smoothly, like a production line, because the team are all experts.”

Writing for The Stage, Tim Bano said that was proven a couple of weeks ago when world-famous soprano Kristine Opolais had to pull out of the forthcoming production of Wagner’s Lohengrin and was replaced at the last minute by Jennifer Davis. “So slick is the costume process, Fullerton insists, that even the 11th-hour crisis of refitting the costumes barely raised an eyebrow, even though the production opens in just a couple of weeks,” he said.

In 2015 Fullerton championed the same cause when addressing a shortage of tutu makers. “For a new production we might have one designer but you might need up to 50 makers,” she told The Telegraph. “To make a tutu you have to be taught well. You need to understand how many layers of net, what size the net should be, what spirals to use for the tutu, the length and how you string a tutu holding the layers of net together. And it’s not just tutus we are talking about. It is tailoring, costumier, dying, hats and jewellery – these are all skills we have a shortage of.”

New Training

The Royal Opera House has just started a costume construction course with South Essex College and the University of the Arts London in order to ease the talent-drain and make sure courses focus on practice rather than theory. “We wanted to give students the training that they should be having,” said Fullerton, who blamed the loss of practical courses on budgetry constraints. This reflects on both universities and students as theory work simply relies on independent work in a library and not materials, machinery and dedicated teachers solving complex problems. It would also make sense that wider social and economic pressures have influenced change. Students expect to learn skills they can sell to more mainstream employers as a safety net should their creative careers fail, which is difficult by definition for highly specialist courses. Catherine Kodicek also recently said that costume has historically favoured wealthier backgrounds.

More Skills

Fear the Walking Dead costume designer Jo Katsaras said the skill set required for costume is extremely varied. “Some of my team have a fashion diploma or costume design background but the importance of that depends what genre you’re doing. If you’re doing something contemporary, most of it is shopping, if you’re going to do something period, then obviously you need the skills,” she said. “The more skills you have, the better. That’ll allow more opportunities to open up for you. I’ve been sewing since the age of eight, so I have a very good understanding of the body and how it works and what looks good and what doesn’t. The other thing is, start at the bottom and work your way up. Getting in can be difficult but put yourself out there and get in somehow. Somebody’s going to notice and be grateful of what you have to offer and you’ll move up.

“Be patient with the process, because nothing you learn ever goes to waste. Once you are designing, or in the costume department, just always honour the script, the story that you’re telling and the characters, whether you’re designing or helping a designer fulfil their vision. We all have these weird and wonderful ideas of design however honour the story first. That is the primary thing. What is the story that you’re telling? Who is this character? What do they wear? What are their favourite colours? What watch are they going to wear? What shoes do they wear? And how do they wear their clothes?”

Fifty Shades of Grey designer Shay Cunliffe adds a further level of complexity by saying that film costume needs skills in psychology as well as design to work out a productive outcome between the creative minds of director, actor and designer.

Do you agree that the costume industry needs better training? Or do eager apprentices need a hand up to their first precious placements? Let us know in the comments below!

Image: The Royal Ballet, Elizabeth, Zenaida Yanowsky, ©ROH, 2016. Photographed by Andrej Uspenski

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