During the first semester of my freshman year at college, I was blessed to find the coolest student job ever – sewing costumes for each semester’s theatrical production. Since I have been sewing since roughly age twelve, thanks to the inspiration of my friend L, and because the theatre was my refuge during the crazy years of high school, this was naturally the perfect job for me. The charm of this job has not worn off in the past three years.
After people have asked me where the costume shop is located, the next most common question I get is: “Wait…you make clothes?” Apparently saying that I sew costumes for the theatre isn’t a clear answer. So I respond calmly that yes, I make clothes and that, in fact, I get paid to do it. Sometimes people also ask what it is like to sew costumes for my job.
The first duty of each semester is to wait patiently for a cast. Once that small detail has been settled, we measure the actors – around their heads, their arms, their legs – and we jokingly warn them that the worst is yet to come. Measurements are the easy part; costume fittings, not so much.
During the beginning part of the semester research on the time period of the show is printed out and talked through. Then an exorbitant amount of time is spent sorting through every single stitch of clothing in the costume closet to see if there are any pieces that could possibly be worn in this particular show. Sometimes we get bored and we play dress-up, donning ridiculous hats that we would never wear in real life.
Once we have pulled out all the potential costumes we meet with the student designers and see which costumes are left that we need to make. During this part of the process, lots of time is spent looking through pictures of patterns and conferring with student designers about which fabrics are suitable for which characters based on their temperament and social status.
The next part is the best: we actually make the costumes! We typically cut out the various pattern pieces on the landing of the stairwell, since it is a wide-open space where we can easily spread out the fabric on the floor, and we get the strangest reactions from people who come by to go up or down those stairs. “Oh! I’m sorry.” Or “what are you doing?” Even “what is this for?” It’s a great way to promote the show!
Numerous other tasks go into making each show a success, including last minute scrambling to add drawstrings to pants, hem up skirts, or stitch trim to suit jackets before actors go onstage for the final dress rehearsal before opening night. One of the funniest instances of this was the time when an actor came up to the costume shop on the night of the final dress rehearsal and told me, “I don’t have a costume.” You what? Sure enough, we had a suit for him, but we had never put the appropriate trim on it, or even hemmed his pants. Oops. His suit got done in time for opening night, though.
Once show week rolls around and all the actors are properly clothed and on stage, one of us “elves” is stationed back stage every show in case there are any emergency repairs. This is our reward for all the hard labor of the semester. As I sit in the costume shop and work on homework or clean up the tornado of fabric scraps and threads, I can hear the sounds of the actors’ voices playing over the speakers like an old-time radio drama…
“You lie, in faith; for you are call'd plain Kate,
And bonny Kate and sometimes Kate the curst;
But Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom
Kate of Kate Hall, my super-dainty Kate,
For dainties are all Kates, and therefore, Kate,
Take this of me, Kate of my consolation;
Hearing thy mildness praised in every town,
Thy virtues spoke of, and thy beauty sounded,
Yet not so deeply as to thee belongs,
Myself am moved to woo thee for my wife.”
― William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew