Careers in Sewing: Costume Supervisor
Have you ever considered a Career in Sewing? Do you dream of ditching the 9-5 and pursuing your creative dreams? This year we will be posting interviews for a range of different sewing jobs to give you a a taste of what possibilities are out there. First we kick off by interviewing the talented Fiona, who when she is not blogging @diaryofachainstitcher works as a freelance costumer supervisor.
I work as a freelance costume supervisor, mainly for theatre productions. I trained in theatre design (both set and costume) but towards the end of my degree I realised I liked the role of a supervisor more and focused my attention on that. After I graduated I worked for free or very little assisting on lots of productions of different sizes and styles whilst making a living working as an usher in the evenings at the Royal Opera House in London. I was then really lucky to get a trainee post at the National Theatre and worked there for two and a half years in their costume hire department before taking the plunge and going freelance! I’ve gradually built up some good contacts and regular work. Being self-employed can be tough; one day you won’t know where your next job is coming from and the next you’ll be juggling three! But I love the unexpected nature of it.
In a nutshell a costume supervisor is responsible for making the designs for a production a reality. They are responsible for the budget, working out the best way to achieve the designs, employing costume makers, organising fittings, sourcing all the materials (yes I get to fabric shop for a living!), and generally making sure that everyone looks how the designer wanted them to look when they go on stage! The specifics of the job vary greatly from one job to the next as different designs require quite different approaches.
Being freelance I work all over the place for lots of different companies! I’m usually based in London but have worked in a few places around the UK too. I’ve worked at the National Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe, on West End musicals and fringe theatre. My career highlight so far has to be working as assistant costume supervisor on the London 2012 Olympic Ceremonies; it was an unforgettable experience. A future goal of mine is to supervise a big ballet!
This is a tough one to answer as every single day is different! It depends on the type of show I’m working on and what part of the production process we are at. For some productions all the costumes are made so a lot of my time is taken up with sampling and buying fabrics and haberdashery and sending it off to the makers. Other productions are a mixture of made, hired and bought costumes; if it’s a show set in the present day or recent history I’ll shop on the high street and vintage stores but it’s important to buy clothes that will withstand being worn 7 or so times and week and regular washing. I’ll spend some of my time ‘pulling’ outfits from various costume hire companies around London and sometimes further afield. I find some real treasures in costume stores sometimes and love taking a look at the insides to see how they are constructed! I also have to buy underwear, shoes and accessories for the cast which can involve going to dance wear companies if I’m working on a musical or dance production. Sometimes I’ll need to schedule my day around costume fittings, watching rehearsals, production meetings and meetings with the designer and costume makers. Closer to opening night we go into technical and dress rehearsals on stage. All the costumes have to be ready for then but when they are worn and performed in for the first time problems can crop up and the designer may want to make changes. I’ll respond to all those notes as well as watching the rehearsals and preview shows to look out for tweaks I think should be made.
For me the variety and new challenge of each day is the best part of my job. It’s never dull and I wake up excited to work most mornings. I love the problem solving nature of the job, that’s what appealed to me when I decided to make the move from design into the organisational side of the industry. Although it’s an organisational role it’s still really creative in that aspect. I get to work with fascinating people and in some amazing places. Plus I love exploring London and am regularly finding new and magical places to buy the weird and wonderful things I need! The ultimate highlight though has to be seeing your work on stage at the end of a job and being enjoyed by an audience. Oh and did I mention that I get paid to shop for fabric?!!
However, I always say to people who are interested into getting in to the industry that it’s not all as fun as it may seem at first glance. It is a job with long and unusual hours, and it’s hard work, physical and mentally, so you have to be sure you really want to do it. I’ll hold my hands up and admit that dragging huge, heavy bags of fabric and footwear around in the wind and rain, at the end of a 50+ hour work week, whilst on the hunt for the perfect but seemingly non existent button/lining/trim/necklace has brought on tears on a couple of occasions! But there is a lot of fun involved and I find it so rewarding. I count myself as very lucky to be able to do what I do.
Absolutely! I found most subjects interesting at school but when it came to picking subjects for GCSE and A-Level art, textiles and drama were top of the list. I also had a real affinity for history and maths which are both really useful in my job. I’m very lucky in that my career combines so many of the things that I love.
My family took me to the theatre a number of times when I was growing up and I found the whole experience magical. It was seeing Starlight Express when I was about 9 that really initiated my desire to work in theatre and first made me realise that costume and set design was a career in itself. I remember my sister and I came home from seeing it that first time and made replicas of the costumes out of whatever we could find for our Barbies!
My main qualification is my degree in Theatre Design which I did at Central School of Speech and Drama, but I know many costume supervisors trained in costume construction. It is important to have some training so you understand the design and production process and also what other members of the team will require from you but I must admit the most valuable learning I have done has been on the job.
I’ve taken a few short courses over the last couple of years on basic pattern drafting and tutu construction but that has been more out of personal interest than out of necessity for my work. It is good to know how clothes are put together and about good fit so you can weigh in on conversations during costume fittings but it’s not essential to be able to make costumes yourself. Sewing skills are really helpful as I often find myself helping with quick alterations and finishing during the technical rehearsals. It is a job in which you are constantly learning. There is so much to learn about fabric, new suppliers and the subject of costume history and the detail you can go into is never ending! My book shelf is heaving with books on the subject, it’s a bit of an addiction! I also go to a lot of talks and exhibitions about the history of clothing, hair & make up and accessories.
Throw yourself into it, work hard and take every opportunity that you can! The best way to learn how to do this job is by doing it, the more work you do and the wider variety the better. I get nearly all of my work through word of mouth and producers and designers will be mostly interested in what other productions you have worked on. It’s important to work hard on getting to know your fabrics, suppliers and costume history.
Ooo this is such a tough one! There’s so many things that I’d like to try. I love travelling so I’d quite like a job that involves travelling the world. Maybe working with animals. I love watching David Attenborough documentaries and find the natural world fascinating.