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Stitches in Time

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Stitches in Time

"Generally, the less talented the actor, the more difficult he is to deal with," says wardrobe supervisor Karen L. Eifert (Little Women), who has been in the business for 31 years. "An actor may also be difficult if he's been miscast or if there is something wrong with the way the part has been written." Wardrobe supervisor Alyce Gilbert (Wicked) agrees, adding that allegedly ill-fitting costumes and especially shoes become the focal point of an unhappy actor who is having problems with the role. No doubt the wardrobe supervisor and the bevy of dressers suffer the brunt of the actor's distress or, conversely, share the joy if the actor is doing well and having a good time onstage.

That said, wardrobe supervisors say actors are, for the most part, cooperative and appreciative. They understand that wardrobe supervisors are there to help them look good and be safe. If, for example, actors have to be hooked up to harnesses for flying sequences, it's the wardrobe supervisor who has to make sure that the right costume is where it should be and operational.

Still, "Every once in a while we'll have to remind actors that it's their job, not ours, to pick up laundry off the floor and put it in the laundry basket," notes Eifert. "But that's not typical."

"Most actors are just so grateful to have a job that they are courteous to everyone," adds Cheryl Kilbourne-Klimpton, a wardrobe supervisor who over the last 25 years has worked on dozens of films, most recently Prime, starring Meryl Streep and Uma Thurman.

The notable exception continues to be "movie stars who are often demanding and needy and arrive on the set with personal entourages and campers," continues Kilbourne-Klimpton. "This is a particular problem on low-budget films where the gap between the star's salary and everyone else's is particularly big, even bigger than usual. It's very common for stars to be insistent on designer clothes, and they are very label-conscious. This is truer for women, but it applies to men, as well."

Wardrobe supervisors may also have to contend with the star's private dressers, who are often on the scene, making sure the star has his or her water or lozenges on hand at all times.

Some wardrobe supervisors continue to feel a lack of recognition. Several said the public doesn't appreciate how much research a wardrobe supervisor may do. And if it's a contemporary piece in which the clothes are not supposed to be noticeable, the wardrobe supervisor's work is not understood at all. Even within the profession, the work is not fully recognized. In a time of cost-cutting--and today money is a big issue--electricians get far more leeway than wardrobe people.

Welcome to the world of the wardrobe supervisor, a largely unsung, behind-the-scenes practitioner and member of a little-known subculture.

Nuts and Bolts

So, what exactly does the wardrobe supervisor do? Put simply: maintenance, maintenance, and more maintenance. Wardrobe supervisors must keep track of the costumes and make sure they are cleaned, repaired (if need be), and in the right place at the right time. As part of their job, they oversee a crew of dressers and other costume-related technicians. They play a significant role in backstage choreography, determining where actors will change costumes during the show, how many dressers will be needed, and where the various dressers will be placed to facilitate those quick changes, explains Kathleen Gallagher (Bombay Dreams on Broadway).

"In Bombay Dreams I'm supervising 14 dressers, beaders, dyers, and one full-time stitcher. I also have to stay in touch with the people who do laundry and the theatrical dry cleaners that come by twice a week to pick up and deliver costumes," she says.

"Bombay Dreams is a unique experience, starting with the elaborate costumes, lots of beading and re-beading required, and there are the many costume changes for each of the principal characters. Some of the actors are changing clothes 10 times. And we face a particular challenge because of the fountain scenes and the wet costumes performance after performance. There are chemicals in the water that keep it sanitary, but these chemicals are very hard on the costumes. And there is only one set of costumes, so after each matinee, we have to make sure that the costumes are spun dry," she continues. "Wardrobe supervisors work a minimum of 48 to 50 hours a week; the bigger the musical or the more maintenance the costumes require, the longer the hours."

The wardrobe supervisor has to boast high-level organizational and managerial skills and must be detail-oriented, willing to tolerate the music of shows he or she can't stand--"No, we cannot use earplugs," says Eifert--and prepared to handle every contingency efficiently and calmly.

"Bodily functions." Eifert spells it out. "I'm talking about an actor having diarrhea or menstruating onto the costume. And that can happen onstage. One actor in a show I worked on got food poisoning; he went on anyway." Eifert pauses. "And then came the projectile vomiting. Fortunately that happened just as he left the stage. But we knew there was something wrong because the speaking rhythms onstage were off. Being aware of those rhythms is second nature to wardrobe supervisors.

"In any case, we quickly got the understudy ready," Eifert continues. "We thought everything was fine until we looked on to the stage and saw that we hadn't changed the understudy's white socks, which were all wrong for the era of the play."

All wardrobe supervisors have to be on their toes, although the demands in film and television are a little different. Costume continuity is a major issue on filmed footage, especially when scenes are shot out of sequence. Unlike theatre, however, there is almost always the opportunity to reshoot.

Eifert recounts how na誰ve she was when she first worked on a television program: "It was a scene on One Life to Live with two of the stars. As the cameras rolled, I suddenly noticed that a purse, which was supposed to be on a table, had slipped onto the floor. I panicked because one of the actresses had to pick up the purse from that table. So I dropped to my hands and knees and, as silently as I could, crawled over to the purse to put it back on the table. The actors were cracking up. It didn't occur to me that we could stop shooting, pick up the purse, and then start shooting the scene again."

Not unexpectedly, wardrobe supervisors know how to sew and are often seen toting sewing kits around with them. Some even come to each new production with their own equipment. "I bring seven sewing machines, irons, ironing boards, steamers, and a serger, which finishes seams," says Eifert. "You do get a daily fee for the use of your equipment, although the precise amount varies with the management firm. On one show, a producer gave me a case of wine for the use of my equipment. I didn't mind at all." She adds, "Many productions have their own in-house shops with equipment. Many don't. In any case, I like to bring my own stuff. I'm a throwback."

The Way In to Costumes

The position of wardrobe supervisor--indeed, the entire wardrobe department--has changed. At one time wardrobe personnel were ex-vaudevillians or frustrated actors or dancers who wanted to remain in the business. And more often than not, they were the wives of crew members--wives who could sew. The pay was negligible and the benefits worse. "There was the assumption that the wardrobe person was a dependent and really didn't need much money anyway," says Eifert. "Pensions for retirees consisted of a $1 contribution made by every union member. That may have come to about $400."

Today wardrobe personnel make good money and benefits. They are members of Local 764, which is part of the very powerful International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employes (IATSE). There are 1,050 members and, contrary to the image of wardrobe being a woman's profession, 332 are men. "And that's not really all that new," points out Jenna Krempel, Local 764's treasurer. "We represent wardrobe people in television and film in addition to theatre. And we also represent the wardrobe workers at the Metropolitan Opera, which always employed men in wardrobe."

More striking than the good money they earn, wardrobe people are highly educated today, with degrees in everything from theatre production to fashion merchandizing to art history. And it seems they are doing precisely what they want. They are not disappointed actors, nor are they aspiring costume designers, although several have toyed with the idea of it. "I decided against being a costume designer because I realized I'd have to spend too much time fighting for my creativity," notes Gallagher.

Eifert, on the other hand, nixed the idea "because once the job is done, the costume designer is gone from the scene. I wanted to be part of it all the time."

Still, most of these wardrobe supervisors ended up in wardrobe serendipitously. They may have been employed in other related fields, such as retail--and not especially enjoying themselves--when a wardrobe job on a film or theatrical production opened up and someone they knew backstage offered them a shot at it. Some started as assistants, usually in non-union jobs, and then moved into the union and up the hierarchy.

Kilbourne-Klimpton started off as a wardrobe supervisor--in part because of nepotism, she admits frankly: "I'm third generation. My grandfather, father, and brother were all members of the union and worked on film crews. My husband does it, too. Despite that, my first few jobs were on nonpaying independent films."

Wardrobe people continue to be members of an insulated backstage technicians' entity, although they say there is more inclusiveness today and they are consulted in ways they never were before. Eifert notes, for example, that she is a Louisa May Alcott aficionado, and when the company began working on Little Women, she was looked to for her expertise. "When I told the writers that the 19th century characters would never say a 'sewing kit' but rather a 'workbasket,' the writers made the change," she recounts.

Similarly, Kilbourne-Klimpton reports being asked by producers for her opinion on the costumes, a hitherto unknown occurrence. "A producer will want to know what I think about some aspect of the clothes," she says. "I find that awkward and, truthfully, I will always say what the designer would want me to say, whether or not he or she is standing there."

Oh, Behave

Backstage protocol is also a reflection of theatre technology and aesthetics, which have evolved. Gilbert talks about the new (and young) writers on the theatre scene "who write plays that are more like movies, meaning there are more jumps in time and more costume changes that have to be done faster and with greater frequency. The scenery is also more cinematic. There's a lot more rigging and many more people in the backstage area. Years ago, actors had the time to go to their dressing rooms to change costumes between scenes. Now they cannot." The result is a loss of privacy for actors, who have to slip in and out of costumes in quick-change areas that are often exposed.

There is a new etiquette surrounding the various stages of undress and nudity, and that is an unspoken agreement on everybody's part not to acknowledge it. "It seems everyone is making a point of noticing nothing," says Gilbert. There are of course different cultural and social reactions to nudity. For example, chorus performers, dubbed "gypsies," are very open and not discomforted by nudity.

On the other hand, "many of the East Indian actors I've been working with in Bombay Dreams are very private, and every effort has to be made to accommodate their needs for privacy backstage when they change costumes," notes Gallagher.

All the wardrobe supervisors say it's their job to be authoritative in manner. They're the ones who have to enforce the rules--from not allowing actors to eat or drink in their costumes to preventing them from leaving the theatre in costume. The latter has become a bit of an issue for those actors and dancers who continue to smoke but are no longer allowed to smoke in the theatre. "So they go outside to smoke, still in costume," says Gilbert. "That's become a source of conflict, especially with some dancers who are still smoking in order to maintain their weight."

Actors are also very much into being comfortable onstage and offstage, comfort often taking precedence over beauty. Still, a number of wardrobe supervisors noted that women now feel they can afford to be glamorous and feminine without compromising their independence.

The Good Old Days

"Years ago if someone's costume was beginning to go, the wardrobe supervisor would start addressing the problem way before the costume fell apart," Eifert says. "Now, because everything can be done so fast--thanks to the computer and mailing services like FedEx--we don't take care of the problem until the last minute. The producers believe we are saving money that way. But we're also under tremendous pressure now once the costume begins to disintegrate."

Kilbourne-Klimpton agrees, also recalling the rugged conditions under which the wardrobe supervisor formerly worked in films: "We shared our semi-trailers with grips. There was no heat or light. We used space heaters and clip lights. There were also no washers and dryers in the trailers, which frequently meant that we did the laundry ourselves in a hotel bathtub."

Now washers and dryers are available in the trailers and, in New York and Los Angeles, there are dry cleaners who specialize in costumes.

"In Los Angeles, some of these dry cleaners have the keys to movie trailers, where they pick up and deliver the costumes overnight," says Kilbourne-Klimpton. "In other cities, we still have to persuade dry cleaners to work for us. Costumes may be foreign to them, but they make a lot of money if they agree to do the work."

And then there is, as Eifert suggests, the ubiquitous computer, which has changed everything for the wardrobe supervisor. "When I first started, wardrobe supervisors wrote out the breakdowns in continuity," says Kilbourne-Klimpton. "We can now do it on the computer, with new software that we have to learn how to use. But once we do, if a character is taken out of the script, with the punch of a few computer keys, all the costume changes for all the characters are automatically readjusted throughout the script."

That's great. So are the walkie-talkies and cellphones, she says. Kilbourne-Klimpton is more ambivalent, however, about monitors on the set, which did not exist years ago. "Wardrobe supervisors had to watch the scenes being shot with our own eyes. I'd say to the cameraman, 'Are you getting the feet?' That's the kind of information needed for continuity. Now I just go over to the monitor to see what's being shot," she says. "At the same time, the monitors don't pick up everything that will be blown up on the large screen. You don't catch the lint ball by watching the monitor. The wardrobe supervisor still has to watch the actors up close." She adds that the monitor has become a social focal point, attracting lots of people on the set who congregate around it, laughing and talking. It's a noisy distraction.

On the emotionally charged subject of being respected on the film set, Kilbourne-Klimpton notes that it all boils down to income, and that varies with region: "In New York, the pay scale is high and so is the respect you command."

So how will the field evolve? By all accounts, probably not much. "As long as there are live actors onstage, we'll be doing what we always have," says Gallagher.

Eifert suggests that unexpected changes may take place, and that's OK, too. "One of the reasons this business is fun is that you never really know what's going to happen next." BSW

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