Confessions of a Costumer

The performing arts are big business. In this industry, we have a lot of super important jobs for people who love the theater but who may have no interest in performing. This week, we sat down with Straz Center costumer Camille McClellan, who costumes dance and musical theater productions for the Patel Conservatory, to find out the story.

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Camille working in the costume shop.

Caught in the Act: What does it meant to be a costumer in the performing arts?

Camille: Well, it’s a lot more than just sewing. When you start off on a production, the team gets together and we talk about concept and we talk about, you know, is this a period piece, is it not a period piece? Was it written as a period piece but we’re putting it in modern times? Are they humans that you’re dressing? Is it animals?

Also, budgets are a big thing that most of us don’t think about. We think, oh this is a wonderful creative job, and it is, but you have to do all the administrative stuff, too, and stay within that budget, keeping in mind what you’re spending and what you’ve got to spend.

There is that administrative bit as well as once you start getting into the actual production of the show. You have to decide whether or not you’ve got things in stock that you can use—what you’re going to have to create brand new or what you can repurpose. For instance, we got a bunch of evening dresses donated that just happened to land in the costume shop about six weeks before we were doing Hello, Dolly! So, we took those dresses and repurposed a lot of them for the Harmonia Gardens scene when the ladies are all dressed up and guys are in tailcoats and that sort of thing. If you’re making something brand new, you sit down at the drawing board and do some sketches, and renderings, and then show that to the director to see if that’s what they’re really looking for.

Pretty much any regional theater, or community theater, or academic theater like at Patel, you’re going to be pulling your costumes from all sorts of sources as well as producing some of them.

Glenda Wizard of OZ Patel 2018

Costume for Glinda in The Wizard of Oz.

CITA: So, are you custom making some costumes to fit the Patel kids?

CMc: Some. Yes. For instance, for The Wizard of Oz, I didn’t have a lot of places to pull child-size lead costumes. Or even teenage-size for Glinda, the Lion, the Tin Man, Scarecrow. Usually those are full-sized adults in that show so we had to do a lot of creating. Same thing with Aristocats. It was all children. Third through eighth grade. A lot of that show had to be produced because of the size of the actor. When you’re creating something new, you have to think about making the costumes very alterable so that the next time you need them, you’ve got some length that you can add to them, or you can let a hem down, or side seams that are a little bit bigger and that can be let out so that it can be changed. Typically, you can change the size of a garment by three sizes up or down, and that’s what you need in a theater situation, especially when you’re building stock so that you can use those resources again. You’ve spent money on them. You want to be able to repurpose that, and then repurpose what you’ve repurposed. Or use it on a different-sized cast.

CITA: When people read this blog, we want them to know how much effort and how much labor goes into the costumes that they see in dance and theater. It’s not that a truck rolls up with a pre-packaged show that unloads the sets and costumes, and you’re just darning and altering to fit the size of the students that we have. It’s mostly you working in the costume shop with helpers, right? So when people come and see a Patel show or a Patel ballet performance, they’re looking at original work that’s coming from you in our costume shop.

CMc: It is. For the most part, 80% of the time, yes. There are times that some costumes are rented, and then we have to fit and get those on the stage. A great effort is made to make it look cohesive. But mostly it’s us. For Aristocats, we pretty much built or bought everything. We had to build 34 tails … so then that meant 68 ears. There was a two-week period where that’s all we were doing were building ears and tails.

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CITA: How did you get into this career. Did you know that you wanted to be a costumer in a theater? Did you go to school to study it?

CMc: I did, but it started off when I was six-years-old, and I went to elementary school on a college campus. They had a sliding opera department, this college did. And they needed children to populate the village scenes of the opera. It was for Hansel and Gretel, and they needed kids to be the gingerbread men. And I auditioned. I was on stage for eight years before I ever did anything costuming-wise. But also, at six-years-old, for four generations in my family, you learned how to sew. Both my children know how to sew and were taught at six.

I was raised to sew couture style. Beautifully finished inside and out … you should be able to walk down the street with your garment inside out and nobody knows it because it’s so beautifully finished. I spent many a day at my mother’s elbow just watching her and sewing.

CITA: Was your mom a seamstress?

CMc: No. She was a mom and a secretary. And her mother taught her. My grandmother lived just across the road; she basically took me in one summer and every day we sewed. Both my father’s side of the family and my mother’s side, women at one point or another made their living sewing. Most of it was taking in alterations and things like that in their home. So, the transition for me from being on stage to being a costumer kind of just naturally happened. I went to college for theater and my sophomore year, one of the directors realized that I knew how to sew and asked me if I wanted to design a show. And I said, “Sure.”

CITA: What show was it?

CMc: An opera. Monetti’s sci-fi operetta Help, Help, the Globolinks! We had to come up with aliens. But it was fun. You know, it was like oh my gosh, this is so much fun.

CITA: That put you on the path to become a costumer, and then did you get a degree in costume design?

CMc: Yes. Yeah.

Acteon original design Patel YAGP 2016-17

An original design and construction Camille created for a Youth America Grand Prix ballet competition.

CITA: Then how did you end up in Tampa at the Patel Conservatory?

CMc: Well, I grew up in Alabama. Met my husband at the university there in my home town. He did his graduate work in Dallas, and I moved out there and did some theater work, some costuming, but for the most part since he was in graduate school worked a regular job and kept life going there.

Dallas is important because I got hired to do some finishing work at the Dallas Ballet. They were finishing up Swan Lake, and because I knew how to tailor, I was finishing the men’s costumes for them, the jackets, the decoration of it, the fit of it, that sort of thing.

Then I was hired on for the rest of the season—and that is where I learned how to make a tutu. The woman who taught me how to make tutus was 68 at the time. She had been a professional dancer at The Royal Ballet in London, and then had moved into costuming after that.

I was the first person she ever taught. It’s a guilded craft; you can’t really go to school to learn to make tutus. There are a lot of workshops that are offered out there, but I don’t really think you can learn to make the tutus that I make in a weekend workshop. Just as I learned how to sew from an expert, I learned how to make a tutu from an expert.

And it was a gift, both were gifts to me. If I hadn’t been in Dallas at that moment, I probably would have never learned how to make a tutu. And I’m fascinated by dance. The Dallas Ballet was the first place that I worked specifically with dance. Fabrics are very fascinating to me—how they move. In dance, that is the most important thing, choosing the right fabric, and if it’s going have hang time when they leap; if it’s going ripple and do what you want it to do, that kind of thing.

But, when you build a tutu, it is construction. It’s like building a house. If you get the gathers too heavy on one hip, it can take a girl off her point when she does a turn. You know, it’s just net. You wouldn’t think that it’s heavy, but if it’s not, if things aren’t evenly distributed, she will lose her balance.

Circus Polka cast photo w me and Philip Patel 2017

Camille pictured with Philip Neal and our Patel Conservatory ballet dancers who performed in Circus Polka, choreographed by Jerome Robbins. Often in ballet, the costumer is required to follow guidelines that detail how the costumes must look in order to present the ballet. If the shade, value and tone of the three colors weren’t right the piece could have been pulled from our repertoire.

CITA: How did you get from Dallas to the Patel?

CMc: Well, Miami City Ballet opened in 1988 I think. They didn’t have a tutu maker, and they were starting off from scratch. They had no stock. At the beginning of the second year, they actually called the woman who taught me how to make tutus to see if she would move to Miami to be their tutu maker, and she wasn’t interested. She sent me. From Miami we moved back up to Lakeland where my husband is from, started a family. I did the Gasparilla Ballet as a one project deal that was performed in Ferguson. That director suggested me to Peter Stark [former director of Next Generation Ballet at the Patel Conservatory] who was looking for a wardrobe manager for Nutcracker. Peter brought me on, and that was about seven, eight years ago.

CITA: If there’s a child out there, somebody reading this and saying, “I really want to be a costumer but I didn’t think I would be able to make enough money or I don’t know how to do it,” what advice would you give to that person?

CMc: You do have to have the right training. You do have to know that it is hard work. It’s long hours. But anything in theater is. It’s unusual hours. You can’t go into it because you want to make a million dollars, because you’re probably not going to. For the most part, you do it because you’re driven, because you’re passionate about it, because it really makes you happy.

To go about getting into it, you do need some education. Then you need to start seeking out opportunities to just help out in the costume shop and learn, learn, learn. From there you might get to be an assistant designer on something, or you might work in a big shop, maybe working for a designer that does the five main stage shows, and there might be an opportunity to a second stage show eventually. You also need to have some sort of drawing skills.

Pan shadow

Camille and her team built 12 of these shadows for Peter Pan. They flew the children and Pan, and moved set pieces as well as were up to general mischief during the show.

CITA: In your years of being at the Patel, do you have some favorite productions?

CMc: You know, people ask me, ‘What’s your favorite show,” or, “What’s your favorite setup for costumes.” I always want to say “the next.” But, that’s kind of a canned answer. I’m pretty much always excited by the next challenge. I’m really proud of the shows that I’ve done this last season.

With Nutcracker, there’s 350 costumes to put on these people. Even though that is basically a standard set of costumes, every year we’ve changed something. Every year we’ve added something.

For Peter Pan, we didn’t have a fly system, so we could not fly the actors typically like they are in other theaters. The director came up with the idea of having people fly them. Then the idea came up the people who are flying them should be dressed as Pan’s shadows. So, you know, that becomes an exciting thing. And how exciting for me as a costumer to get to go, “Oh, okay. Well we can do this.” And it turned out really great. But then also in that same show, we had a crocodile and a dog. You know? So that’s more sculpture than it is sewing. As a costumer, you have to figure out how to address that costume need and still make it functional for the actor to do what she or he needs to do.

Beginning of Croc PeterPan at Patel 2018

Beginning stage of creating the crocodile’s head for Peter Pan.

Crock head

Finished crocodile head for Peter Pan.

crock body

Crocodile’s body for Peter Pan.

CITA: Camille, we want to wrap up with some quickie questions. First: what happens if a costume breaks on stage, or there’s a costume malfunction? Are you there to fix it or is this something that the actors are just going to have to figure out and the show must go on?

CMc: Okay. Well, the show must go on, and that truly is a realism in theater. There’s always somebody backstage that’s got safety pins nearby, that’s got a needle or two threaded. I have had to sew somebody into a costume in between a scene because a zipper broke. They’re usually moving when we’re having to do this because they need to be back onstage. I’m like, “Okay, two more stitches, two more stitches. How much time have you got? How much time have you got?” I’m like, ‘In two more stitches. All right. Knotting it off, knotting it off. All right. Go!” And then they run out onstage.

It’s quite fun back there. I love live theater, and this is why I love live theater. It’s never the same show. Always something is happening. Always something wonderful happens. Always something interesting happens backstage or on the stage. I have offered board members or directors, or even civilians, just come backstage and just watch. Just stand there and watch. You don’t have to help. Just see what happens.

CITA: Quickie question number two. So you are sewing moving people. You’re around a lot of machines with fast moving needles, and you’re just around a lot of needles all the time. How often do you get hurt on the job?

CMc: Well … I mean there’s “hurt” and there’s hurt. The worst thing that has happened is, and it was because it was a long day, a long night, it was way too late. I was working on an industry suture, and I let it veer off track. It ended up running over a steel bone in a bodice, and that machine just basically exploded. Oil went everywhere. I mean needles flew, steel bones flew. Luckily, I had goggles on. That happened about 20 years ago, so I’ve learned past a certain time you really do have to stop working and go home and get some sleep.

And I sort of jest, but I don’t. I get my tetanus shot on a regular basis because you are sticking yourself with a needle all the time or a pin. I wear glasses now, so if a needle breaks on a machine and it goes flying I have had one hit the glass of my glasses and nick it.

CITA: Which sounds like a lot of people’s worst nightmare. Rogue needles flying at eyes.

CMc: Yeah. And we use very sharp little scissors—I call them snippy scissors—to cut threads, or to take something apart. I’ve cut little Vs in my finger before because I was trying to get at something so close and I’m pressing from the back with the other finger. Accidents happen.

CITA: People need to know in the world of costume and theater, when we say blood, sweat, and tears, it is literal.

CMc: It is.

camille costume

Camille, left, with one of our summer apprentices, Katie Richards, in the costume shop.

CITA: Now the last question: If somebody from the public wants to come tour the costume shop, can they do that?

CMc: They can for the most part. But, you know, if there are six of us in there and our heads are all down in the sewing machines, it may be two days before we open on something … and we may not be as welcoming as other times. You know?

CITA: That’s such a kind way to put it. Yes.

CMc: But almost always we’re thrilled to share the shop with people and let them see what’s there. We do ask that they try not to touch a lot of things because for instance, with the Nutcracker costumes, that’s literally a multi-million-dollar set of costumes. Most of the things are made out of silk. And I don’t know what your hand has touched just previously, but I don’t want you to touch my silk dress. “Touch with your eyes. You’re welcome to look.” But yeah, we love for people to be able to see our work and come in and ask questions. We’re proud of the beautiful things that we get to work on and create. We like to share that. We do everything with love for the viewing public.

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