Back to the Old House

#WhereILivedWednesday: The Costume Shop

This past weekend was my 25th college reunion. I did not go. I never will.

I hated it there. It had been my safety school and I arrived with every intention of transferring after getting good grades for a year. Oh but plans can fall through as so often they do. After two rounds of transfer applications to at least a dozen schools, my choices weren’t better so I stayed put. While I had almost nothing in common with the vast majority of the students there (shallow, immature, young Reaganites looking to have the party experience they’d been too sheltered to have in high school), the university’s location in the Philadelphia suburbs was great. I could hop a train and be in the city in less than half an hour, I could ride my bike past centuries-old farms and enormous old houses, there were good record stores, and I had my work-study job at the costume shop.

The costume shop was my saving grace. I had auditioned for a play once during my freshman year but I discovered that because the university had a Master’s program in theater and they opened up their shows to anyone in the greater Philadelphia area, Equity actors even, I didn’t stand a chance of being cast as a middle-aged woman when plenty of actual middle-aged women (with much more experience) were also auditioning. My sophomore year I qualified for a work-study job so I went to the financial aid office and looked through the book of available jobs. There were two jobs at the theater, the box office or the costume shop. I looked into both but decided I could make more money in the costume shop and it looked like more fun anyway.

I was a dresser. The dresser is the person who gets all the costumes ready before the show, puts all the costumes in strategic locations backstage and helps the actors make those quick changes off stage. The rather less glamorous parts of the job included doing all the laundry and ironing and any mending the costumes required during the run of the show. You needed to be a jack of all trades in this small shop; wig maintenance, shoe repair, hat reshaping, hairstylist, always ready with a safety pin or a glue gun. Because I was pretty good at sewing I was allowed to help make the costumes prior to the show as well.

This was the real deal. The shop was run by a designer who drew what all the costumes would be and when we didn’t have something suitable in storage, we would build it from scratch. No Butterick or McCall’s patterns here, we would make patterns with muslin based on her specifications. We had several dressmaker’s dummies and an industrial strength iron and steamer, six or seven fancy Swiss sewing machines, a serger, two big padded and muslin covered tables around which several graduate students spent their days hunched over sewing costumes. If you were in the Master’s program, you had to do a practicum and you could choose building the sets, working in the costume shop, or doing dramaturgy. The set guys were pretty nice but the boss, not so much. The costume shop was definitely the life of the party.

I loved my job. I was good at it too. I took it seriously, unlike most of the other work-study students, most of whom only lasted a semester, a year at most, and were flaky and just didn’t think they really had to do anything. Maybe because I had once harbored dreams of being the one on stage, I felt you had better make damn sure everything was ready before the show and the costumes were all set up back stage because how shitty would it be to come flying off the stage and have less than a minute to get changed and back out there without help or without everything set up just so. I would set up the dresses so all the actresses would have to do is run off, I’d unzip/snap/button the dress they had on, they’d step into the next outfit, lying open in a circle on the floor, then I’d pull it up around them and zip them into the new dress. New shoes at the ready, hat, gloves, accessories, 1, 2, 3. Boom. Back out there. During a show’s run, I could easily rack up 50 hours of work each week.

The costume shop was my turf. When I walked across campus it was a toss-up whether I’d be ignored or laughed at by the other students but in the costume shop, I ruled. I had the key. I’d get there and open up before anyone else, then the actors would come in and be thrilled to see me. We’d talk, tell stories, and laugh. There was music and people and we were young and alive. To have a place where I was accepted and respected, by people who were way cooler than the big-hair/mullet crowd, made those three years tolerable. There were perks too. I never paid for doing my own laundry once I started working there because I had access to our private machines in the basement of the theater building. I scored some signature pieces of clothing, and found out where to buy my beloved shoes. I learned how to alter clothes and how to make fake blood.

When I left campus 25 years ago, I was relieved to be done with that place and haven’t missed it once since then. But I still keep the costume shop close to my heart.

#WhereILivedWednesday is a meme started and hosted by Ann Imig of Ann’s Rants. Please check out her site for other stories.

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4 comments

  1. I love this. You brought me right back to our university costume shop. I still cannot believe my good fortune at getting to wear those gorgeous hand-made and specifically designed for me gowns. All actors had to take stagecraft hours, so it took the diva out of most anyone. Yeay theater people!!

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    1. I read your tweet about spell check changing unitard to unicorn and wondered if it would appear in your #WhereILivedWednesday! We did a big musical each spring – Pippin one year, Sweeney Todd (that’s how I know how to make fake blood) another, and My Fair Lady. Keeping all those hats for Ascot looking new for three weeks in a tiny shop was not easy!

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  2. Love this description and your recollection of the shop. My middle brother (the one in NYC) was the theater person, and I saw a lot of camaraderie among the cast and crew. I can easily imagine you in that role, did you keep in touch with anyone from college?
    I had a mediocre college experience so I get what you’re saying, although I don’t tend to tell very many people that. Did you feel pressure to enjoy college or find it to be the most stimulating experience of your life?

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    1. I am friends on FB with one guy who also worked as a dresser during our senior year. Otherwise no, this all having been in the pre-internet years, I lost touch with them all.

      If I felt pressure for college to be awesome it was completely self-inflicted. I’d been to visit my older sisters at their schools and thought it was fabulous so when my school turned out not to be, I felt cheated.

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