A production with a small cast of a dozen or fewer is no great undertaking for the costume department, but when performers number several dozen or in the hundreds, a small army of costume dressers is employed to get bodies into garments and back onstage with impressive speed.
Brought on board during rehearsal, costume dressers are assigned a specific show track that includes a roster of cast members to dress and changes to perform during each show. It is each dresser’s responsibility to learn the show by watching rehearsal and reading the script so as never to miss a cue. Dressers practice quick changes with actors in preparation for opening night and work out a precise routine for transitioning from one look to the next. These technicians are also tasked with organizing costume racks in the dressing room and identifying each piece with the character’s name, scene, and act number. Often stage costumes are worn in many layers or specifically constructed to be quickly put on and stripped off again; the dresser and performer work out each step, beginning with the microphone harness and then adding each additional article of clothing.
For costume changes that happen during the show, the dressers lay out pieces in designated changing areas (in the wings, or behind the set when necessary) and are standing by to quickly help the actor out and back into their garments. The costume dresser is often the last person to get a good look at actors before they take the stage, and theatrical lighting shows every tiny flaw, so dressers must have a keen attention to detail; they look for torn hosiery, smudged eyeliner, and crooked wigs. Inevitably, these technicians will need to perform emergency surgery on zippers and seams, employing speedy skill and ingenuity to creatively solve any costume crisis. At the end of the night, dressers gather garments for laundering and dry-cleaning and prep the racks for the next day’s show. Call time for technicians is at least one hour before show, but the costume department may be asked to arrive three or four hours prior to curtain.
Skills & Education
A college degree in theatrical production with a concentration in costuming is recommended, though not a universal requirement. However, if you intend to parlay this entry-level position into future work as a costume designer, a formal education is necessary. You should be trained in garment construction, be proficient in both hand and machine sewing, and understand standard stitching techniques. Costumes often include unusual or delicate fabrics, dyes, and decorations, so knowing how to care for and clean these materials is important. This job is a good fit for compulsive organizers with great attention to detail.
What to Expect
Every costume dresser needs an emergency kit compiled to respond to any mid-show crisis: This includes replacement zippers, scissors, buttons, needles and thread, as well as glue, double-stick tape, safety pins, a multi-tool, and pliers. Seasoned dressers have hefty toolboxes with myriad miscellaneous items collected to tend to common problems in uncommon ways. Over time, you will run into enough puzzles to learn the tricks of the trade and expand your own kit through trial and error. This is an entry-level position and a great way to get your feet wet at a new theater or stage production company; you may want to start by volunteering your services. Either way, it’s a chance to gain experience and make contacts. If you’re hard-working and dependable, you might be offered a paying gig. Opportunities are available not just in theater but also on touring shows and concerts, as well as at theme parks or on cruise ships.
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