Upon opening night of a theatrical production, the costume designer’s work is done and the wardrobe supervisor assumes the role of wardrobe department head. He or she is hired by the company manager to oversee costume dressers and day workers, and to ensure continued quality of all garments that appear on stage.
Among the wardrobe supervisor’s many responsibilities are supervising costume repairs and laundering, pre-show prep, in-show quick changes, post-show cleanup, and managing administrative tasks associated with his or her department. This person will interview and hire costume dressers and day workers, and will be tasked with approving schedules and time sheets for the crew in cooperation with the stage manager. He or she will also assign show tracks (specific tasks carried out during each performance) to the crew of dressers. This all may sound easy enough, but in fact the wardrobe supervisor is one of the hardest-working members of the stage crew.
A typical day will start around noon for an evening performance. First on the list of tasks is to check in with the stage manager to address any notes or concerns from the previous night. The supervisor then meets with the day workers to evaluate repairs made to damaged garments and ensure that any required replacements have arrived. Next, he or she tracks down vendors to order additional supplies, check on the status of shipments, get quotes for new replacement costumes, etc. By this time, the costume dressers have arrived and are in the midst of pre-setting racks of clothes in the cast’s dressing rooms. The wardrobe supervisor will follow behind his or her crew to see that all costumes are properly placed, and notify the stage manager when all wardrobe is set.
Inevitably, as actors and dancers begin wiggling into their first-act looks, a cast member will burst a button or tear a seam. Emergency repairs may be underway when the stage manager informs the wardrobe supervisor of last-minutes changes in the lineup. An understudy must quickly be fitted for the costume and temporary alterations made. With little time to spare, the wardrobe department must get every character out on stage for the curtain rise. During the show, the wardrobe supervisor will participate in dressing cast for quick changes and will triage damage repairs that spill off backstage.
Skills & Education
Expert-level skills at machine and hand sewing are required, and additional knowledge of knitting, embroidery, and garment construction techniques are expected. A college degree in theatrical design with an emphasis on costume design is recommended, as a wardrobe supervisor should have a firm understanding of costuming, but also the broader range of crafts within theatrical production. Formal training from a trade school in costume design or fashion is also applicable to this career. Courses in fine art, pattern-cutting, jewelry-making, millinery, and similar arts are encouraged; this career requires an individual who is well-rounded, with diverse interests. It’s assumed that a wardrobe supervisor will have studied theater history and be familiar with the work of various costume designers.
What to Expect
Wardrobe supervisors may work as freelancers on contract to one production at a time, or may be permanent employees of a resident theatrical production company. Opportunities exist on Broadway and off-Broadway productions, as well as with touring productions, concerts, opera, ballet, or regional theaters. Theatrical wardrobe supervisors are also qualified to work in a similar capacity on television and film productions. As this is a senior-level role, experience as a costume dresser, wardrobe day worker, or assistant to a wardrobe supervisor is required. Previous employment at a production costume shop as a seamstress, tailor, pattern-maker, or in a related capacity is valuable. Participating in college shows or volunteering with local community theaters in the wardrobe department is an excellent first step toward professional employment in theatrical costuming. Wardrobe supervisors are eligible to become members of IATSE, the union representing technicians and artists in theater, film, and television.
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