Background Costuming

Most people begin their costume career day playing with background. That’s after a show or two as a PA. 

To be a successful PA you learn when you call time comes you need to be at your station ready to work. As the Teamsters say, if you’re early you’re on time. If you’re on time, you’re late. If you’re late, you’re fired. Also, at this stage in a career arguments cannot be won even if you are right. Another old saying is be careful who’s butt you kick on the way up because you probably are going to have to kiss it on the way down. You should have also learned to finish any assignment given, even if you are given more than one at a time.

Not everyone starts out as a PA. I mention that job to illustrate if you don’t have a solid work ethic, you won’t be in the film industry long enough to acquire one. The general rule is PAs can’t touch cloth. When you are handling costumes, you are a costumer.

If the project you are hired for is period, there are usually prefits before shooting day.

It depends on the show, but you are expected to be able to have a conversation with the designer or supervisor about show fashion rules and numbers. You should then be able to pull from stock a selection for the prefits to come. There are a couple of basic rules you need to know that no one will tell you until you break them. We always hang clothes facing left and we go from left to right, small to large, we put like stuff together, that kind of thing. We refer to that as protocol.

You might be called upon to unload boxes from rental houses or such. There should always be some kind of inventory to compare with the contents. After you check the condition the clothes are filtered into stock by size. What that means is you should be able to walk into any costume warehouse and figure out where anything is fairly soon. All the men’s jeans will be in the same place with the smallest pair hanging all the way on the left, for instance. 

When the background artists come in for a fitting, a costumer is usually given fifteen minutes to get them in a costume. Realistically that means dressing two at the same time. Once you hurry through the fitting, take pictures and tag alterations. That tag will have the name of the actor, scene number and date working, a tag on the costume that a part of it is in alterations, then the alteration to the seamstress. The rest of the costume must be bagged and tagged. The tag on the costume will have the actor’s name, scene the costume works in and the date of filming.

Garment bags are not always used, but they are helpful if items fall off a hanger in transport. The tag will always have the actors name, the scene number, inventory and any description of specialty items. Before the costumes are loaded for transport, alterations from the sewing shop should be filtered back in. The costumes are then hung on a rack for transport, sorted usually male/female alphabetically by scene. The supervisor is nearly always going to ask for some stock to be pulled and sent to set to dress someone “on the day”.

In addition to some stock clothes, a set kit should be put together, like top stick, steamer, sewing kit, scissors, pens, sharpies, extra tags, laundry bags, hangers and such. There should also be bungies and/or straps to tie down the load. When it comes time to unload we usually set up in extras holding with hair and makeup. We have to set up in an organized way that leaves others to work. There should also be changing rooms for men and women, boys and girls as needed. A table and chair to check in the BG is needed. Everything should be clearly labeled.

Most of what you need to know for the day of filming will be on the call sheet. Your call time plus the arrival time of all the background, which may be spread out over the day. There also may be notes for costumes. It’s also a great cheat sheet for everybody’s name.

You will probably get your introduction to radios at this point. As a general rule, departments get their own channels. Transportation is usually on channel three, for instance. Costumes lives on channel one with production. As you listen, it will be hard to follow until the lexicon is picked up. What you are listening for is your name being called, and it will usually be followed by your department, like “Name, background costumes.” When you hear your name, you should respond along the lines of “Name here, going to two.” Then you switch to channel two (usually) to have a conversation without taking up the 1st AD’s time. It will take a show or two before you feel comfortable on the radio.

Before an actor wears a costume for filming a scene, a costumer prepares it to look it’s best. Every show has different needs from costumes and every costume will need each item prepped before it is ready to set.

The effort is for the actor to have nothing to do but step in the clothes. All the tags should be removed, wrinkles gone, smelling as neutral as possible, any matching ageing done, and what ever else is called for by the script. As much as possible, when the actor steps out of the van at set, they should be picture ready. As the scene is shot, they have to be kept picture ready.

Unfortunatly a steamer is not going to be able to do all the work all the time. The script is what determines the steps of prep. There have been times when I’ve wadded up shirts and placed them under weight to get wrinkles. Even pressing a dress shirt- is the character a crease kind of person? A costumer has to know what the designer is expecting to get the prep right.

As you prep a garment, treat it like the whole thing will be seen. A jacket might be removed in a scene, for instance. You should look for any imperfection or stains as you get the garment ready to set.

The first step in prepping a garment is to read the label. Labels may list “man made material” or something just as nondescript, but it gives an idea of the material and cleaning instructions. There is a proper way to iron a shirt and you may need to iron a suit. You also have to know things like silk does not react to steam and don’t throw a wool sweater in the dryer. It takes paying attention to know the different fabrics and how they react.

Most well made hats can be reshaped with steam but it takes a practiced hand. Steam can also destroy cheap hats. Shoes may need to be polished and shined. Any Marine will tell you they don’t play with Dress Blues because that’s what they are buried in. A scuff on the shoe is a demerit in that world. Leather in general can be problematic. Some cleaners are available, but a real mess has to be sent off and it is not an overnight turnaround.

It is always a good idea to costume provide cover for lunch. That usually involves a large button front shirt so the actor doesn’t have to pull it over hair or makeup. Problem is when it’s not mealtime, there is always craft service. Or maybe makeup un the collar. You never know when, but messes are coming.

When it comes to getting a stain out, the rule of thumb is start with whatever does the least amount of damage to the material. That usually means water, but not always. There are a host of stain removers and websites dealing with cleaning up wardrobe messes.

You will find over time which are your favorite cleaners to have on set, but sometimes it’s bad enough to think of it as making another stain that just matches better.

Sometimes a costume will require a hand steamer on set. It takes knowing the costume to make sure the proper tool is handy to be ready for filming. This should be become clear during the start of day prep.

Fabrics are changing in all kinds of ways and companies put all kinds of chemicals in cloth. A costumer has to know how to make it all look good.

When the background artists arrive, you should be there to greet them and it’s a good idea not to stray too far away. If it a show of prefits, pass out their costumes, usually trading it for a voucher. If it’s contemporary and they come as is, chose between the three outfits they should have been asked to bring. When the background are called to set, you go too. At the end of the day, you collect the costume and hang it back up in place or break it down for cleaning.

As far as being on set, set protocol is the hardest thing to learn. My advice is if it does not involve background costuming, you shouldn’t express an opinion. Just watch and learn. Otherwise, you just have to try to keep the BG in continuity and take pictures to post. It’s a good idea to treat featured BG like principles. How exactly that’s done depends on the program the supervisor likes to use.

If you are invited to wrap the picture, it’s a matter of separating items into like racks by rental house and purchases, principles broken out differently. Sometimes featured BG will be kept, but most of the time BG goes into stock. After the rentals have been collected and sorted, replacements can be pulled from stock. When it comes to rentals, the costumes need to be carefully boxed with each box having a packing inventory inside and on the outside. If there is a large stock of purchases left over, the supervisor will tell you what to do with the clothes.

© 2017 by K. DREW FULLER. All rights reserved and nothing can be copied or republished without writer's explicit consent

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