Costumers, Costume Designers & the Unions: An Historical Event (A brief look at the history of the costume unions in the United States

On this last April 28th, 1999, I was doing little Snoopy dances, mentally and literally. What was the occasion? Well, something had happened that I thought I wouldn't live long enough to see. What was this, that is so important to me that I would be doing Snoopy dances over it? Well, like many things in my life, the answer takes elements from many areas. Ultimately, it all zero's in on my desire to be able to make a living working as a costumer.

So what was it that happened on April 28th? I received the following email:
Subject: 829 update/ballot count is in !!!!!!
Date: Tues, 27 Apr 1999 13:37:39 -0400
From: David Goodman <>

well the only thing I can say is we have made history here!!!! the ballot count is as follows:

1929   FOR
23     Against
pretty incredible.

thank you all for the incredible show of support for this!!!!


USA 829 is the United Scenic Artists Union Local 829. David Goodman is the Business Agent for the South East region office of the USA based in Florida. He also is the webmaster for the USA website:

The ballot was over the issue of whether the United Scenic Artist Union Local 829 would withdraw its membership affiliation from the IBPAT (International Brotherhood of Painters and Allied Trades) and join a new affiliation with the IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts).

Sooo....???? you say. What's such a big deal about that.

Oh my. Where to start to explain how very important this is to all costumers. How this has removed what was an almost insurmountable obstacle that has been impeding our need to find a way to ensure that we will be able to make a reasonable living practicing our craft?

Flash back:
The moment I stepped away from the safe surround of educational theatre it became clear that I needed to belong to the United Scenic Artist's Union if I wanted to be able to pursue my career as a designer and make a living at the same time. Anyone who dismisses the performing arts unions as unnecessary political hokum has never tried to make a living as a freelance artist in their field.

All those things that are good about a working environment for the performing arts:
  • decent pay scale
  • benefits
  • decent hours
  • safe working condition

were hard won by the unions in the past. Good conditions found in non-union productions are there because unions have set the current standards. Constantly recurring circumstances in non-union productions indicate that, without the unions, working conditions will quickly revert back to those found prior to unions raising the standards. The constant recurrence of state legislature propositions for changing the laws regulating the length of the standard work day, work week, when one qualifies for overtime etc. makes it clear that vigilance is needed constantly to prevent the loss of the regulations currently in place that make a career in film, TV, or stage production survivable.

Some personal perspective:
I spent the first 11 years of my working career working in educational theatre. Knowing I had a guaranteed income and didn't have to go out and scrounge for my next show freed me up to concentrate on more important things like my personal growth as a costume designer and costume maker and on developing new skills and methodology. And.... I love teaching. It's the greatest high going.

The down side of educational theatre had several aspects:
  • Very limited budgets.
  • Rather limited resources for materials.
  • Limited resources for talent to execute the designs.
  • Costumers are traditionally the lowest paid member of the faculty and staff.
  • Theatre Arts Faculty are some of the lowest paid positions on campus.
  • Pay scale in state universities for people in the fine arts areas is rarely more than 3 steps above the poverty level for the geographic location of the university.
  • Ex-students who had gone Hollywood were making over $15 an hour (well that was back when gasoline cost 49 cents a gallon, while my time/payrate worked out to be more like 50 cents and hour).
  • I worked twice as hard on weekends and holidays.
  • When I left home in the morning, I had to bring enough food with me to last until I went home around midnight.
  • By the third production of Hamlet and the fourth production of 12th Night, some of the excitement over new challenges began to be lost. Kind of "oh, no, not again".

When I went to Hollywood, I started as a cutter/fitter (pattern maker) at Universal Studios assigned to Edith Head. I started a $17.95 an hour. At 10 am and 3 pm everyone stopped working for 15 minutes and rested, ate a snack, went to the restroom or whatever. At 12:30 pm, everyone stopped working and had lunch. None of the eating-while you-work stuff of educational or regional theatre. The first time we were going to work past 5:30, the assistant dept. manager came around at 4:30 and asked us what were would like to eat for supper. It was delivered to us at 6 pm. We stopped and ate. They paid for the meal!!! It was a very good steak dinner!!! After 5:30 I was paid "time and a half", or $26.92 and hour. When I worked on a Saturday I got paid double time. If I worked over 12 hours in a day, I got paid triple time for the hours past 12 hours. (Money was being paid into a pension fund for me. I was collecting pay equivalent to 2 weeks vacation a year. I was qualified for one of the best health care packages in the United States.)

In order to be able to have this job, I joined the Motion Picture Costumers Union, Local 705. This union represented all costumers employed in the Film and TV business in Los Angeles. This includes all film productions who's business office is based in Los Angeles County. There are 3 contracts held by Local 705:
  • Film (Divided into 2 groups: Finished Costumers and Custom Made Costumers)
  • Television
  • Costume House (Divided into 2 groups: Finished Costumers and Custom Made Costumers)

At that time I was a member in the Custom Made Division under the Film contract. Later I transferred to the Finished Division under the Film contract. (This is a subject for an article in itself: the pros and cons of the division of labor.) As an important side comment, I need to point out that, in the relative payscales for the "crafts" unions in the film industry, the costumers are next to the lowest. Back in the 1950's when the IATSE had their big "showdown" strike with the Film Producers, the makeup artists and the costumers were in the same local. The costumers "chickened-out", broke down and accepted an offer from the producers. The makeup artists held out one more week, and forever after their minimum rate has been at least $10 an hour more than the costumers' rate.

On the other side of things, I am also a member of the United Scenic Artists Union as a Costume Designer, which had a local in Los Angeles County. And on still another side, there was (and still is) the Costumer Designers Guild, Local 892. If you want to do costume design for film based out of Los Angeles, you have to belong to Local 892. If you want to design for Stage, you have to belong to USA. (Ironically, if you want to design for Film in New York City, you have to belong to USA.)

Also, in Los Angles County, if I wanted to work for stage productions a part of the wardrobe crew, I needed to join the Theatrical Wardrobe Attendants Union, IATSE Local 786. There is an uneasy truce between the locals. The members of each nervously eyeing the members of the others as potential competition for a job.

(Are you starting to see what's wrong here?)

So of course, not being one to quietly accept an absurd state of affairs when I found myself trapped in one, I started to raise the question:

Why, in order to take jobs in all these different venues, should I have to belong to all these different locals. After all, I brought the same set of skills with me to each job. Not only are the original membership fees for each local quite expensive, but the yearly dues are nothing to be sneezed at. Working in a business where jobs are short term, where time and effort is spent looking for the next job with weeks or months between jobs, maintaining dues in all these locals is an overwhelming task.

So I asked/stated/queried:
Why don't all these locals merge. People can "test" to belong to the divisions they want to belong to. They can work in whatever division they want to at any given time, but only in one division at a time. (i.e.. they can't be hired to do the job of 2 different positions at the same time.) And, most of all, why on earth aren't the United Scenic Artist and the Costume Designers Guild one and the same? Why don't they merge or something? This doesn't make sense. Instead of helping me, they are preventing me from being able to use my skills freely to make a living. If this is happening to me, it must be happening to a lot of my fellow costumers.

AND I was told:
There is no way that any merger can ever even begin to be considered between the United Scenic Artists and any of the other locals because the Film Locals and the Theatrical Wardrobe Attendants Locals are IATSE Union affiliates and the United Scenic Artists are part of the IBPAT Union. The IBPAT will never let the USA leave. The USA is worth too much money to the IBPAT in terms of assets and income. They will never let them go. Forget it.

In 1897, the A.F.L. insisted that I.A.T.S.E. (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) rescind their charter to scenic artists due to a jurisdictional dispute with the Brotherhood of Painters, Decorators and Paperhangers (they claimed that scenic artists crafts skills were their members' craft skills = faux marbling, wood, mural painting etc.) The A.F.L. supported the paintersŐ claim to the scenic artists. The scenic artists objected to an affiliation with the Brotherhood of Painters, maintaining that their natural affiliation was with the Theatrical Employees. 14 years passed with no formal scenic artists organization. Then on September 20, 1912, they formed the independent United Scenic Artists Association of America. Requests to the A.F.L. to consider a separate charter of re-affiliation with the I.A.T.S.E. were denied. The USAA voted to accept a charter from the Brotherhood of Painters with the stipulation that the scenic artists would retain full autonomy over the same classes of work which had been their jurisdiction previous to the affiliation. On June 24, 1918, The United Scenic Artist Association became United Scenic Artists, Local 829.

The first legal attempt by the USA to get out of IPBAT and back into the stagehand union (I.A.T.S.E.) was in 1919. Unfortunately, the politics were such that the stagehand union wasn't willing to fight for the cause and the IPBAT used every strong-arm tactic to prevent it. Off and on ever since there have been movements to try again. Each met with failure.

It has recently happened that the generational turnover that has been affecting all the unions in the United States brought together a set of circumstances that make the affiliation change suddenly click.

The USA had recently been through an upstreperous campaign and administration turnover in their last major election. The new administration is progressive in their thinking. In the recent past, the USA had restructured itself from being separate locals based in different major cities to being one national local with regional offices in major cities.

The IATSE acquired new generation administration with the election of Tommy Short to Presidency in 1995. Tommy Short made the recognition of the national and international basis to which the performing arts had evolved over the years one of his major issues to deal with. For instance, in an effort to try to make it more difficult for movies to be shot outside of Hollywood using non-union crews, he convinced the Camera local to turn itself into a national local.

A new generation of IPBAT administration have been trying to deal with the current state of the building industry in an equally aggressive manner. They have made many very positive changes in their organization and policies. Unfortunately, these changes, crafted to reflect the contemporary building trades, do not reflect what the issues of the contemporary entertainment industry. Then, this last year, in violation of the original full autonomy stipulation agreement in the charter, IPBAT suddenly started to make demands on the USA.

  1. USA must be an open union and must take in anybody who wanted join.

  2. USA could not have an "examination" as a criterion for membership and couldn't charge a large initiation fee.
    (The USA union members feel that it is important to have the examination to make sure all their members meet the standards of a working professional. Only by creating a circumstance where the Union Membership serves as a certification of quality can the Union members ensure that employers will hire union members rather than someone untried off the street who will work for the perceived glory and practically no pay.)

  3. USA needed to move their main office to Washington DC where the IPBAT headquarters are.

  4. IPBAT did not show up to aid in the floundering Broadway contract negotiations.

2. In contrast, the new generation at IATSE jumped into the Broadway negotiation and backed up the USA and forced the deal.

  1. When the subject of the USA's desire to leave the IBPAT and affiliate with the IATSE came up, the IATSE representatives said they were willing to deal with whatever penalties the AFL/CIO might want to impose, if indeed the IPBAT could prevail in the claim that the IATSE broke federal law by "raiding" a local.

  2. Said they would make it financially possible for the USA to leave IPBAT by giving them a no-interest loan of the amount of "assets" they would have to "abandon" to the IPBAT. The Loan pay-back would be postponed until the USA had built their "asset holdings" back up.

  3. IATSE would postpone per capita payments until the "asset holdings" were built back up.

  4. IATSE would help with the legal expenses of the legal battles with IPBAT by "loaning" them the IATSE lawyers.

For the IATSE administration to make offer of these terms was very daring and potentially dangerous. United States Labor law makes it highly illegal for one Union to "raid" members from another. To ensure that this doesn't happen, the law says that, if a local wants to disassociate from a parent union, they have to withdraw and then wait three years before they affiliate with another. Additionally, the original parent union gets to keep all the financial assets of the local that leaves. This essentially means that, when a local leaves they loose all their operation capitol that pays for the running of the office and its administration. The potential was there for some labor judge or the labor department, or the ultimate parent organization, the AFofL/CIO to penalize IATSE severely.

The overwhelming vote by the membership of the USA to leave IBPAT and join IATSE, along with the wisely crafted presentation to the court by the lawyers seems to have prevented any charges from being brought against the IATSE. We are still holding our breath to see if the IBPAT may stubbornly persist in a legal pursuit of the issue. The ruling of the court, thus far, has been that they don't have a leg to stand on.

Now the first big obstacle to solving the union absurdities for costumers is gone!!!!

Yes. There is a long way to go still. There is generations of thinking and ways of doing that were developed in different times for different people. It is going to require a big change in thinking for a broad range of organizations, their administrations and their members.

Let's take a look at from a new angle:
For centuries making clothes was an assumed womanly skill. (No woman was a "good" woman unless she could make clothing, as well as cook, keep the house clean, care for the garden, chickens, whatever, have lots of babies and raise them, manage the household budget and staff, if she had one. Any woman of "good taste" could design attractive clothing. Little girls began to learn needle skills almost before they were big enough to handle a broom. Since this was an assumed skill, women "dress makers" were usually paid on the same payscale as the maid. Ironically, men's tailors were paid on the level of a skilled tradesman. There has always been the traditional notion that anyone with taste can be a good clothing designer. So we are fighting a worldwide millenium-old cultural tradition that "dress makers" are not paid on a high pay scale.

Prior to the 1920's, theatrical crafts people traditionally learned through apprenticeship. They developed their range of skills over years of on the job training. This lead to specialization in either design or costume making, but rarely both.

With the development of university theatrical training programs, we have evolved to these skills being taught within a structured, well rounded training program. These programs adhere to the understanding that a good designer needs to understand the technical and structural aspects of the media they are designing in and that the technician is an interpretive artist who needs to know enough about design to understand the artistic needs of the designs in order to successfully realize the costumes they are creating.

Due to this current format of training we now have a fairly sizable population of costume designers who are also strong costume makers and vice versa. Additionally, these artisans and artists are college graduates, many hold MFA degrees, which are considered, in academic circles, to be "terminal degrees" in their field, of similar standing to a doctorate in more information-oriented subjects. These people have every right to expect to be able to make a living at pay levels similar to another professional college graduate. It is worth noting that the personal characteristics of a successful costumer in terms of intelligence, problem solving ability, creativity, management abilities and leadership abilities are such that, if they were so motivated, they are capable of running a large country.

We are probably all aware of contemporary college graduates who assume that their starting position in a business will be around $38,000 to $40,000 a year with the usual benefit package. Watching the current spate of Costume Shop manager positions, very few of them are for as high as $28,000. And "they" are wondering why they are having a difficult time filling the positions. What? People aren't beating down their doors for those jobs? What? We're having a difficult time interesting new people in going into this field for a living?

Let's look at this from yet another angle:

Costume makers are the people who are keeping the artform of clothing alive. Industrialization, the high cost of labor, and the shift of the apparel industry to mass production means that many of the most beautiful technical aspects of clothing making are no longer practiced. Additionally, costume making is one of the areas where the artform of clothing making is being constantly stretched and furthered, looking for new ways to express itself.

To use an awkward metaphor:

Clothing design for the mass production industry requires knowledge and skill on the level of a community college 2 year certificate.

Clothing design for the Designer Label level of the garment industry requires knowledge and skill on the level of a college graduate with an BA.

Good Costume Design requires a knowledge and skill level equivalent to a Doctoral Degree.

One of the ironies in relation to the sad state of the costumer in the professional work field is that there are some very interesting social phenomenon currently expressing themselves.

First, there is the tremendous growth of the number of people actively involved in historical reconstruction and fantasy/si-fi costume groups.

Second, there is the development of clothing into a high-end collectable art form, one that is now handled by the major art auction and sales houses. These sales also include "theatrical" costumes.

In light of the market value now being placed on these collectable garments which include construction techniques which are, for them most part, only being continued to be taught and practiced in costume making, it seems odd that more value is not being placed on the people who have these skills.

How does all of the above ultimately relate to us, now, in the present? Just what am I getting at?

O.K. Here's the deal:
As long as we continue to allow ourselves to be separated and isolated by the different business structures that hire us, as long as we are further separated and sometime pitted against one another, by the different unions and locals that have jurisdiction over our various work venues, we will continue to be kept on the lowest end of the pay scale. As long as we continue to be separated within our unions, the scene designers and builders will continue to be paid at a considerably higher rate than we are. (Another sore issue that warrants an article.)

Costumers are by nature people who would prefer to make costumes over any other endeavor, even if they aren't paid for it. Just enough costumers manage to have mates who provide the household with sufficient income that they can afford to work for unfairly low wages. (I've even worked with some costumers who's mates were supportive of their "costume making hobby" until they started to be paid for it. They didn't want their wife to "work".)

We costumers who regard ourselves as working, career costumers urgently band together in a professional organization that provides the roar of our voices in unison. Through the auspices of the USITT (United States Institute for Theatre Technology) and it's Costume Commission, costumers from all work venues are coming together at events sponsored by the Costume Commission. This provides the opportunity for exploration of a way to implement such an alliance. It provides a venue within which discussion of a new way of looking at how a union could be organized to truly reflect the nature of the contemporary costumers, the flexibility of their skills and the need to have the union facilitate one's working, not hinder it. AND... the need for a realistic wage scale and benefits.

Now that the United Scenic Artist's Union is back in the IATSE, such a discussion is no longer legally a waste of time and effort. Now we can really talk about this.


© 2004 Stephanie Schoelzel