Imagine Strictly Ballroom, The Dressmaker, or Priscilla Queen of the Desert without the costumes – Australian costume designers are seeking recognition and pay parity for their creative contribution to the screen industry.
Before an actor begins to speak, it is the costume that defines their character. Long after the film ends, the costume design leaves a lasting impression. Costume design is how the audience remembers characters and how film and television become cemented in memory.
Nevertheless, costume designers do not receive any royalties on their designs when characters are merchandised. Even when pictures of characters appear in the media, the costume designers remain unknown.
Conceived by the Costume Guild of America, the Naked Without Us campaign is a way for costume designers to improve conditions, gain recognition for their craft and educate the public on their work. High profile actors including Helen Mirren, Michael Douglas and Natalie Portman have thrown their weight behind the campaign, as they have spent hours in dressing rooms with costume designers and rely on them to not only ensure the costume is functional, but portrays their character accurately.
Historically, costume has been seen as a female profession and with that has come the gendered pay gap. The costume designer position requires a multitude of skills, particularly the ability to transform the text of the script to a tangible, tactile and convincing representation of the character and the character’s history.
The outdated term ‘wardrobe’ implies that costume designers simply open a wardrobe and costumes magically appear. This domesticates their art, devaluing the entire costume department and their contribution to film and television.
The reality for major films is that costume departments can reach the hundreds. The department is led by the costume designer who creates the designs and is supported by the costume supervisor who oversees the team. Even a small costume department includes a dozen workers. There are those who specialise in textiles or buying and those who have specialties such as milliners, shoemakers, cutters and stitchers – and that’s before they even reach the set.
Supported by the Australian Production Design Guild (APDG), costume designers have recently met with screen industry bodies to improve conditions for themselves and the entire costume department.
Australian costume designers are calling on industry and audiences to stand with them in solidarity, by learning more about costume design and the costume department, and spreading the word.