labricoleuse: (history)
We've begun fielding phone calls and emails from prospective applicants to our graduate program for Fall 2014, and it reminds me that I ought to make my yearly round of links to my prior posts on applying to graduate school!

If you are considering graduate school in your future, now is a good time to contact the program directors at the various schools to which you intend to apply.

I have made a number of posts on topics related specifically to the pursuit of graduate study in professional costume careers. Look over this link list and see whether any of them address questions you might have. And, if you have questions not addressed by any of the prior posts, please ask in the comments! I'll do my best to answer whatever you want to know!

labricoleuse: (design)
I'm knee deep in tech rehearsals on the two Shakespeare repertory shows right now, so today i've got a fortuitous guest post by my friend Trystan, who works as a writer/editor at Yahoo! by day and a historical costumer by nights-and-weekends. She originally wrote this piece aimed at an audience of reenactment costumers and bloggers who write about costume in general (from historical to modern cinema costume analysis). I knew when i read it that it'd be a great post for La Bricoleuse as well, since much of Trystan's information is also applicable to those working in costume production for theatre and film as well, particularly in terms of developing a digital portfolio or publishing about one's processes.

An Introduction to Copyright for Bloggers, Especially Costume Bloggers

By Trystan L. Bass

Notes and Caveats: This is written based on my nearly 20 years of professional experience writing and editing on the Web. For the last decade, I've been an editor in the central editorial department of Yahoo!, and before that, I worked in similar capacities at a digital music startup and an alternative newspaper. Dealing with copyright issues has been an important part of my career. However, I am not a lawyer, and nothing I say here should be construed as legal advice. Nor does this article necessarily reflect the views of my employer, past or present. But I will try to cite my sources while providing an overview of the most important information bloggers need to know about copyright. Note also that I'll be addressing issues of United States copyright law, because international regulations are outside my experience.

Here are the three most common myths about copyright, as noted in the Yahoo! Styleguide and seen all over the Internet:

  • The work is online, it's public, so I can copy it and use it however I like.

  • I can make a copy of any work I want to, as long as I provide credit to the work's creator.

  • If I don't see a copyright notice or © symbol, the work is in the public domain.

None of these are true! Read more to get the facts about copyright.

1. What is copyright?

Dictionary definition: "The legal right granted to an author, composer, playwright, publisher, or distributor to exclusive publication, production, sale, or distribution of a literary, musical, dramatic, or artistic work."

Legal definition from the U.S. Copyright Office (PDF): "A form of protection provided by the laws of the United States to the authors of "original works of authorship," including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. This protection is available to both published and unpublished works."

Trystan's definition: "I created it, so I own it, and you can't copy it without asking me for permission first."

Copyright serves to protect creators from having their stuff copied without permission. Who is a creator? Anyone can be. If you write, photograph, draw, paint, sing, design, sketch, sculpt, or otherwise make an original item, you may well be a creator covered by copyright. If you made it yourself, you are the copyright owner.

It can get tricky if the copyright owner is long dead. Who owns that copyright? It could be the creator's descendants, it could be a museum or library that owns the creator's items, it could be another creator who photographed or recorded the original work. It could be someone else entirely. You may have to ask to find out. Sometimes the item is so old that it's in the public domain, and then anyone can use that work without permission. But fewer things are in public domain than you think.

2. Why does copyright matter?

Because nobody enjoys getting ripped off! You wouldn't like it if some bitch used a photo of you in your amazing, perfect, gorgeous costume and said that was her and she made the whole thing, in 6 days and for $6 dollars, would you? No. Well, you'd be the bitch if others found out you used their images without permission.

No, it doesn't matter if "someone else" is a big, faceless museum or university or business. We like museums and universities and even businesses! They work hard to assemble fantastic online resources for us. They're doing a decent job, and that's worth a little respect.

3. What kind of stuff is covered by copyright?

Tons. In the U.S., copyright law protects "original works of authorship" and lists these broad categories of works as copyrightable:

  • Literary works (meaning most anything written)

  • Musical works and lyrics

  • Dramatic works, including music

  • Pantomimes and choreographic works

  • Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works (includes most any photos or drawings)

  • Motion pictures and other audiovisual works

  • Sound recordings

  • Architectural works and plans

Also, these works must be "fixed in a tangible form of expression." Meaning, there must be some written or recorded version of it. Pix or it didn't happen, as they say.

4. What isn't copyright-able?

You can't copyright vague stuff like ideas and concepts. You can't copyright basic things like procedures, processes, or instructions. So you couldn't copyright a sewing technique, but you could copyright a video you made of a sewing technique. Of course, if people watch that video and use the sewing technique, their use of the technique you demonstrated is not a copyright violation (but really people, give props to others for teaching you how to do something -- that's good manners!).

Utilitarian items can't be copyrighted. This includes stuff like as furniture, cars, household appliances, dinnerware, lamps, and clothing. Designs printed on these things or special features about these items might be copyrightable, if they can exist separately from the original item. You could copyright a fabric pattern, but not a dress. You could even copyright a photo of a dress, but not that dress. See #11 for more.

Also, names (whether band names or domain names), titles (including titles of books or movies), slogans (a la "Just do it"), and logos can't be copyrighted -- they can be trademarked, however, and that's a whole different kettle of fish.

Interestingly, typeface designs can't be copyrighted. Which is probably why we see so many wanna-be versions of popular movie, cartoon, and even branded fonts free for download.

5. Can I copyright my own stuff?

Yes, and if you've written a blog post, taken a photo of your costume, sketched a drawing of a gown in a museum, then *ta-da* you may have created a copyrighted item. Go you!

You don't have to register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office to "earn" a copyright. Anything you create is copyrighted to you immediately upon creation. Only if you think you'll need to defend your copyright in court (and want to earn damages from violators) would you need to register your copyrighted works first.

There is no requirement that you put a copyright notice on your copyrighted works. As I said, you automatically have a copyright. You don't have to put "copyright Trystan L. Bass 1999-2051 ©" or anything else on your blog or next to your all your photos.

However, adding copyright info is a nice little reminder to the thieves in the world that, yo, this is my stuff. Don't copy it, jerkface. The simplest form, which is recommended by the U.S. Copyright Office, is "© 2012 Trystan L. Bass."

Of course, you will find that many works out there are not registered and carry no copyright notice, but they are absolutely copyrighted. Just because a person can't sue you doesn't mean you're not a rotten person earning horrible karma if you steal their unregistered copyrighted works (generic "you," of course :-).

6. What is "public domain"?

A work that goes out of copyright goes into the "public domain." This typically happens at some point soon after the work's creator has died (the specific length of time varies depending on when and where the work was created, thanks to variations in copyright law), but sometimes a creator's estate or publisher could hold the copyright for longer (for example, the song "Happy Birthday to You"). Also, institutions might hold copyright to specific copies of works or the publication of those works. So it can be difficult to know what is truly in the public domain.

Generally, if the work was published in the U.S. before 1923 or published outside the U.S. before 1909, it's in the public domain. There are a few exceptions, but most works that are over 120 years old may be public domain For example, the works of William Shakespeare or Mozart and most pre-20th-century art are all public domain.

Derivative works of public domain works may be copyright, however. So movies such as "Shakespeare in Love" and "Amadeus" or art like Andy Warhol's version of the Mona Lisa can be copyrighted. Also, modern translations or new publications of ancient works may be copyrighted, even if the original item has long been in the public domain.

Sometimes access to public domain works is restricted -- Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel frescos are in the public domain, but the building is private property and the Vatican controls access. Photography is forbidden inside, so high-quality images have to be purchased from Vatican-approved publishers. Many museums operate this way to protect their investment in the artworks (see #9). This may seem sucky, but it's legal.

7. Isn't stuff online free to copy?

No, absolutely not! People might as well steal books from a public library. Someone had to pay for every single webpage you see on the Internet, and someone created every piece of text and every image you see online. Whether it's a costume photo on Facebook or a fashion plate on a museum website, all of them may well be copyrighted by somebody. So find out who owns it, and ask permission. Don't assume -- it makes an "ass" out of "u" and "me" (get it?).

8. Isn't it "fair use" to copy stuff, especially if I'm doing it for educational purposes?

The legal concept of "fair use" is both stricter and yet grayer than people realize. It's very easy to get in trouble copying for fair use, so don't let that become an excuse for using without permission.

The Copyright Act of 1976 has detailed criteria for determining fair use, which can frankly be contradictory, and cases have been decided in seemingly opposing ways. But it's important to remember that there is no specific amount of a work (no letter count or time limit or amount that has to be changed) that can be used without permission. And crediting the source is no legal substitute for getting permission either.

9. What about stuff in museums and on museum websites -- what's copyrighted?

Museums might not own the copyright to their holdings; it depends on the specific item and the museum. Modern artwork may still be under copyright of the original artist, for example. But earlier artwork may be in the public domain (see #6).

Of course, museums do hold the copyright on their own websites -- after all, they are the ones creating and maintaining them. So you don't want to go crazy copying from their sites, and you definitely want to give credit when you use a museum for your research.

But can you use images from a museum's website? Well … the Wikimedia Foundation cites the 1999 case of Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp. as the basis for its usage of photos of public domain art throughout the wiki. This case ruled that exact photographic copies of public domain art couldn't be copyrighted in and of themselves because they lack originality. Copyrighted material must be original, and an exact photo isn't. So, since exact photos of public domain art aren't copyrightable, these types of photos on a museum's website are not copyrighted. If the museum hasn't added text or otherwise altered the image, you're probably safe copying and reposting it.

Note that this would only apply to artwork, not displays such as clothing on a mannequin. The later is not an exact copy of public domain art. An item in a display case was carefully arranged and designed by the museum -- it's essentially an original piece of art. And a photo of a dress is an original artwork in and of itself (see #3). So the museum owns the copyright to that photo, and unless you have permission, you can't reproduce it.

As for taking photographs inside the museum, policies vary wildly from museum to museum. The blog Musematic has an insightful discussion about the topic from an insider's perspective. While paintings from, say, the 17th century may be in the public domain, museums believe they have the right to protect these images and even profit from them. At the very least, museums will require you to turn off the flash on your camera because this can damage items. If you are allowed to take photos, then you own the copyright to those images.

10. Can I scan pictures in books and put them online?

Scanning an artist's original artwork and putting that online would be the equivalent of ripping a musician's CD and uploading it to a peer-to-peer network so the world could download it (anyone remember the original Napster?). Don't go there. You would be illegally distributing someone else's copyrighted work.

However, scanning artwork that is clearly in the public domain is less problematic. If you are absolutely sure the art is in the public domain and the book's version of the artwork does not deviate from the original (for example, the author has not added an arrow pointing to a costume detail), then you're probably within rights to copy it and republish. See #9 for the Bridgeman Art Library v. Corell Corp. case about photos of public domain art.

If you have a book with an exact, unaltered photo of public domain art, scanning that and reproducing it is conceivably yet another exact copy, and thus not a copyright violation. Yay, something you can do!

11. Can I copyright my costumes?

Sorry, but costumes (and in fact, all clothing) are not subject to copyright. Remember how "utilitarian items" are not copyrightable in #4? Well, that's how the fashion industry survives with countless cheap, legal knock-offs of expensive brands at stores like Forever 21 and H&M. Designers can't copyright their clothing. No matter how ridiculous it looks, all clothing is considered utilitarian under the law. Same goes for costumes.

According to the U.S. Copyright Office Policy Decision, filed November 4, 1991, in the Federal Register (PDF): "Costumes will be treated as useful articles and will be registerable only upon a finding of separable artistic authorship." Furthermore: "The Copyright Office has generally refused to register claims to copyright the three-dimensional aspect of clothing or costume design on the ground that articles of clothing and costume are useful articles that ordinarily contain no artistic authorship separable from their overall utilitarian shape." Basically, if it still looks like a piece of clothing, it's not a separate piece of unique art that can be copyrighted. Whatevs.

And: "Garment designs (excluding separately identifiable pictorial representations of designs imposed upon the garment) will not be registered even if they contain ornamental features or are intended to be used as historical or period dress. Fanciful costumes will be treated as useful articles and will be registered only upon a finding of separately identifiable pictorial and/or sculptural authorship."

This reiterates previous statements that you can copyright a print or pattern (the "separately identifiable pictorial representations of designs imposed upon the garment") such as a fabric design, but not the garment itself.

The Copyright Office reiterates in this decision: "For purposes of copyright registration, fanciful costumes will be treated as useful articles. Costumes serve a dual purpose of clothing the body and portraying their appearance. Since clothing the body serves as a useful function, costumes fall within the literal definition of useful article."

Multiple court cases involving creators of Halloween costumes have denied the availability of copyright protection to costumes, for example, Whimsicality, Inc., v. Rubie's Costume Co. Inc., 1989, and Chosun Intl., Inc. v. Chrisha Creations, 2005. If mascot-style animal costumes like those described in these cases can't be copyrighted, your recreation of a 1776 French polonaise won't be either.

That said, don't be a copy-cat and make the same outfits as other costumers. It's not illegal, but it's pretty lame. Do you really want to be the Forever 21 of costumers? Nah, didn't think so.

12. What about posting movie screencaps and fandom type stuff?

A movie (or TV show) is copyrighted by the studio that produced it. Sorry, but you really shouldn't copy their work, even if in still image form. If you're writing a movie review, a small screencap is usually permissible under fair use (yes, that's an acceptable case, see #8), especially if it's from the film's preview. But loading tons of screencaps on your website isn't a great idea. Yeah, it's really handy to research a costume, but keep the pix on your hard drive for personal use.

Creating derivative items based on copyrighted media is a huge grey area that gets some fans in trouble. While it's not the most legal thing to do, some copyright holders are fussier about than others. For example, these fans were giving away Doctor Who-themed knitting patterns and got in trouble with the BBC. After drawing negative attention to the Beeb in the press, the fans won a reprieve. It all depends on what you're doing, if you're selling it or giving it away, how high profile you are, and what specific fandom you're involved in. Be careful out there!

14. What about Creative Commons?

This is a newer form of licensing, based on copyright, and intended mostly for online works. Anything that can be copyrighted (see #3) can be licensed under Creative Commons (CC). The main goal of CC licenses is to allow creators to maintain their copyright while also giving others access to certain uses of their works.

So if you see something with a CC license on it, read the details (because each flavor of CC license has different restrictions), and find out how you can use that work. You may be able to copy it for personal use or you may be able to republish it or you may be able to edit/remix it into a new work. The CC license gives you permission to do this stuff in advance. You don't have to ask. Just read the fine print. Kinda cool.

The main places you'll find CC work right now is Flickr and Wikimedia, but some bloggers are starting to use CC for their own works.

Note: This article is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0, meaning you are free to repost the entire contents if you credit me and you don't make any changes to the article.

15. How should I give credit to a copyright holder?

Once you have permission (preferably in writing; email is fine), you should always provide credit for anything you use. While it's up to you to decide on a specific format, in general, you should identify the work as closely as possible to where you display it. For example, a photo should have a caption directly below it that indicates where it came from. Text you've copied should be credited either within the body of the larger material or with footnotes (although footnotes are not preferred on the web -- they're both hard to read and hard to find, according to usability studies).

Make sure to include the name of the copyright holder and a link back to the copyright holder's source, either their main website or the specific page where the work was found. Check out this an example:

Did you know ironing is period? Colonial Williamsburg has proof from the 18th century.

18th-century iron

Photo: Trystan L. Bass / Flickr

Note that Creative Commons licenses require specific attribution -- this is spelled out in each type of license, so just follow that wording. But do keep it right next to the work.

16. But hey, you've copied stuff on your website, why are you saying I shouldn't?

Fact is, nobody is perfect. We are all learning and hopefully trying to do better. Just because I work on this stuff for a living doesn't mean I always do it right on my personal websites. Not every big-name costume blogger is perfect either.

Also, you may not know how someone actually got the images they've posted. Maybe she scanned them from her vast collection of books that feature many public-domain images (see #10). Or maybe she visited the original museum, which actually allows photos (see #9). Or the work could be under a Creative Commons license (see #14). Don't get too judgmental unless it's your work that's being ripped off. In which case, have at 'em!

To sum up:

  1. Most stuff is copyrighted, even your own (except costumes, sadly).

  2. Find out who owns things and ask permission before you copy it and post it online.

  3. Respect other people's work, and they're more likely to respect yours.

Copyright Cheat Sheet for Costume Bloggers

You CAN post on your website You CAN'T post on your website, unless you have written permission
Photos you took Photos from other people
Drawings & art you made Drawings & art other people made
Anything you wrote Other people's writing, except small quotes, carefully credited
Photos & scans that are exact copies of public domain art Photos & scans of copyrighted art
Photos you took of a costume display at a museum Photos from a museum website of its costume display
A couple small movie/TV screencaps in a movie/TV review article Tons of movie/TV screencaps for reference or for people to download
Creative Commons licensed work with appropriate credit

For Reference:

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
You are welcome to repost this complete article with attribution, but do not alter or edit the contents.

labricoleuse: (history)
We've already begun fielding phone calls and emails from prospective applicants to our graduate program for Fall 2012, and it reminds me that it's time for a roundup of informational posts on the matter!

If you are considering graduate school in your future, now is a good time to begin contacting the program directors at the various schools to which you might be considering applying. Get on the radar early, find out what you need to know while there's plenty of time to prepare--you'll have a much better shot at getting in than as a last-minute under-the-wire applicant, believe me!

I have, over the past five-plus years i've been writing this blog, made a number of posts on topics related specifically to the pursuit of graduate study in professional costume careers. Look over this link list and see whether any of them address questions you might have. And, if you have questions not addressed by any of the prior posts, please ask in the comments! I'll do my best to answer whatever you want to know!

labricoleuse: (Default)
From now through February, because it's the time when people who are applying to graduate school are getting their portfolios up-to-date, sending in applications and scheduling interviews, i'll be addressing relevant topics now and then.

I typically start these types of posts off with links to my series of prior topical posts on costume-related graduate school subjects, so this one will stay in keeping with that tradition. Here they are:

First up, why do i write these posts? I mean, i'm not getting paid to write this blog. It's not something i'm required to do by the program for which i teach, or by the theatre for whom i work.

I remember all too well how lost in the woods i felt when i graduated with my bachelors and was considering graduate study. At that time, literally NONE of the resources i have mentioned in prior posts existed. No Survey of Costume Programs, no reference books on career options and paths or how one might assemble a relevant portfolio. You asked your professors and hoped they had the time and inclination to give you what advice they could. You asked anyone who knew anything about theatre. You maybe went to USITT or a regional conference (if you had the time and money to do so), and maybe that's the best that it got.

There was no way for, say, a student at a Pacific Northwest small state school in the back of beyond BFE to ever even know that someone like me existed over here in the Carolina piedmont, much less access their advice and experience. So, for those folks, people seeking information on this field with no really excellent local resources, i post these things and i hope to god it's useful.

I hope it helps some folks find the schools that are right for them (and, eliminate those that aren't before they even go through the full application process).

I hope it helps some folks to decide that actually, no, this career field maybe isn't for them--maybe it's an interest better kept as a hobby. or channeled into fashion design or stylist work.

And i hope it helps some folks realize that yes, this is exactly the field for them, whether they want to be a draper or a shop manager or a designer or a crafts artisan, run their own shop or work on a team at a large production facility or whatever! If just one person is helped by the posts, great, it's all been worth my time.

Statements of Purpose

So, with respect to Statements of Purpose, i have a few thoughts. I'm writing this post from purely my own perspective, what *I* think about how a statement of purpose should be written. I don't make acceptance decisions here, but i do read all the applications and occasionally offer feedback, so i've seen dozens of statements of purpose. Bear in mind as you read it, this is only my opinion and is not to be considered any kind of stone-carved hard-rule on the subject.

I can't tell you what your Statement of Purpose should be, really, because it's YOUR statement of YOUR purpose, and how could i know what that might be? I can tell you for sure what it shouldn't be though.

It shouldn't be a rehash of your resume. You've sent that, they've got it. Don't waste anybody's time--yours or theirs--restating info they already can check out (and have). If you have a great example of how a specific experience was revelatory in terms of your decision to pursue graduate study, then that's ok. For example, we had an applicant who mentioned in her statement of purpose that she realized she needed to pursue graduate study when she was hired as a wardrobe crew member for the Broadway tour of Lion King and had the opportunity to see the interior structures of the Hyena costumes; she she wanted to learn how a costume that unusually-structured was conceived and created, and felt that graduate study in a Costume Production program was the best way to achieve that goal. The statement wouldn't have been nearly as compelling if she had just said something like, "I knew from the moment i worked wardrobe on Lion King, this was the path for me." See the difference?

Your statement also shouldn't dwell overmuch on how you supposedly have always wanted to be a costumer, used to dress up your dolls as a kid, or play with fabric instead of toys, or whatever. This may all be true, but it reads like cliche and makes it seem as if you don't have much of a grasp on the field beyond a child's idealism. It's great if you loved dressup as a kid, or sewing or whatever, but how has that carried through in mature expressions of the pursuit since you became an adult? I spent about six years of my childhood drawing pictures of elaborate Southern-Belle-style formal gown designs on the bodies of women with cat's faces and mall hair. I now see a direct line between that and my career choice, but i would never, ever, ever mention that in any kind of professional context (well, except clearly in this blog just now as a negative example).

It shouldn't be vague in terms of what you communicate about the field. The specific example i mentioned up there is the best way to approach it. Have there been specific shows, or theatre companies, or a particular professor or designer you have worked with or learned from that helped you come to the decision to pursue graduate study? Explain how!

That said, don't name-drop without purpose and connection. If your statement says something like, "When i was in high school, i knew as soon as i saw William Ivey Long's costumes for Hairspray, theatre was my passion!" people are likely going to roll their eyes. Unless your next sentence is something like, "That conviction was confirmed two summers ago when i interned with Mr. Long himself, swatching and learning about fiber content, weave structure, and levels of fabric quality," it's maybe not the best choice for inclusion.

(Small digression: do you know how many people say that theatre/drama/costuming is their passion? Verbatim? Nearly all. Nearly ALL.)

If you have any specific areas of interest, by all means mention them. "I am particularly interested in the challenges and requirements of costuming for professional dance." Or maybe "Tailoring systems for menswear are my primary focus in the construction field." If you don't yet have any specific interest, that's ok, but maybe you want to work more to get a better idea of where your interests lie before applying to graduate school. And, many applicants have more than one--"This program will expand my knowledge of shop management and millinery, areas in which I hope to work professionally after graduate school."

It doesn't reflect a mature understanding though to profess that you "love everything to do with costumes." No one loves everything to do with costumes. Seriously. There is a huge difference between being willing to accept employment in which you must hand-wash dirty dance belts, and LOVING to hand-wash dirty dance belts. One is a career choice to add a relevant wardrobe credit to your resume, and the other is...well, definitely a private matter. (Whoa, pun.)

Another thing that's worth mentioning if it's applicable: is there anything specific to the program to which you are applying that appeals to you? Suppose that the program functions within a learning-lab paradigm with productions entirely student-produced--student actors, directors, designers, technologies, stage management, etc.--and that really appeals to you, then mention it. Or suppose the program works in tandem with a professional company in residence and you are drawn to that aspect, mention it. Or perhaps the program is partnered with a museum archive and involves a component of restoration or reproduction of antique garments; you love this, so mention it. Maybe you're enthused about their teaching assistantships, or some specific outreach program in which they participate, etc etc and so forth.

And a last piece of advice: ask someone to read the finished draft over for you who is likely to know their stuff. What about whoever's writing your letters of recommendation? Or someone in your department in the costume faculty? Someone besides your friends, your mom, or the person you're dating.

So, for readers considering graduate applications this year or in future, hopefully the statement of purpose doesn't seem so daunting and formless and nebulously-weird now. Maybe this post will jog a few ideas loose for how to compose yours, what you might include (and not include).

And as ever, good luck!
labricoleuse: (CAD)
From now through February, because it's the time when people who are applying to graduate school are getting their portfolios up-to-date, sending in applications and scheduling interviews, i'll be addressing relevant topics now and then.

In the interest of covering all the bases, i'll start this off with links to my series of prior topical posts on costume-related graduate school subjects:

Today's topic: letters of recommendation.

I get asked to write letters of recommendation by former students fairly often--for jobs and fellowship applications in the case of former grad students, but because on rare occasions i have undergraduates in my courses, occasionally for grad school applications as well. And clearly, I see dozens of them when I look through the files of applicants to our own program each year. (I don't make any of the acceptance decisions here, BTW, i just read through the applications and offer feedback when asked.) Graduate programs and scholarship committees and the like pay particular note of these letters; just as your statement of purpose and your portfolio represent how you professionally present yourself, the letters represent the impression you have left on others in your professional and academic career thusfar.

In terms of who you should ask, i've mentioned in earlier posts in this series that you need to choose people who have nothing but the most glowing opinions of you, who have not a single bad thing to say about you, but also who are not your own mom/spouse/BFF. If you don't have three people whom you are certain can write letters to this effect, you need to evaluate why, and work on acquiring those references before applying.

If you have more than three people you are considering (and i say "three," as that's the common number of recommendations requested, though maybe you need two or four, depending on the application), i advise making a spreadsheet or a chart with the following categories for each applicant, to help in choosing which three:

  • Length of Acquaintance: How long has this person known you? Have you stayed in contact? Someone you took a class with for three months five years ago may not be able to write as extensive a recommendation as someone you have worked for over the past year. Then again, the professor from five years ago might be someone you've kept up with who really champions your career, while the boss from the last year's job might still be bitter about when you showed up hungover the day after your birthday last month. Use your judgement; it's just one factor to consider.

  • Relationship to the Program: Do you know anyone who's an alum of the program? Or who is a former classmate or colleague of the department head? Again, this is a case where you need to use your judgment. It's no good having a recommendation from someone with a connection to the program who barely knows you and can't say much about your worthiness as a candidate, and it's definitely no good having a recommendation from someone who's an alum that didn't do very well in the program! And, even a glowing recommendation from a colleague of the department head won't automatically get you in if your personal statement and portfolio aren't up to snuff, or if you interview poorly, etc etc. If it's an option you have though, it can be a good augmentation.

  • Experience in the Field: Ideally, you have three recommendation letters from people who are professionals or academics in the field of professional costuming. If you do not but you still feel that you are ready for graduate school and determined to apply, consider carefully who to ask. Is there someone who can speak to your work in a related area from a professional standpoint, say perhaps a supervisor at a bridal alterations shop you worked at who can talk about your sewing skills, fine fabrics knowledge, and responsibility as an employee? How about a director with whom you worked as a stage manager, who can speak to your organizational skills, devotion to the creative process, and excellent time management abilities?

    If you choose to ask someone outside the field, make certain they are willing and able to write the type of letter you need--several paragraphs with specific examples, not just the one-paragraph form-letter references that people request in the corporate workplace. Those form letters don't hurt you ("Ms. Smith is punctual and reliable employee of 2 years at our company. She has never been late to work."), but they're a waste of an opportunity to communicate anything of depth about you as a candidate.

But the point of this post is not really about choosing WHO to ask; it's about the etiquette of asking. I will assume that you can look at your academic and professional history and choose three people who'd be glad to recommend you for your diligence, dedication, maturity, intelligence, creativity, skill, and so forth, and none of whom would describe your performance as "adequate" or "sufficient" (red-flags for a "recommendation" that someone has written for an applicant they find unremarkable or don't remember well enough to speak about). Once you know who to ask though, how do you go about it?

If they are someone you currently work with or take a course with, ask in person. Stop by their office during open office hours or make an actual appointment. Sit down and ask them face to face rather than shooting an email. When you do so, explain in serious, professional terms why you are making your application, how the grad program or scholarship or fellowship will further your career goals, and ask whether they feel willing and able to write you a recommendation. Provided they agree, give them a copy of your personal statement, your resume or CV, and an info sheet with details from the application--when the recommendations are due, any guidelines they might have cited as to content, and anything they need to submit it with ease (if the program wants online recommendations, then the submission form URL or proper email address; if they want standard mail letters, then a SASE).

If they are someone you cannot go visit in person to ask--a former supervisor who lives in a different state, for example--then a call or an email is acceptable. Clearly this is a generalization, but even if you have a fairly informal/casual rapport with the person, you should still word this particular email or phone call in a professional manner (i.e., no LOLs or nicknames or inside jokes, etc.), and no matter how well you know them you should still provide a copy of your resume/CV and your statement of purpose. You need to leave a professional documentation-trail on this.

Give them as much lead time as you possibly can. If you can ask a couple months in advance, do so. It takes time and effort to write a really good, effective recommendation letter, and you should be mindful of the fact that your former professors, current supervisors, and fellow colleagues have busy lives with many obligations, and that what you are asking them to do is a big favor. I probably spend at least 2-3 hours writing a really good recommendation letter, and those are hours i'm not getting paid; that's what you are essentially asking for--someone to give up some of their free time for no other reason than to help you out. Chances are, if you ask for a letter a couple weeks (or a couple days) before your deadline, you won't get as good of a letter as if you ask a month or more ahead of time. You may even have trouble finding someone able to write you one if the turnaround is too fast--a professor who would have written you a glowing letter a month ago might actually resent your presumption at asking with a super-fast turnaround time during midterms or their family vacation.

Do not expect to read these letters. Whether that is formalized is contingent on the expectations of the program--some have a form both you and the recommendation writer need to sign stating that you relinquished the right to read the letter, some ask that the letters be sent separately from your other materials and request disclosure as to whether you read them or not. Recommendations carry more weight if they are confidential; if you insist on reading them, the presumption is that the author may not have felt free to speak as openly as s/he might otherwise. Basically, if you have asked the right people, you ought not need to read them; you know they'll be great!

Good recommendation letter-writers will notify you when they've sent the letter off, but even the best of us forget sometimes. If the deadline's approaching and you haven't heard back as to whether they sent it or not, it's okay to ask politely whether they've mailed it, with a gentle reminder of the cutoff date.

And, once the deadline has passed and you know the your letters have been received, send actual real thank-you cards to the people who wrote them. These folks have just done you a huge favor on their own time for which there can be no compensation whatsoever beyond the nebulous idea of good karma or paying-it-forward; you owe them a formal acknowledgment of that and expression of your gratitude.

There you have it, my recommendation recommendations. If you are applying for graduate admission or for a new job or fellowship in the coming year, the best of luck to you!
labricoleuse: (Default)
It's the time of year when people who are applying to graduate school are starting to get their portfolios up-to-date, schedule visits and interviews; as such, i'll start this off with links to my series of topical posts on costume-related graduate school subjects:

Today's post though answers the frequently-asked question, Should I go to U/RTA?

U/RTA stands for the University/Resident Theatres Association, a collective of professional theatres in residence at universities which offer masters study in theatrical disciplines, with significant crossover between the professional and the academic. Prospective graduate students in both performance and production foci take note of U/RTA because of their sponsorship of the National Unified Auditions/Interviews (NUA/I), held annually in NYC, Chicago, and San Fransisco or Las Vegas, where graduate applicants can meet representatives from member schools, and in some cases audition or interview for admission to their programs.

So, undergrads and prospective applicants often ask me, should I go to U/RTA?

As with everything else relating to graduate study, there is no cut-and-dried answer. It depends on what you hope to gain from it.

Clearly, if you are interested in a graduate program which operates within an "academic lab" paradigm (i.e., all productions are done with student actors, student directors, and student designers overseeing student-run production shops, all under the auspices of faculty advisors/mentors), or with a costume/fashion/textile hybrid focus, U/RTA won't be of much help to you as those programs aren't members. If you want a program where there's a professional theatre or conservatory component and are interested in more than one of the programs offered at member universities though, it's something to consider.

Some students are under the impression that attending one of the NUA/I event is akin to a "one-stop grad-school shop," that they can show up with a portfolio in a nice outfit and meet all the relevant faculty of every member organization, schedule a passel of interviews, and bam, find the perfect grad program. That *can* perhaps happen, but it's not a reasonable expectation for most.

Going to a NUA/I event can be a great place to get a lot of information fast and quick, in terms of the research-arc of deciding whether to go to grad school and if so, whether a program with a resident company is for you. You *will* be able to get information on several programs at once, and have the opportunity of discussing your portfolio with some programs' faculty, and also to see the portfolios of other prospective students from other undergraduate programs. You will be able to network, meet and talk to people in your area of focus, as well as those in other performance and production disciplines. These will be valuable experiences, especially the experience of showing your portfolio. That is something you can't do too many times, and which gets exponentially easier each time, i think.

For these reasons alone i would say that, if you live in or within a reasonable drive of a NUA/I hub city, or have the budget to attend one as part of your graduate school research, do so!

However, go with the foreknowledge of what you can expect.

First, if you are going with a preconceived list of programs in mind that you want to connect with, contact the heads of those programs in advance and make sure that someone will be in attendance who can talk to you. Though U/RTA has a pretty long membership list, it's only a small section of all the schools out there with costume-focus degrees, and not every discipline from every program will attend every NUA/I event. For example, our school is a member, but only our MFA Acting faculty attend any NUA/I event, and not every one in every city every year. So, if you were hoping to hit the NYC event and talk to someone about our Technical Production MFA program, maybe interview and show your'd be disappointed, because our TD wouldn't be there. (Which, had you contacted him in advance, you'd know.) Same for costumes--we don't send a rep to U/RTA NUA/Is, rather our Costume Director attends SETC and the national USITT conference, as those offer "more bang for the buck" visibility.

Second, be aware that you may go and not find any program that feels like a good fit, or that you may have no one indicate interest in your portfolio...and that doesn't mean you're a failure and you suck, or grad school's not for you and you'll never get into one, it just means that of the handful of programs who attended, none were a mutual match. See, U/RTA's NUA/Is are like grad-school speed dating--you get a little bit of time to interact with whatever handful of programs by chance happen to be there the same time you are. You won't get to know any of them as well as you would if you went on a real date (i.e., scheduled an on-site visit to the program), but if you don't click with any of them, that doesn't mean you are unlovably doomed to a life of dateless hermitude. It just means none of these ten folks set your pants afire in five minutes flat, and you should just keep casting your net because there are a lot of fish in the sea. (Ah, the mixed-metaphor. Or maybe it's a meta-metaphor! I digress.)

If you live somewhere too far to easily drive to a NUA/I, you're better off starting out your research by attending a regional conference like SETC or USITT-Regional, or hitting USITT's national conference. Granted, USITT is held too late in the year to go there expecting to find a graduate program to enter that fall; you will want to attend it figuring on narrowing your choices over the next few months, with a mind to applying for the following fall, 15-16 months down the line.

And, don't let that be a discouragement--it's actually a good thing, as it gives you that much more time to prepare, add to your portfolio and resume, and learn more about every program you think might interest you! That is my actual ultimate advice on applying to graduate school: don't rush it. I have seen so many folks come to a decision about grad school and want everything to happen too fast. It's a HUGE decision, and often people are like, "Hey, i think i want to go to grad school in this! Starting this fall! OMG i have to do this now OMG if i don't get in what will i dooooo?!?" Grad school is not going anywhere, and many programs will actually be more impressed by you taking the time to do long-term legwork.

Especially in these economic times, no university can afford to take a risk on admitting a poorly-informed, impulsive incoming grad student who *might* become disenchanted and drop out upon realizing s/he's actually in the wrong program or not cut out for the school's expectations and workload. We invest a lot of responsibility in our students--they have teaching or research workloads as part of their assistantship funding, and if they can't hack it and drop out, it's a domino effect: the undergraduate students in the courses they teach or grant-driven programs that depend on them will falter. So take your time and if you realize you need to put it off another year, no worries! It can only work in your favor to do so.

As always, i am a big proponent of "open-source costume education" and welcome inquiries about costume-career graduate study in general, our program in particular, or really any crafts-centric topic, so feel free to contact me and "Ask La Bricoleuse" any questions you have that you think i might be able to answer. I am happy to do so.

And, if you are one of the many folks who will be seeking admission to graduate programs for Fall 2010, i wish you the best of luck in your application process!
labricoleuse: (CAD)
It's the time of year when we start getting lots of inquiries from prospective applicants to the graduate program, people beginning to express interest and book visits and so forth.

Many readers come across this blog while doing their own research on applying to costume programs, thanks to my series of FAQ posts on topics related to graduate education. (Which, if you are thinking of applying to an MFA program in costume production, or costume design and technology, you might want to peruse those for info on portfolios, application processes, and so forth!)

These questions come from a reader named Kate, who is beginning her application process:

As I apply to graduate schools, I wonder how densely costume plot and design oriented my portfolio must be? I have only designed one show (since I did not major in costume in college), but have assisted on many and built many pieces. Can images from shows I have assisted on be used? Perhaps if I detail pieces that I worked on? Or worked on as a stitcher or shopper? For example I was a shopper for a costume atelier finding and purchasing materials. Can pieces made with that fabric be included if I detail what they are?

Though not specified, it seems that these questions are in reference to a portfolio to be used in applying to design-centered programs, due to the emphasis on design in your language. So, since my field of specialty is production and technology programs, take my advice with that caveat--we don't have a design track at our school, so my feedback on design-focus portfolios is purely professional conjecture and not grounded in a context applicable to our own program. (And, as an aside for readers who may be uncertain of the difference in foci, i've written about Design vs Production MFAs here.)

One major goal of a portfolio is to illustrate your experience in your chosen field of study, and the more fully it reveals the breadth and/or focus of your experience, the more effective it is. Inclusion of costume plots is a good idea--that's an important part of bringing a show from concept to reality, and program heads will see that you have the facility for generating those documents.

For shows on which you were a design assistant, i think it is definitely appropriate to include some stage shots, with sections of text explaining your involvement. So, say you have three photos in there, or a couple renderings with corresponding stage shots, and a little text block that reads something like this:

Primary Assistant to Costume Designer Jane Doe
Guys and Dolls - State Theatre, NY - July 2007
Responsibilities: chorus fittings, materials sourcing, purchases/returns and budget tracking
Renderings courtesy of Jane Doe

It is key that you ask permission to include designers' renderings in your portfolio and give clear proper credit if that permission is granted. You don't want people thinking that you are trying to pass their rendering off as your own work, but part of the collaborative process IS definitely being able to look at someone else's rendering and help turn it into an actualized costume. Most designers are glad to give production artisans and design assistants permission to show their renderings in a properly-credited portfolio juxtaposition.

The same goes for shows on which you stitched and shopped--i feel you definitely should include photos of those shows, with your contribution clearly labeled. An example for the atelier job you mention being a shopper on might have a couple stage shots, maybe some fabric swatches, with a text label that looks like this:

Shopper - Costume World Rentals - March 2008
Wicked rental production package
Responsibilities: swatching and purchase of yardage and notions for Emerald City costumes

Ultimately, all of these things show a prospective graduate program that you have experience in several areas of costuming and are exactly the kind of thing it is appropriate to include. It shows that you actually know what the field is like from several job perspectives, which (i think, at least) is more valuable in an incoming student than say, an applicant with a portfolio full of nothing but beautifully rendered costume designs for shows that never happened.

Also! If you haven't already, check out my earlier post on portfolio assembly, too. For another perspective from someone who sees tons more portfolios than i ever will, you might also peruse these online resources by Rafael Jaen, Portfolio Review Chair for the USITT Costume Design and Technology Commission:

Mr. Jaen has also written a book on the subject, Developing and Maintaining a Design-Tech Portfolio, which is previewable on Google Books or available through your preferred bookseller.

Kate continues:

I have also seen that many schools want a varied portfolio, which is great! However, some schools like Yale seem to want more costume work than anything. Do you think it is well received to design costumes for a show that won't be realized just to show designing ability and interest?

I know it seems like i just kind of bagged on hypothetical or "paper projects" (collections of designs for unrealized shows), but i don't want to imply that such things don't have a place in a portfolio.

A design program likely wants to see that you are well-rounded in costuming, cognizant and capable of everything it takes to take costume designs from page to stage, but definitely focused on design as a career path. So, just in the same way that it is important to show you are capable of generating costume plots, sourcing materials, and that you have construction competency/experience, you also want to illustrate your rendering and designing skills as well. You mention that you have only designed one actualized show, so i definitely think that including a set of paper project renderings serves a useful purpose as well--it will further highlight your drawing/sketching ability and your effectiveness at communicating your ideas in illustrative form.

If you were applying to a production program like ours in which you wouldn't be studying design, then i'd say, perhaps leave out the hypothetical design projects in favor of, say, a production project that's outside of the realm of theatre (such as photographs of a friend's bridal gown you made, or a mask you sculpted for a holiday parade). But for applying to Yale's design MFA program, yes, put in the paper projects, too.

In general, i think you can't get too much input on your portfolio. Once you have something pulled together, i recommend asking colleagues whether they would look at it and give you honest feedback. If your regional theatre conferences are coming up (for example, the USITT-Southeast conference is in the fall, not sure when other regions host theirs), you might take the portfolio there and solicit feedback. Sometimes there are formal portfolio review sessions, but even if not, many people will be glad to give it a look and offer constructive criticism.

Best of luck with your round of applications, and i hope you find a program that is a perfect fit!
labricoleuse: (history)
I've had this one art exhibit review on my list of things to write about for quite awhile, but i keep finding that it makes me so angry, i don't know that i can write an objective, considered post about it without sneaking up on it from the side. So, i think i'm going to make a related post this morning about a related topic, hopefully less contentious, because it's just some groundwork discussion rather than conjecture and artistic interpretation. And, if i can swing it right, it'll flow into a forthcoming sane response to the review, followed by more discussion of related issues in one or two future posts. (Ha, vague enough?)

Today, i want to talk about the levels of artistry in costume production, because it's one of the most misunderstood topics for those outside of the field, and even sometimes for those coming into the field. It's also a favored old saw for professional grousing, which, fine, airing frustrations is healthier than stifling them, but how can we expect people to know what we do on different levels unless we lay it out there and explain it? That's what i'm hoping to do with this post, with analogies and terminology that aren't industry-specific. I hope.

My students say this is the most common exchange when they tell someone they are in graduate school for costuming:

Friend/Family: What are you studying?
Student: Costume Production.
F/F: Is that like, design?
Student: No, it's production. Like making the costume from the design.
F/F: Why do you need an MFA to learn how to sew?

Somehow, with fiber art, it sure feels like people have a harder time than with other media making the leap from the concept of the skill to the art. I would love to know whether anyone has ever said something like, "Dang, Chihuly, why did you need an MFA to learn to blow glass?" (Who knows, they probably have.)

Here's what i wish i had a dollar for every time i've heard it said at a symposium, convention, or even in workplaces (usually after a particularly challenging production or design meeting):

They think we're just picking out clothes.

Which, we do a certain amount of "picking out clothes," so that statement is true in the same way that it is (reductive, but) true to say that a woodworker is "manufacturing sawdust," or an electrician is "flipping switches," or a muralist is "slapping paint on a wall." Even at the most elementary level, the clothes which are "picked out" still have to be steamed ("revived") and pressed and altered to fit the performers.

At a basic level of production, that's where most people start in this field: pulling costumes from a stock, or buying/renting them and making them fit the actors. That's what i like to think of as pret-a-porter costuming, and it's probably where almost all of us began. It's the type of costuming at which some companies and designers operate as a matter of course, particularly in the areas of community theatre, highschool and undergraduate drama productions, and small regional and summer theatres.

I'm borrowing the term pret-a-porter from the fashion industry, because it's something we all are familiar with in our own wardrobes. You go to the Gap (or Macy's, or the Diesel store, or wherever), you buy a pair of jeans, and you pick the pair that comes closest to fitting you--maybe they're a bit big in the waist, or maybe they're a tad too long in the leg, but if you fold up the cuff or cut them off at the hem or wear a belt they don't fall off your body or give you a killer wedge so they're "your size," they're the ones you pick. Maybe you even make the poor fit into a feature, strut around in them like you are just ROCKING those turned-up cuffs or baggy crotch seam or gaping waist that shows cute, carefully chosen pretty underpants. Most people on earth wear mass-produced clothes that were not originally made to fit their body--we all understand this kind of costuming because it IS how we clothe ourselves.

And, lest this seem like i'm stigmatizing it as something limited to "amateur" productions or bagging on the skills of pret-a-porter costumers, "find it out there somewhere and make it fit" costuming is also a big business in professional ballet and opera--the companies whose costume shops do custom-made fully-produced new operas are making a great investment, because they often generate revenue over the next decade-plus by renting the entire opera or ballet to other companies around the world. Often, big opera and ballet companies' costume shops will build that into the budget and the production calendar: devote the greater part of the materials and labor to spending six months making a whole new Rosenkavalier, while planning to use the Falstaff and Orphee costumes from eight seasons ago and renting Tosca from [Other Opera Company].

(Incidentally, opera and ballet almost always rent as a complete package; when you have a big-framed actor in a theatre production and it's a pret-a-porter costume process, don't expect to get his stuff from an opera company "since they have a lot of larger performers" because they don't split shows.)

The pret-a-porter school of costuming operates as a component of productions up the ladder of regional theatre and performance--you might have a large show at a LORT theatre where the supporting roles are all rented or pulled and altered costumes, but the main characters are newly-made. From a production standpoint, alterations of rented or pulled costumes are going to be an ongoing component of most professional costumers' workflow. You can, with luck and connections and a stylist's eye, assemble creatively complex, cohesively-conceptualized shows' costumes from bought, borrowed, and rented stock, and sometimes that might be the most effective use of available budget and labor.

However, it's not the sole mode of operation. I mentioned that many companies will choose to custom-make the lead roles' costumes, and this is where the differentiation comes in that can be hard to explain and hard to grasp, and from what i gather, the same holds true in the fashion industry as well: the difference between a garment which has been made-to-measure and a garment which is couture/bespoke. (Again, i'm yanking the jargon from the fashion folk. Even within the costume industry people will say made-to-measure for both of these processes. So, i might be pushing an envelope with adopting bespoke, but so be it.)

So, a costumer is working for a theatre company where they want to make the main characters' clothes in a production of Romeo and Juliet. The designer draws a sketch of Juliet's costume, picks out some fabric and trim, and gives it to the costume shop folks. Makes sense so far, from what most people know about sewing, right?

In a shop that operates within a made-to-measure paradigm, the costumer then goes to the pattern files and looks for a commercial pattern that is as close as possible to the style lines in the Juliet sketch. It might be a McCall's "medieval lady" Halloween pattern, or a Folkwear historical-garment reproduction pattern, or a pattern from one of the many companies who cater to historical and fantasy costumers. The made-to-measure costumer consults the measurements of the actress playing Juliet and chooses which pattern size is best for her. Perhaps the costumer even does some Frankensteining--the bodice of this pattern with the sleeve of that one, with a few adjustments and changing up the shape of the neckline will work great! Or, in order to fit a particularly petite but busty actress, she'll need to cut the bodice as a size 14, the sleeves and skirt as a size 10, and shorten the skirt six inches...

Someone who works in this way will quickly develop an excellent mental reference chart for her/his pattern library--this company's patterns tend to be very longwaisted, while that one always cuts their sleeves a bit short. S/he will also be (ideally) very adept at pattern alteration, and will know where to raise a shoulderseam to add some pads to pump up sloping shoulders, or how to draft in a gusset so Juliet can vigorously stab herself without tearing her sleeve out of the armscye every night. The key here is, in this kind of production process, the patterns largely already exist, or are adaptations of extant patterns.

Made-to-measure costumers find the Great Pattern Review (a feedback archive, often with photos of finished garments, for all commercial pattern companies that offer historical styles, hosted by the Greater Bay Area Costumer's Guild) to be an invaluable reference. They are also often active subscribers to the Vintage Pattern Lending Library and/or the Commercial Pattern Archive. In most cases, made-to-measure shops aren't just "sewing together clothes from patterns," but rather *are* doing quite a bit of pattern adjustment and fitting as well. They can be highly skilled artists who produce lovely costumes which fit their stars beautifully. Cool, yes? I think so. It's a great and effective way to work.

It's not how our shop or program operates though. Bespoke costuming is what we do, and is what they do in shops that produce costumes for Broadway and Cirque de Soleil and Disney on Ice and big-big-budget regional theatre/opera/ballet. Bespoke costuming is what we teach in our graduate program at UNC. Bespoke differs from made-to-measure in that there is no pattern for a costume until the production artist creates it by drafting or draping. The draper or tailor or craftsperson has the costume design sketch and a sheet of measurements, the knowledge in her or his head and a library of historical and modern reference sources, and generates the pattern (and, the costume) by drawing upon that knowledge and set of measurements to interpret the designer's vision and turn the sketch into reality. The costume created is specific to that design for that production for that actor's body, much in the way that genuine haute couture (in the original Charles Worth sense of the phrase) is a unique design made expressly for a single customer, exact to her or his measurements.

In addition to a bespoke costumer's general knowledge of textiles and surface design and garment construction methods, s/he also draws from a background of study in art history, psychology and sociology of dress, design and technical collaboration, historical clothing construction systems (example: Menswear students learn 19th-century tailoring systems), and couture technique. This is (IMO) what makes our program a Master of Fine Arts, that kind of focus within a structured academic course of study, layered in with high-quality skilled output and aesthetically artistic costume interpretation.

So, lest that sound priggish and snobby in the textual toneless mode of text-on-the-net, i'm not saying that these kinds of things don't also inform the decisions and production processes of made-to-measure costumers, or costumers who don't have production-concentration MFAs, nor am i saying that there aren't folks who swing between the two methods, sometimes working from extant patterns and other times drafting or draping their own. I'm saying, there is a difference between the two modes of production, and bespoke is what we teach in our program, in addition to practical production topics.

Incidentally, PlayMakers is fairly unusual for its level of regional theatre, that we operate on basically a bespoke paradigm. (Obviously for a show as big as, say, Nicholas Nickleby, we'll have bespoke costumes produced in-house up on stage next to pret-a-porter ones we've begged/borrowed/bought, simply because five drapers, a tailor, three first hands, and two crafts artisans cannot produce over 600 bespoke costume pieces in two months.) We're not a "big" LORT theatre but because of our grad program and its alliance with PRC, we CAN make unusual and stylized things in-house at a high level of interpretive accuracy; designers are often thrilled to find that they have the kind of creative freedom and constructive collaboration that bespoke production processes allow.

The head of our program has spoken on numerous occasions about the terminological handicaps she feels that American professional costumers work under--i'm paraphrasing, but she doesn't care for "costume technology" or "costume production" as descriptors, because those terms in the common parlance aren't allied with practitioners of fine art. She prefers the British tradition of describing the field as "costume interpretation;" i can certainly appreciate that differentiation, and i don't think it's something to be dismissed as pedantry or splitting semantic hairs. Sometimes to engender understanding, you have to choose the right words, and perhaps we as costumers need to adopt and utilize more evocative terms when discussing what we do.

Pret-a-porter costumers aren't "just picking out outfits and doing alterations," they're interpreting dramatic themes. They're illustrating the characters with the costume equivalent of a big set of colored pencils. You can do inspired and beautiful work that way.

Made-to-measure costumers aren't "just sewing clothes," they're creating actualized designs utilizing a broad skill set. If the pret-a-porter folks have colored pencils, the made-to-measure folks are using watercolors and acrylics and blending several tubes together to get just the right colors.

And, to push my analogy to extremes, bespoke costumers often choose to go to grad school to learn things like which boars have the best bristles for making your own brushes, how to find and harvest and grind your own pigments to mix with which types of oils, ways to look at color and light and anatomy and composition so that, by the time you graduate, you'll know what you need if you want to paint like Vermeer. It's not everybody's bag, bespoke costuming, and that's cool. There's room for everybody. But no, nobody goes to grad school so they can "learn how to sew."

Aight, that's it for me today. I've got a bus to catch and then about a dozen rented Nickleby hats to drop linings into. Seriously, it is off the hook how many places don't finish the interiors of hats. And i get that sometimes there's not enough time--i've sent a hat onstage with no lining because it HAD to go on RIGHT THEN...but i digress. Let's just say that, our Nickleby rentals, since they come on and off onstage in a millinery shop, NEED nice linings, so they will be going back to their owners in far better condition than they arrived! So rent to us, i'll line all your hats! :D

On that topic, i've heard that this week is going to be Costume Designer week over at [ profile] nicknickleby, which will hopefully feature some of the beautiful renderings we've been perusing and planning from...

Oh! And, whichever-few of you reader-folk were lusting after that bustle ensemble in our CoStar archive that's depicted in the icon on this post, you'll be thrilled to know that one of our 3rd year grads has chosen it for the historical repro thesis segment, so there will be an analysis, pattern, and repro images for that one at some point in the soon-ish (i.e., year or so) future.

One last note--if i get to the rest of this discussion soon, great, but i'll be blogging the USITT Southeast Conference this weekend. Our program director and i and several of our students will be attending, so if you're going, see you there! I'm entering some millinery in the Design/Tech Expo, and hopefully checking out a couple of the master classes, so i'll be reporting on that. If you've never been to a regional USITT conference, it'll give you an idea of what they're like, and why you might choose to attending regional in addition to or instead of national.
labricoleuse: (manga avatar)
The Graduate Students Association of the Department of Dramatic Art hosted a showcase on Saturday, April 27th, featuring work from students in all three areas of focus--costume production, technical direction, and acting. I attended (albeit on a pile of pain meds due to my dental emergency) and took some photos of the displays. All costume pieces displayed are draped or drafted 100% by the artists (meaning, nothing from an extant/commercial pattern--we don't produce any costume or project from commercial patterns). All props items are 100% handmade via carpentry, carving, woodturning, welding, brazing, electrical wiring, etc.

Read more... )
labricoleuse: (manga avatar)
Two posts in one day! You can tell i'm in a holding pattern, can't you?

In the past week i've had several emails from people asking not only about our MFA program here at UNC-Chapel Hill, but about the existence of similar programs at other universities. The fact is, it's easy to find graduate programs offering a concentration in costume design, or a split-focus between design and technology, but not so easy to locate the few that offer or allow a strict specialization in technology alone. Ironic, since every production only has one costume designer (who granted may have an assistant or few) but a multitude of costume production artists.

Our program is easy to find info about due to this blog (forgive my hubris!), but where, several of you ask, might one look for other programs? After all, not every student's goals are going to be congruent with the focus of our program, and it's good to "shop around" when looking for the right fit in a graduate school. So, I encourage those with an interest in the field to check out our program, but to check out the others out there, as well! As such, i've made up a list of the other programs i'm aware of out there that offer masters degrees in costume production/technology.

Alphebetical Listing of Graduate Programs with a Concentration in Costume Production/Technology:
(links go to the specific program page or PDF where possible)

Now, of course these aren't all "like ours," in that every program has its own areas of expertise and focus, different course offerings and faculty, theory vs practice foci, etc etc. It's a list in flux, as other programs pop up i'll add them, and if (knock wood, heaven forbid) any fall casualty to the economy, i'll cross them off. And, if you know of another costume-production-centric program that offers concentrations in areas like draping, tailoring, costume crafts, and shop management i don't have listed yet, let me know and i'll add it here!

(I'm not listing design/technology combination degree programs, as those are quite common, and i'm not listing focus programs in related disciplines like fiber art or puppetry.)

Most programs' application deadlines are past or approaching so fast that it'd be unreasonable to expect to submit a competitive application at this point for the fall. If you're beginning to look into graduate school for the 2010-11 academic year or beyond, be sure to ask about how the economy is affecting funding of graduate positions and the academic programs themselves for the immediate future. I know that we lost our management track in budget cuts, and I've heard that other universities are also taking similar or heavier hits. (For example, it's been widely publicized in the media that Brandeis' endowment took an enormous loss in the Madoff investment implosion.) Best to find out up-front how that's going to affect the programs you care about.

And, for more of my posts on applying to graduate school in the field of professional costume, check out the FAQ tag in the sidebar.

ETA: It also seems like a useful thing to aggregate certificate programs, which are not MFAs/graduate degrees, but which offer shorter-term concentrated study in costume production.

Any more you know of, please drop a note in the comments!
labricoleuse: (manga avatar)
Today i'm answering another query about costume production grad school, and i am--as always--prefacing it with my disclaimer: I don't run a graduate program, nor do I speak in an official capacity on behalf of the one for which i teach. I have a more informed perspective than the average layperson, but for wholly accurate info specific to a particular program, you should definitely contact that program's director. For links to previous posts on related topics, skip to the bottom of this post.

With that disclaimer in mind, i'll address this new question (via email from a prospective future applicant):

What is a typical "visit" like? How much time should I set aside and what can I expect to see/do?

With this answer, i can only talk about what we encourage our applicants to plan for--other programs may have different expectations or requirements in a visit. (And, i would love to hear comments from other programs' participants, how your interviews/visits are structured!) Obviously, your visit can be longer or shorter depending on your availability/interest, and can be customized to a degree, to accommodate your interests, but in general our applicants should plan to spend an entire workday (9am-5pm, M-F) on-site.

Upon arrival, after meeting with one of our faculty or staff (usually either myself or our Costume Director), applicants head off to sit in on classes with the current grad students, whichever courses are being taught the day of the visit. Usually, this winds up being two classes, a 9am class and an 11am class. Where possible the visiting students participate in the coursework--so, if it is a draping class and the students are draping a particular garment in-class, the visitor is provided with a dress form and fabric and encouraged to drape along with everybody else.

After class, we all go to lunch together. Usually, this is an opportunity for the visiting applicant to see some of our campus, and we walk to a local restaurant. (So heads-up--wear shoes you can walk in, and bring some pocket-money for lunch!) Sometimes, if an applicant visits at a particularly busy time, such as during fittings or tech week, we bring lunch in and order pizzas or subs or similar. (Another heads-up: tell us if you have special dietary needs so we can make sure to accommodate them!)

In the afternoon, the applicant has a formal interview with our costume director, and a bit more informal interviews/chats with myself and some of the other faculty and staff. They also have the opportunity to speak with the current grad students one-on-one, and peruse information like our compendium of course syllabi for all offered classes, or our department scrapbook (an informal collection of photos from special events like professional conferences, academic competitions, departmental charity work, and our yearly winter-break party). Our Costume Director takes them on a complete tour of our facility, including our theatre spaces, storage and archive stockrooms, fitting and dressing rooms, etc.

Another event that happens in the afternoon is portfolio presentation, where the applicant is given the opportunity to show her/his portfolio to the group. Unless there's some extenuating circumstance, we all attend that presentation--faculty, staff, and current graduate students. We often ask questions about the portfolio during or following the presentation, and about the candidate's goals and aspirations.

And if there's a show on our mainstage that evening, the applicant is given comp tickets to go see it, so s/he can get a look at our professional work in practice.

It's a full day, and some folks choose to do it in two days, either to see the full complement of classes (MWF/TTh), or to make certain s/he has time to fully experience the program and get to speak with all the students/faculty at length. Some are only able to come a half-day, so clearly those folks get the condensed version of this and have to skip some elements of it.

Hopefully, that provides a good overview of what to expect, and maybe a structure to go from when talking to other programs about visiting and what to plan for.

And, because pictures are worth a thousand words, some images of a recent period pattern class project:

1920s day dresses, half form projects for period patterning )

Costume Production MFA FAQ link-collection:

labricoleuse: (milliner)
It's that time of year again, when i tend to get more queries about topics relating to graduate study in costuming. It's also the time when we have a glut of applicants to our program coming to visit, show their portfolios, do interviews, etc., which means it's time for me first and foremost to trot out my link-list to hopefully-helpful past posts on related subjects, in which i answer many of the most common questions (i suppose that makes this a FAQ of sorts):

This year, i've gotten a new question though, and it's a good one! Well, i guess technically, it's two. [ profile] devikat inquired (in a comment to a past post) about what sort of timeline the application process ideally follows, and what the requirements of graduate assistantships might be.


Okay, so first my usual disclaimer: I don't run a graduate program, nor do I speak in an official capacity on behalf of the one for which i teach. I make these posts from the perspective of someone who has worked in an overhire/freelance capacity for graduate program productions and for professional theatres in residence at universities with graduate programs, and as someone who has done graduate coursework at three such universities. I have a more informed perspective than the average layperson, but for wholly accurate info specific to a particular program, you should definitely contact that program's director. Just so we're all on the same page, y'know.

Anyway, if i were to apply to graduate school, here's the timeline i'd follow. Let's say i want to apply for admission in the fall of 2010 (it currently being early 2009).

First, I would begin the process of going through my portfolio, bringing it up-to-date, busting out the old resume and combing it for mistakes. I'd make myself a spreadsheet of the schools to which i wanted to apply, listing relevant info like what the applications should contain (GRE scores? personal artistic statement? interview? etc.), and when deadlines were for various things, contact names and numbers, tuition costs, etc. I would use this spring and summer to work on getting all that stuff written, proofed, tests taken, etc.

In the fall of 2009, i would contact the heads of the programs to which i wanted to apply, stating my interest in applying to the program for the following year and asking any pertinent questions (such as, "What sort of work would you like to see in a portfolio?" and, "When is a good time to come visit the program?"). I'd start talking to potential references now, and i'd ask them to be brutally honest with me--if they didn't feel they could write me a glowing recommendation, to please let me know where they felt my shortcomings were so i could improve. If I found myself with only two references, i'd make for darn sure that i got a great summer gig this year and bend over backward doing a wonderful, professional job, to acquire that 3rd reference.

I would plan to visit the program some time in the winter. I would plan that visit for more than one day--even if you are only able to schedule one day on campus visiting the classes and meeting the faculty and touring the facilities, the second day allows you time to poke around the town/city that might be your home for the next 3 years.

I would inquire about sitting in on classes, and if the program offered particular courses of interest on a rotating basis, plan accordingly. (Say, if tailoring is my primary interest and their tailoring courses are only offered in fall semesters, then i'd want to try to visit in Nov/Dec, so i could observe that class, whereas if i am particularly interested in dyeing and that's a spring class, i'd try to schedule a visit for Jan/Feb.) This is another good reason to see about a two-day visit--you can potentially sit in on both MWF and TTh classes.

Often, assistantships and scholarships have much earlier deadlines than just the normal graduate school application deadlines--ours is in March. Sometimes we have great candidates apply, but just too late for the assistantship deadline, or just under the wire. I would make certain i was not one of those folks, and get all my stuff in well in advance.

Then, i'd cross my fingers and wait, and try not to have the squirmy fantods about it. :D


With respect to the nature of assistantships, I can only speak for the assistantships in my own program, but at least that'll hopefully give you a basis for how to phrase informed questions about those in other prospective programs as well.

We have several types of assistantships, and they all fall under two categories: the teaching assistantship and the research assistantship.

Teaching assistantships may involve helping a senior faculty member with the workload of a large undergraduate theatre class (this usually means grading papers or exams), teaching a smaller undergraduate costume intro course, or co-teaching a lab course (like makeup) with a senior faculty member. In our program, your assistantship only applies to one class at a time, so you'd never be assisting with a full courseload of teaching AND taking a full courseload of classes.

Research assistantships in our program are tied to our collections and archives, so you might be serving as an acquisitions coordinator (related to the intake of costume/clothing donations from benefactors and issuance of tax letters related to those donations) or loan supervisor (helping outside organizations wishing to borrow from our collection), or with the documentation and taxonomy of the CoStar Vintage Clothing Archive. Research assistantships also usually entail some supervision of undergraduate work-study students who help out with the documentation, preservation, and storage-related labor.

The rule of thumb with us is that students spend an average of 10 hours per week working on their assistantship duties, though clearly this depends on the nature of the assistantship (so, someone working in the archive really would probably spend about that a week on a regular basis, whereas someone whose teaching assistantship involved grading papers for a large class might go weeks without doing anything and then have a pile of papers to grade over the course of a couple weeks' time). We generally make it known in advance what sorts of time commitments are required for which assistantships, so students have the info they need to manage their time.

One thing to inquire about, if there is a LORT theatre in residence at the program, is whether the graduate program is involved with the LORT productions, and how that interfaces with coursework and assistantships. In our program, students work on the mainstage productions as part of a Practicum course, for which they receive credit; it's not a part of their assistantships. Some places, the assistantship may consist of working on LORT shows.

If you are applying to schools for the fall, good luck! And, if you are thinking about it for a future year, hopefully this was of use.
labricoleuse: (me)
Ask LaBricoleuse is a sporadic series addressing meta-topics pertaining to professional costuming in the entertainment industry. Sometimes the posts are spawned from actual emails or comments left by readers, and sometimes they come from conversations with coworkers and students or discussions in the communities to which this journal subscribes. Previous Ask LaBricoleuse topics:

Assembling a Portfolio
Finding Work as a Crafts Artisan
Preparing to Apply to an MFA Program

In this post, i'd like to address the subject of getting accepted to MFA programs in Costume Production. Many schools offer secondary degrees in costume design, or a composite of design and production, but some offer a specialized degree in costume production--the artistry and science of interpreting design renderings and constructing costumes. The program for which i work is just such a school, among the best programs in the field. My comments here apply specifically to production programs, though if you are interested in design, or both design and construction, they may be of related interest.

- = -

First i should note what this post is NOT about: it's not about finding the program you want. That's probably the most frequently-asked question I and my colleagues get from undergraduates: essentially, "Where should I apply?"

The trouble with this question is that it presumes that there is one standard by which all secondary programs are judged, a "one size fits all" rubric by which MFA programs either measure up or fall short. In point of fact, that simply isn't true. Someone who wants to concentrate in shop management will have different educational priorities from someone who wants to focus on historical draping techniques. Someone who wants to work in university theatre will need a different set of skills and experience than someone who wants to work at the top level of opera or ballet, who themselves will face different professional challenges than someone who wants to work in film and television costuming. Someone who wants a program that works hand-in-hand with a LORT theatre/Equity house will not be satisfied at a school that produces student productions with student designers and actors.

I can't give you a post with the "top ten schools" or my personal recommendations, where you should aspire to study, because that's up to you to evaluate your needs, to better define what you want in a graduate school. Undergraduates who ask me, "What are good schools for studying graduate level crafts artisanship?" or "Where should i apply if i want to focus in textile arts?" are the ones who have already begun doing their homework, as it were. The question is, what do you want to do with your career? Ask around and find out where professionals recommend you study for your area of interest. And if you don't yet know, get out and work--that will help you narrow it down.

If you find yourself wondering, "Who do i ask?" ...then that in and of itself is evidence that you probably need to work more in the field before applying to graduate school. Most candidates in the more competitive, highly-reputable production programs don't come straight out of undergrad. They've worked in the field as stitchers, crafts assistants, wardrobe masters, set costumers, assistant milliners. They've asked their colleagues, their managers and coworkers about MFA programs. This sort of work has not only given them good fodder for their portfolios, but also resources and connections, professionals in the field who can write them recommendation letters and talk with them about where they might want to pursue graduate study.

Another resource, that can serve as a complement to professionals' feedback, is the USITT Survey of Costume Programs. It lists all the schools in the US and a few abroad that have costuming-oriented degree programs, both undergraduate and graduate. Each school's entry has the types of degrees offered, areas of focus (i.e., design, tailoring, history, etc), faculty/staff, contact info, and links to the programs' websites. My only criticism is that the programs are listed by region and alphabetically by school, but no search function by which one might, say, look for every school listed that offers an MFA in Costume Technology, or a BA with a costuming focus, etc. Still, it can give you a good idea about what's available at various schools, who the faculty are, etc. Be aware though that the onus of maintaining current information is on the programs' directors, and thus not all information may be current--double-check with the websites of the programs that interest you!

And, supposing you think you know already which programs you want to consider, contact the directors and other instructors and staff of those programs. Ask them directly for advice on what sort of background you need to have or develop to be seriously considered as a prospective candidate. Where did currently-enrolled candidates work before coming to the program? What sort of experience did they have? How many apply each year, and how many get in? Do all this legwork before you apply. You don't want to waste your time and money applying to a program that is a poor fit for you, or you for it.

- = -

So, you've decided where you want to apply. You've checked out the websites of the programs, written to their directors and received your packets of information and sent in your applications and all that hoop-jumping rigamarole. You've gotten people to write glowing letters of recommendation and you've spent hours and days and weeks tweaking your portfolio. Is that all there is to do but wait, fingers crossed and ants in the pants until notifications are sent?

Well, wait a minute. I've already devoted a post to my thoughts on portfolios, but what about recommendations? I do have a brief bit to say on that subject as well.

This may seem like stating the obvious, but make absolutely certain that you ask people for recommendations who will write enthusiastic, wonderful, unreservedly great ones. Choose people who will write letters so positive that metaphorical rays of sunshine burst from the very flap of the envelope upon breaking its seal. Again, if you don't know three people in the field who can do such a thing, keep working until you do. Grad school ain't going nowhere; you have time to build up the references. If you are a good worker, diligent, reliable, creative, motivated, etc., it won't take too many freelance jobs to really click with people who should be glad to write you a recommendation. Don't choose someone with a connection to a program that is barely familiar with your work over someone unrelated to the school who can go into detail about your skills and work ethic and knowledge and disposition. Be absolutely sure they will write you a good rec, without any reservations expressed or implied. Nothing's more sad than seeing the words "adequate" or "sufficient" in a recommendation letter.

But okay, you've got glowing recs and a lovely recently-updated portfolio and a finely-honed statement of purpose and OMG if you don't get in you'll be crushed, or something.

There's one more thing that you should do and I cannot stress this enough: visit the school. Even if you already dropped by the campus before you applied, visit the school again, this time as a known prospective candidate. Plan a trip and check out the program in-depth. Meet the professors, talk to the other students, walk around the campus and the city. Present your portfolio and take questions on your work. Have questions of your own. Talk to the instructors when the students aren't around, and talk to the students when the professors aren't around. Sit in on several classes. If you are accepted, you are going to spend at least the next three years living in this city working with these people, spending long hours with them day-in and day-out. Ideally, plan your visit over two days, so you can observe as many classes as is feasible, both the MWF ones and the T-Th ones, and if there are any shows running, see if they can arrange a ticket for you to see the fruits of their labor.

Telephone interviews and electronic portfolios are a poor substitute for walking through the facility, having lunch with the current students and faculty, observing some classes, checking out the shop space and equipment and safety priorities and the like. Besides, it will be just as useful to you as it is to them. Are they too busy to have time for you? Do they seem interested in your work and your candidacy? Do they speak freely and answer your questions frankly? Do the people in the program seem to get along with one another? What's the atmosphere in the department? I can tell you from my own experience visiting graduate schools, one school left me to wander the facilities on my own and no one was available to answer my questions, while another assigned a student to show me around who talked nonstop about how dissatisfied she was with the program. A third program's assistant director showed me around himself, answered all of my questions and allowed me to sit in on his class and speak with his students. It was clear to me which school cared most about potential incoming students.

Note that in this post i am only speaking for myself, that i do not make admissions decisions for any graduate program nor do i speak on the official behalf of any program. I have worked for LORT theatres in residence at a number of graduate programs, and have myself worked for several of those programs, so i speak only from that collective observation.

And as always, if you have any questions, feel free to ask them in the comments or email me (via the contact section of my site, linked on the Profile for this blog)!
labricoleuse: (me)
It's been a little while since i did an Ask LaBricoleuse entry, and since it is generally that time of year when those who are applying to bachelors and graduate programs and summer-stock theatres are getting together their portfolios, i thought this might be useful. It didn't actually come from a privately-emailed query, but was spawned by a more general post in the [ profile] theatre_techies community.

My current job includes teaching grad school coursework in costume technology, and i see a lot of portfolios from folks applying to our program. This is one of my favorite things about applicants' visits--the opportunity to see their portfolios. I'm writing this post from purely my own perspective, what *I* think about how a portfolio should be set up and arranged. I don't make acceptance decisions here, but i do offer feedback frequently both to prospective applicants and to our own students in twice-yearly portfolio presentations/evals. Bear in mind as you read it, this is only my opinion and is not to be considered any kind of stone-carved hard-rule on the subject.

Unfortunately there is no standard for portfolio formatting like say, the Chicago Manual of Style for writing or somthing. This post is primarily directed toward those readers first compiling a portfolio, or those who aren't terribly confident about their portfolios, those with an interest in improving or streamlining a portfolio, etc. Certainly too, if you are one of my readers with an extremely extensive portfolio, i would love to have your input in comments as to how you have set up yours, hard-copy vs electronic, link to your online site, etc!

Whenever you are applying for a program or a job where they request a portfolio, don't be afraid to contact the head of the program or the shop manager and ask what they would like to see in that portfolio. They should be glad to tell you--one place might want to see the full range of your work from stitching to crafts to patternmaking to draping, while another may only want to see, say, your original design work and nothing else. Never hurts to ask, and if the program director or HR person or shop manager is rude and dismissive, well, IMO that in and of itself tells you something about what it might be like to work or attend school there. More than likely they will be happy you asked--it shows that you value both their time and yours.

Here are three basic things i always tell folks who ask me for hard-copy portfolio set-up advice:

1.) Get an actual plain functional portfolio binder designed to, you know, like, contain a professional portfolio. Certainly the work speaks for itself, and certainly no one's going to be denied entry to a program or passed over for work if s/he shows a portfolio full of genius-quality work JUST because they are presented in, say, a scrapbook with kittens on the cover, but it does make an impression of unprofessionalism or ignorance or immaturity. Invest in a good portfolio book to keep your stuff in. It doesn't have to be expensive, it doesn't have to be huge, it doesn't have to be genuine fine leather, but it should be clearly a portfolio book and not like, a bright purple notebook with a pirate flag on it or something. (This may seem like stating the obvious, but you would be surprised.) For my own portfolio, i keep it in a larger, ringbound version of this easel-based design. It is good to be able to choose whether to lay it flat on a table when interviewing with one person, or set it up like an easel when presenting to several people at once.

I recommend you get a portfolio with a ring binding that opens and closes, too, if you want a formally bound portfolio. In the long run, you will be glad you did. In the course of a costuming career, you will need to tailor the layout and order of your portfolio to whatever job for which you are applying. For example, if you are looking for a summer gig as a tailor's assistant, you may not even want to include craftwork or dyework pages since they don't apply to the job you seek...but if you are applying for admittance to a graduate program you may benefit from including the entire range of your work. If you are looking to stitch in a ballet costume shop, you will want to put your dancewear photos first, whereas if you are wanting to do craftwork at a Shakespeare festival, you may wish to feature some armor-making and period headwear. It will save you mucho time if you can just pop the rings and move/remove/add pages easily.

Or, you might want to mount your portfolio pages on loose separate illustration boards and transport them in a zipper case. This can be helpful for viewing, say, four pages at once, and it's very easy to reorder them, pass them around, etc. It also means that they may be more easily damaged or lost though, so that's something to consider.

2.) Regarding photos of stagecraft or costumes: be discerning. One decent photo is definitely better than no photos. No photos, though, are better than a blurry crappy photo that doesn't accurately depict the subject. You are wasting people's time if you show a portfolio of poorly-lit shoddy pictures, offering an excuse of, "These are the only photos i have of these costumes...but they were really great!" All that really tells the interviewer is that you neglected to take or obtain decent photographs documenting something you consider to be great work...which is NOT an impression you want to engender. If you don't have good photographs of something but you can still access the garment and take some, do it, soon! If you can't, take it as the hard-learned lesson that it is and make SURE you photograph things you work on, starting now. Multiple photos--different angles or detail shots or mid-process shots--are the best. Photos against a neutral backdrop are better than photos with a messy workroom in the background, but a good series of photos with a workshop background are better than no photos at all. I have a coworker hold up a sheet of muslin behind something or wheel a form in front of our fitting room curtain if i need a quick "backdrop" for a photo.

If you are interested in design and have no photos of a design you did but you have drafts or renderings, that's ok--it shows that you can and do draft or render. And, if you have anything else visual to attach to it (paint chips to show the color palette for a set, swatches of fabrics from a costume or scrims/drapes/soft props/upholstered furniture, etc) stick that in there too. An ideal portfolio shows the many facets of your skills and talent. A designer who has only stage shots of the final show is only displaying one facet of her or his talent--good designers also produce competent renderings, research, collages, make good fabric choices, etc., so any evidence of those skills is appropriate to include. This philosophy also applies to crafts artisans--you are selling yourself short if you only have finished photos of work for the stage. If you spend your summers, say, doing elaborate event decor or making intricately adorned bridal headpieces, it is certainly appropriate to include photos of that work.

3.) Label everything completely, consistently, and accurately. If it's a class project, note that ("Lion mask, Sculpture class project, Joe Blow High School, 2005"). If it's costumes for a show that was actually produced, put a label beside the picture(s) with the show title, your job, what organization did the show, and when ("Twelfth Night, stitcher/crafts assistant, Chicago's Shakespeare in the Park", Summer 2003). If it's a costume you made for a convention or Halloween or whatever, note that on a label, and especially if it is some type of cosplay thing, include an image of the character the costume is supposed to represent as well--assume people don't know the source material, and if your costume doesn't look all that great juxtaposed against the source material, then you shouldn't include it, period.

Once you have your portfolio basically set up--you have your binder, all your pictures and renderings and inserts and labels together and laid out onto pages and the like--the big question then is, how do you order it?

Consider, as i said above, the purpose: tailor what you include to what the employer or program wants to see. Ask them. I cannot stress that enough. Once you know what you are including, then turn an eye to what goes where. People will make a case for chronological or reverse-chronological order, grouping things by category (all designs together, all crafts together, etc), and those ordering-schemes certainly have their pros and cons. I am an advocate though of the "in with a bang, out with a bang" philosophy. Put something first that is really exciting and showcases something you are really proud of. You will be most confident talking about that first, and it will start you off with good momentum. Order the rest of it however makes sense to you, but make sure that the last thing in there is also something really cool.

Nothing is more anticlimactic than viewing an entire portfolio and the last thing you see is someone's oldest, least-skilled, earliest work. Just because you did something doesn't mean it needs to be in your portfolio, and going chronologically backward always leaves your interviewer with your oldest (often crummiest) work as their final impression. If you want to retain some photos of a project from the early days of your experience, structure a page in the portfolio as a juxtaposition to illustrate progress--something like, "Here is the first hat i ever made back in 1999, and here is a recent hat i made for My Fair Lady."

Also, i'm a proponent of "Don't bog it down with too much stuff." If you have done so much stuff that you have a hundred portfolio pages, that's nice, but no interviewer is going to give you the time to show the whole thing. Pick your best stuff. Ten amazing things, period, are a better portfolio than forty things of which ten are amazing.

One of the biggest questions in the field right now is whether to move entirely to digital/online portfolios. You are starting to see job postings that require submission of digital portfolios only. It is definitely going to be a big part of the future of the industry, whether it fully replaces hard-copy portfolios or not, and it would behoove you to generate some type of digital-format portfolio--mostly i've seen them either set up as PowerPoint presentations or an online site. My own site is linked in the sidebar--the last two jobs i've gotten didn't ask for a hard-copy portfolio at all; the site functioned as the sole source.

My own site is not as fully-developed as i'd like--i intend to add a downloadable/printable PDF of my resume and at some point a downloadable PowerPoint version of the portfolio. I don't maintain my own site--i barter with a friend who does web design--but many artisans do. If you want to set up an online portfolio and have no idea where to start, there are several services out there catering to the setup of an online portfolio. Qfolio,, and Carbonmade are a few to get you started. In researching prospective designers for various projects, i've found the most working professional costumers using Qfolio, but for those with no budget, Carbonmade has an option for a free basic account.

Hopefully this is useful as a starting point, some advice on how to approach creating a portfolio. And, for any of you job-searching or hoping to shoot for acceptance into various educational programs in 2007, best of luck to you!

ETA (August 2007): You may wish to check out the resource volume, Developing and Maintaining a Design-Tech Portfolio for Theatre, TV, and Film by Raphael Jaen. This book came out in fall of 2006 and focuses specifically on portfolios in technical production and design in the entertainment industries.

Re Carbonmade, one of my students has begun to set up his portfolio on there and is really pleased with their service.
labricoleuse: (Default)
This post is kind of cheating--it come from a query posted over in [ profile] theatrecostumes by [ profile] jessafurr, so it wasn't technically someone Asking LaBricoleuse, but rather someone asking a whole community of folks...i thought i'd post my response here though as part of the Ask LaBricoleuse series.

Here are [ profile] jessafurr's original questions:

I was hoping to get some advice from any of you veterans out there. I'm really hoping to go to grad school after I graduate and one day do professional work or teach at a university. I do have some questions though.
1) What grad schools would you suggest for a costume designer? Any really good ones near the midwest with assistantships that would wave tuition?

My most recent post on MFA programs was specific to the field of Costume Production, which is a different matter than Costume Design, though similar.

And, in case you wonder, "what's the difference between the two fields?" I'll address that first!

An MFA in Costume Production focuses specifically on construction technologies and histories. In these programs, you will learn draping, tailoring, pattern drafting (often both by hand and using software such as CAD), and crafts topics like dyeing, millinery, and maskmaking. Some programs may also have archiving classes on analyzing and/or preserving vintage garments (see the CoStar Vintage Clothing Archive site for one example of what type of work falls into this area), or managerial tracks for those interested in pursuing a career in costume shop management.

With an MFA in Costume Design, you will probably still have a certain amount of production coursework--draping classes, crafts classes, drafting, dyeing perhaps, etc.--but your primary focus will be on designing. You will likely study rendering techniques, design theory, and ideally, have opportunities to design for actual productions. One thing to ask with design programs is how much practical experience opportunities there are for their MFA candidates--will you only design hypothetical shows that never actually get produced, or will you design several shows a season and have hands-on practical design experience? Will you get to design shows that have a construction budget (i.e., costumes that will be custom-built from your renderings) or will your designs have to be largely pulled and altered from stock or rentals?

Programs that focus on design or a combination of design and production are a lot more common than programs that offer a production-only area of specialty. If you are uncertain as to whether you want to specialize in design or production (or if you want to make a go at both), one of the combined-focus programs is what you should be looking for. And, you should definitely contact the directors of the programs at the schools that interest you--talk to them about their programs, make an appointment to go visit and see the facilities, perhaps even sit in on a class or two. Actually going to the department and the shops will be invaluable in helping you decide if a particular school or program is for you.

In terms of applications and interviews, the portfolio advice i gave in my previous post on MFA programs holds true--start your portfolios early! The program directors will take into consideration your design history and experience, so the portfolio should have renderings and swatches and the like in addition to photos; don't worry if all you have from your undergrad work is class projects, that's ok, put them in there. As i said in my other post--do summer stock during your summers! It's fun, it's great experience, it gives you more crap for your portfolio, and it shows you are serious about a career in the theatre.

In terms of what grad schools to suggest, that depends on what areas you want to focus on, and everyone's going to have different ideas on that front. Talk to your costuming professors in undergrad--they are a good starting resource--and if there are any schools near you that you can visit in say, a weekend trip, call them up and go visit! Ask the professors, ask the students, get as many opinions as you can. And, make a list of what else is important to you in a grad school--geographical location sounds like it's important in this case, and good funding for MFA candidates.

When you visit programs, ask if they are fully or partially funded, and with what kinds of funding. Work-study positions? Teaching assistantships? Research assistantships? Any specific grants and scholarships? Where i work, we have a combination of all of these, and many of our MFA candidates pay for their studies with several different kinds of funding aid. I would caution against asking specifically about tuition waivers in those exact terms, because (and this is just me talking here, nothing at all official) the word "waiving" of fees implies a free ride, something for nothing, and nearly all graduate programs that offer funding expect you to do something in return, whether that be teach an undergrad intro course or grade exams or oversee costume donations and loans, etc etc.

So, how do you find what programs are out there and begin this vast search? I'd start by checking out the Survey of Costume Programs:

Full disclosure: My department head created and maintains this site. I am the first to admit that it's not ideally set-up, but the Survey is nevertheless a great resource for anyone seeking higher education programs in costume fields. It's a one-stop compendium of this sort of info; it lists all the schools in the US and a few abroad that have costuming-oriented degree programs, both undergraduate and graduate. Each school's entry has the types of degrees offered, areas of focus (i.e., design, tailoring, history, etc), faculty/staff, contact info, and links to the programs' websites.

The main caveat here is to remember as you search through it that the individual schools listed are responsible for making sure their entries are up-to-date and accurate. ALWAYS check the school's website or contact them directly to make sure the information on degrees offered, subjects, and staff are correct.

In terms of usability, my primary criticism of the site is that at present the programs are listed by region and alphabetically by school, but no search function by which one might, say, look for every school listed that offers an MFA in Costume Design, or a BA with a costuming focus, etc. This will however, be useful for seeking schools by geographical area. See what's listed in the area you want, and then ask your professors about those schools.

For example, in the Great Lakes Region, there are nine schools with costume programs listed in Illinois, of which five offer graduate degree options. Of those five, I've heard the most good stuff about the programs at Northwestern and UI-Champaign/Urbana, but if i wanted an MFA in design from an Illinois school, i'd contact all five for more information, rather than just restricting myself to NWU and UI-C/U. It all depends on your priorities!

2) Seeing as theatre jobs are often limited (and my parents are harping at me to make sure I'll be able to find a career with benefits and such) how likely is it that I will find SOME sort of job that would provide insurance and a decent income?

Frankly, i believe that the idea that theatre jobs are limited is a myth. I know it's commonly bandied about and has been for years--i heard it all the time when i was an undergrad. "You can't make a living in theatre!" That really honestly has not been my experience at all. Sure, it's hard to get work as an actor, and sure, it's not a field you can survive on just any town in America, but if you are not trying to be an actor and you are willing to go where the work is, there's plenty of work to be found. What's the cliche? Something like that for every actor you see onstage there are twenty technicians working behind-the-scenes in some capacity to make a production happen. That's cliche because it's true--there are LOTS of jobs in production and design.

Decent income, insurance, those things are out there. Yes, there are a lot of small-potatoes theatre companies that will ask you to work for peanuts or free, but those are not companies you should be working for--people who want to do costumes for a hobby, for fun, or as a supplementary income should take those jobs, not people who want to be able to live off a career in the field. Universities often provide good wages and insurance, so if teaching appeals to you or if you work at a professional theatre in residence on a university campus (for example, the Huntington Theatre at Boston University), that's one avenue of possible employment. Union shops are another--many of the unions provide insurance and other benefits to their members and help ensure that you make a living wage. Freelancing can provide you with a great income, but often you are responsible for your own insurance (which sometimes can be had through organizations like the Freelancers Union). Remember too that you aren't limited to theatre companies--ballet and opera costuming are other options, event costumes, theme parks, cruise ships, sports teams, Las Vegas performers, television and film...all of these areas need costumes designed and built, and who will do that? Costume professionals.

I won't lie and say working as a costumer is a breeze and that i frequently throw hundred dollar bills out the window to the masses because money means nothing to me anymore, but it's not a one-way ticket to welfare and starvation or anything.

Good luck with your search for a graduate school program in design, and feel free to comment or email with any further questions, or your own experiences finding a school, finding work, etc.
labricoleuse: (Default)
This query comes from costumer and novelist Sara M. Harvey, who has been so wonderful as to grant me permission to share it and my response with all-y'all here on [ profile] labricoleuse:

As a costume crafter myself, I have some questions...first off I have a very difficult time explaining to people what it is that I do. Looking over your resume, I see that it is not all that differently worded than my own, so I must be inquiring with the wrong sorts of folks. Which leads into my second question...I can see by your resume that you have worked some very interesting and amazing places. How do you go about finding a good match in an employer? So far, my most rewarding costuming endeavor has been working at the Renaissance Faires since I am a costume historian as well and love working on reproductions and recreations. Unfortunately, in addition to being a strictly seasonal position, the Renaissance Faire does not offer much in the way of a living wage or benefits.

Currently, I am teaching fashion design in Nashville, TN, but I am dying to get back into a costume shop!,, and IATSE have all been sorely lacking in costume craft/costume historian opportunities and I am wondering if you'd have any insight on a better resource for craft work.

First off, in terms of a good employer, it's like dating—you have to put yourself out there, then you have to freelance in a few places, and it'll be clear which places might be a good fit for you and which you don't want to accept a contract at. Every shop has different facilities and managerial structures and the like. For myself, I've found that I prefer being the lead crafter running the shop—I'm a good assistant in that I have a wide skill set and can do or learn to do most anything asked of me, but I have a hard time not "going my own way" when I see what I think is a more efficient way to get something done, and that can be a problem when you aren't the one supposed to decide those things! In contrast, I had an assistant once who never wanted to be a lead crafts artisan—she preferred to have some direction and less responsibility, and she was a brilliantly skilled artisan. I think unfortunately as well, you have to have a nomadic bent—you will do best, starting out at least, if you are willing to pick up and move where the jobs are. There are tons of opportunities all over the place, but you have to be able to go to the work; the work rarely comes to you.

Obviously the "entertainment center" cities of NYC and LA are great for craftspeople, in terms of there being tons of work. Unfortunately, they also come with metropolitan issues like high rents, pollution, high costs of living, etc. If you love big-city life, excellent. I can give you a list of LA & NYC shops depending on your interest (Hats? Masks? Dyeing? A little of everything? West cost vs. east coast?) Luckily though, for those who don't fancy either place, great craftsperson jobs can be found in smaller cities around the country if you know where to look. Besides the obvious options of LORT theatre and university shops, one major employer of craftspeople that provides a range of fun projects is professional children's theatre: Children's Theatre of Minneapolis and Childsplay Theatre of Tempe AZ are two of the better-known ones. IMO the pinnacle of independent craft shops—you might even call it "America's WETA"—is that of Michael Curry Design in Scappoose, OR. They built really amazing macropuppets for shows like The Lion King and Cirque de Soleil and the like. A third option is bighead/walkaround shops—essentially, the folks who do character costumes for sports team mascots, amusement parks, ad campaigns, etc. They can be found all over the country.

If you don't want to go to NYC or LA but you want to build up a good stable of freelance work, I'd advise going to a metropolitan area with a good amount of universities in residence and a local film industry (Chicago and Boston are good options) and sending your resume around to theatre departments, any independent shops or theatres, the resident ballet and opera companies, and any related industries such as leathersmith shops, retail/rental costume establishments that build on-site, local milliners, the local IATSE or film e-list folk, etc., because often crafters will take overhire outside the costuming industry in those areas and you can make some good contacts. Really, unfortunately, it's a matter of some shop manager giving you a break or needing crafters so badly that they take a chance on you—once you get into the work pool of a costuming "community," managers will recommend you to one another and you'll start getting calls. Or at least, that's been my experience.

And where do these jobs get posted? On ARTSEARCH primarily:

That is the main place that "serious" employers post their jobs. Local libraries should have the print version available, and most university drama departments and professional theatres have memberships to the online version as well.

Let me know if this has jogged any further questions, I'd be glad to go into more detail. And good luck!
labricoleuse: (shakespearean alan cumming)
Welcome to a new topic-theme here, thanks to some emailed queries i've been getting from a few of you readers: Ask LaBricoleuse! I'm always glad to answer questions about the field of professional costuming (find me via the email link on my professional website, linked in the left sidebar of this weblog), so feel free to contact me.

Today's query is from Aurora, an undergraduate considering MFA programs in Costume Production, who graciously granted me permission to reproduce our email correspondence here for others' benefit as well. Her questions are in italics, my responses are in standard text:

Right now I'm a sophomore studying History with a BS and Theater & Film BGS. I'm very interested in attending your college for grad studies under a Costume Production program. I've been thinking recently of switching my History major to a BGS to coincide with my Theater & Film degree. The major difference is that I wouldn't have any foreign language experience anymore. Would this majorly impact either my chances for acceptance at your school, or my future job prospects in costume production? I've heard that especially in academia a BGS is looked down upon. Just your educated guesses, I appreciate advice on what you know.

I can only really speak for our program here at UNC-Chapel Hill (though, to be honest, we have one of the best programs in the country, so I can’t imagine other programs do things too terribly differently), but for us, your undergraduate degree and the letters that signify it are not among the primary factors that impact your acceptance as a candidate for an MFA in Costume Production, and we don’t have a foreign language requirement for our program. Certainly, many costume production MFA applicants come with a background in theatre or film, but others come from a range of other backgrounds—fashion, textile arts, history, anthropology, fine art, even chemistry and engineering!

Here, beyond the basic university entrance requirements, what we look for is a good portfolio—actual photographs of work that you’ve done—and a good interview, whether you seem like you’d be a good fit for our program. Since you are a sophomore, you have plenty of time to build up that portfolio. I see from their website that [Aurora's undergraduate school] has two Costume Production classes, so document photographically any projects you do in those classes. Document as well any hobbyist costume-making you might do (Halloween, cosplay, etc). If you are involved in extra-curricular costuming of community theatre or other performers (rock bands, drag shows, renn faires), photograph those, and if you take any non-university classes that are related, such as a community center class on jewelry-making or something, take pictures of what you make in those. Make sure the pictures are in-focus, well-lit, and take detail shots if there’s some impressive detail like embroidery or hand-painted trim or whatever.

And, consider now what you are going to do with your summers. As an undergrad, I did two internships with summer theatres, which was an amazing and invaluable experience. The folks who run those theatres can write you some great recommendation letters and can be good contacts for the future. I’ve gotten three jobs because people saw my summer stock experience on my resume and they had worked there themselves at some point. There are tons of Shakespeare festivals, musical-theatres, and regional or resort theatres that run summer seasons and love to hire folks in school during their summer breaks. I can recommend some if you like, if there are any particular areas of interest you have! Summer stock is an easy way to get hands-on experience while getting paid, build up your portfolio, and spend your summer somewhere cool. They often provide housing, sometimes with meals, and pay a stipend or salary.

When you get to the point of applying for programs, go through all the photographs you’ve compiled of things you’ve made and pick out the best things, stuff you can talk about in an interview (how you made it, problems you had with the design if any, things you learned from the process). Ideally you want somewhere around 10-20 things. More is not necessarily better—10 awesome things in a portfolio is far preferable to 20 mediocre things. If you are doing any projects or papers for your history classes that have to do with costume/dress/adornment, definitely include those in your portfolio or bring copies to your interviews once you get to that point in the application process as well. I know the history of clothing is a large component of our program, and papers on costuming topics would be something to make your application/portfolio stand out.

Can you expand a little more on this? Should I be working on pattern drafting, stitching skills, distressing, dying . . . should I have portfolios for each, or just a list of what I've done and pictures of the best work in each area? What other areas should I be working on developing? Also, what kind of pictures are prefered: On a person or a dress dummy? Background or neutral? Thanks, I truely appreciate your advice :D

I think probably the best idea is to try to get a wide range of practical experience: drafting, draping, craftwork, dyeing/painting/distressing, etc. Honing your stitching skills is a wise pursuit, as you’ll need them for certain in graduate school and a good balance of speed and accuracy can only help. Having a good grasp of the various branches of costume production will be useful in figuring out what you want your primary focus grad-wise to be. Our MFA candidates have concentrations in draping (this is the most popular), tailoring, craftwork, or shop management. For applying to a production program like ours, I’d recommend creating one portfolio showing your range of work grouped by section—here’s photos of draped garments, here’s costumes I stitched on, here’s my craftwork, etc. I think if you already have an idea of what you want to focus on, or as you get a good broad base and start to lean in one direction or another, it can’t hurt to focus on that. Say, if you really love millinery, you might make the hats and headdresses section of your portfolio the first and the largest section, but keep in there examples of your draping, stitching, mask-making, whatever. Later in your career once you are out of grad school and job-seeking, separate portfolios tailored to the type of position for which you are interviewing can be helpful, but not at this point in the process, IMO.

If you do know that, say, you really love tailoring, try to find a summer gig as a tailor’s assistant, whereas if you know you love crafts, try to get summer work as a crafter’s assistant. And, if you don’t know what you want to focus in, look for places that advertise jobs for “costume generalists” or “costume technicians” because often those jobs want you to do a little bit of everything. Grad programs like to know that you’ve had practical work in your field, that you’ve worked somewhere besides your university shop—university shops are great, but they afford you only the narrow horizon of how things are done, whereas getting out into the workforce in summers gives you a broader exposure to how another shop is run, how other places push shows through their shops. It’s a good idea to start doing research now for summer work—a lot of places are posting calls for resumes now on boards like and will be doing first rounds of hiring in the early months of the new year.

As for the composition of the photos, I think ideally, you have close-up photos against a neutral background (black or white drop), with supplementary stage shots of the costume piece(s) on the performer. If something’s super-impressive and the only picture of it you have is on a dummy in the shop with folks standing around in the background or whatever, that’s better than nothing, since everyone knows there’s just not always time for well-planned lovely photos of things. With craftwork, I like to take process photographs as well—here’s the structure of the hat, here’s the hat with the fashion fabric on it, here’s the finished hat trimmed out, that kind of thing. Check out the "projects" tag (linked in the sidebar) for some examples of process photos.

Good luck with everything. Stay in touch, too; I’m always glad to answer questions about any aspect of the field (if I can!), and am happy to help out.

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