From Boom To Bust: How Costume Designers Are Coping With “Compounded Scariness” Of Coronavirus Shutdowns

For below-the-line workers, it had been a time of intense production and booming work until just a few days ago. The industry had an unprecedented amount of projects on the books, and freelance workers had perhaps relaxed a little, knowing there was work available, with back-to-back jobs booked in. Until all of it was taken away, essentially overnight. Addressing the COVID-19 shutdowns with the costume design community, we found stories of disappointment, worry, and confusion, but also a sense of resilience, determination and hope.

A designer who recently wrapped Ryan Murphy’s Netflix series Hollywood, Sarah Evelyn was hard at work before the production shutdowns hit. “When you’re a costume designer, you’re used to spending a lot of time away from home—and all of a sudden, I’m going from being on a job to homeschooling kids,” the costume designer says. “It’s a major adjustment, on every single level.”

Costume designer Amy Roth was in Secaucus, New Jersey, working on the pilot for ABC’s reboot of Thirtysomething(else) until a few days ago. “We were amped up to do this, because we were one day out from shooting,” Roth says, “and suddenly, we were told that we were going to shut down indefinitely.”

Given that it comes at a moment when production in film and television was at an all-time high, the adjustment feels especially harsh. “The dramatic increase in production, it just means exponentially, there’s just that many more people out of work,” Roth says, “many more people out of work than there’s ever been in our business.”

But she cites the roll-with-it capabilities of her fellow designers too. In her 20+ years in the industry, she’s seen productions go down for all kinds of reasons, from an actor falling off a horse to funding falling through. “I don’t think production crews in general can’t handle change,” she says. “We’re probably better equipped than anybody else out there to handle change, because it’s what we do every day.”

Costume designer and President of the Costume Designers Guild Salvador Perez was in Puerto Rico on a job when news of the shutdowns came. Shooting out on the island for two weeks, Perez didn’t see the grocery store shortages that have been top of mind in The States, but he did start to question why his own production was still in motion. “I actually talked to my producer. He’s like, ‘Stop being negative. We’re not shutting down.’ Then literally, as we’re at the airport, he got the call from the studio,” Perez says.

Perez has been responding to events as best he can, just like everyone else. “Look, we’re not the authorities,” he says, “so we’ve tried to give sensible information to our members, like, ‘Be safe, please stay healthy, avoid contact.’” But for those few still working, the mandates are confusing. “We also understand that everything they’re [being told] is contrary to what we do [at work],” he says. “‘Don’t hang out in large groups.’ Um…I just dressed 150 extras.”

The guild is doing its best to reassure members. “We’re in constant contact [with members],” says Rachael Stanley, Executive Director of the Costume Designers Guild. “Our offices are still open at this time. We are trying to do as much through email and phone calls as possible, without direct contact. We are sending out daily updates of anything that we get from the IA, or MPTF, or Actors Fund, or anybody where members can then go and apply for help if they need it.”

At present, they are also looking out for their members who are retired. “Our executive board has taken on a list of our retired members, and they are reaching out to them to see if they can help them, in terms of getting them the necessities of life that they’re not able to get out there and get,” Stanley says. “So right now, we’re doing everything we can.” The guild is also reducing member dues by 50% for the quarter, to alleviate the financial stress they’re already under.

For below-the-line workers, the question of severance pay is confusing too.

The guild hopes to empower its members to negotiate some severance amid shutdowns. “Some shows are giving two weeks’ severance,” Perez says, “some shows aren’t. We’re trying to pass that information around to our members, so that they have that ammunition to go to studios [with]. There’s no contractual precedent for it, but there’s a moral precedent for it.”

For now, Perez is doin his best to reassure people and offer hope and emotional support. “Just getting sick was scary, and then you can’t leave your house, and then you have no finances. So, it’s just like there’s a compounded scariness coming on. And I think that we can either wallow in it, or support each other through this time,” he says. “The biggest thing is that even though we can’t go out and see each other, we do check on each other. Some of us have family and loved ones close, and some of us don’t, so let’s just make a phone tree and check on everybody, and make sure they’re ok, and just lift somebody’s spirits.”

One thing to bear in mind, he says, is what will happen when all this is over. He expects an explosion of work for all costume designers. And perhaps this is a something to hang onto right now.

“When this is over and we all go back to work, it’s going to be a flood of work,” he says, “and there’s not going to be enough people to do it all, which is going to be very interesting, to see how that plays out. Because there are only so many people in the industry.”

Roth says she also expects a tsunami of scheduling conflicts once production starts back up. “When and if we do come back,” she says, “many actors that were available, once again, you have all this work. It used to be the unemployed actor, or many workers had no other option but to be on the film they were on, because it was the only gig in town—and now people are committed to other projects. And what is that going to mean when we’re all back in a room together saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute. You have to finish what you started.’ And somebody else is saying, ‘We’re ready to go on this,” Roth says. “So I mean, it’s just kind of wild. It’s like a big jigsaw puzzle we’ll have to figure out together.”

Ultimately, it’s this sense of solidarity and camaraderie amongst members of the production community that’s creating hope for costume designers in these trying times. “Talking to my fellow designers, and costumers, and friends in the industry, and everyone checking on everyone, you’re feeling the best of humanity,” Evelyn says, “and that’s always hopeful.”

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