The UCI Costume Department

When people go to see a movie, play or musical, the last thing on their minds is the work that goes into making it happen. No one thinks about how much time it took for the scenic crew to paint and build the balcony or how much time it took to make the lavish ball gown.
As audience members, we only see the final product. Similar to a consumer, the audience does not see the assembly line and the work that goes into making the finished product. Furthermore, the audience does not see everything that goes on backstage while everything is happening onstage.
I recently learned that all the work done backstage is just as choreographed as what is done onstage. When it came down to completing my production requirements for my dance major, I decided that being a part of costume crew would be interesting. Also, for a person who never irons her clothes and who lacks the skill of sewing, I decided that being on the costume crew would also be an educational experience.
Each night we have a set routine:
Three hours before the curtain opens, the costume crew sets up for the show. This entails setting up large black boxes where the costumes are stored. We then check in every single item of clothing and jewelry to make sure that it is ready for the actors. Clothes, especially laundry from the previous night, are ironed and steamed.
During the show, each member of the costume crew assists with quick changes. We stand in the wings ready to help the actor change under a certain time limit, whether it’s five minutes, one minute or 30 seconds.
After each performance, the costume crew performs another check in of costumes to be sure that the actor has returned every piece of clothing. The night then, begins for the costume crew as they stay to do laundry.
Heidi Choi, a first-year drama major who was on the costume crew for ‘Timon’ and who will also be on the costume crew for the upcoming undergraduate musical ‘Seussical,’ wanted to do costume crew in order to interact with the actors.
‘For most of crew, it’s people who want to act, and being on costume crew allows you to interact with the actors,’ Choi said.
Costume crew has been an educational experience for Choi.
‘Being part of crew is a whole different experience from just watching a show because when you’re watching you don’t always notice all the little costume details like quick changes,’ Choi said. ‘But when you’re backstage and you have to do a 30-second quick change, you realize how fast it is. After being on crew you really learn to appreciate the production a lot more and it changes how you watch a show.’
But just like an assembly line, being a part of costume crew does not allow the crew members to see the work that came before them in the costume shop.
Approximately four months before the curtain opens, a design team of graduate students meets with their mentors to discuss their ideas for costumes, as well as lighting, sound and scenic design.
After the ideas are approved, there are production meetings to discuss deadlines and plans to complete the production within the budget allotted.
After six weeks from the first production meeting, the production team has approximately seven weeks until the first dress rehearsal to complete designs for the scenes, costumes, lighting and sound.
Vera Bailey, costume shop manager, has worked in the Claire Trevor School of the Arts costume shop for five years, but she has worked in the costume business for over 40 years at various locations such as Sea World, Magic Mountain and South Coast Repertory.
Bailey explained the work in terms of the number of hours that go into the costumes for one show.
‘If there are 60 costumes in a show and each costume usually consists about four items,’ Bailey said, ‘each item usually takes a minimum of an hour to a maximum of 10 hours to complete, which means that about 2,500 hours are spent on the costumes on a show.’
According to Bailey, the costume shop works on 600 to 800 costumes a year. Each year they keep 200 to 400 costumes, but then they also sell another 200 to 400 costumes every year in their annual Halloween costume sale.
‘We have things here from back when the costume shop opened in 1970s,’ Bailey said. ‘We run across things that are ancient.’
About 30 undergraduate students, including four permanent staff members, help to work on the costumes every quarter.
Jessica Lundquist, a first-year drama major, currently works in the costume shop. She has worked on the costumes for the recent production of ‘Timon’ and will be working on more costumes for the upcoming musical, ‘Seussical.’
‘Costumes are often a piece of the theater that is overlooked, but it is still essential to the production, so I though I would go behind the scenes and see how costumes affect the overall show,’ Lundquist said.
The costume shop members are taught how to use sewing machines and learn basic sewing techniques, such as sewing buttons.
‘I’ve definitely learned something and I see the point in people doing it because it is a necessary job and it’s not exactly always the most entertaining job but it’s definitely something that needs to get done for a production,’ Lundquist said.
For Bailey, costume production is a rewarding experience.
‘I like it a lot, but it’s very challenging,’ Bailey said. ‘The audience doesn’t always understand how much work is put into a production, but I usually feel phenomenal to get to that [point of the first dress rehearsal]. It’s a sense of relief and happiness.’