Tempermental mates

Despite common goals, designers, supervisors often at odds

Like a marriage of complementary opposites, costume designers and costume supervisors should work together to realize a common vision. Yet like any modern union, budgetary concerns, mismatched personalities and overlapping roles create friction and competition.

It is the costume designer’s job to design the overall look of a film or show. They work directly with actors and directors before creating and sketching costumes that are produced by a team of craftsmen overseen by a supervisor, whose role is more managerial. The supervisor is in charge of budgets, staffing and the hands-on aspects of wardrobing.

To keep their tasks distinct, the two groups formed separate unions under the IATSE umbrella. Costume supervisors belong to Motion Picture Costumers Local 705, organized in 1937. Members also include tailors, seamstresses, cutters, fitters, drapers and numerous other craftsmen. The smaller Costume Designers Guild-Local 892, formed in 1956, is exclusively for designers.

Hollywood’s costume designers and supervisors are almost equals in terms of numbers and minimum wages. Supervisors number 446 and make a basic wage of $1,480 a week, while there are 430 designers commanding $1,584 a week.

But unemployment is much higher in the Costumer Designers Guild. The Designers Guild currently has approximately 25% of its membership available for work, while only 11% of supervisors remain unemployed.

Carol Frazier, business representative for the Costume Designers Guild, attributes high unemployment to a trend in the industry toward using costume supervisors for movies and TV shows without a designer to create an overall look.

“That seems to be the general trend,” she says. “If there isn’t anything to be designed, they go shop it or rent it and I guess they try and get by with it. It’s just bottom-line money.”

Frazier feels quality suffers as a result. “It doesn’t have a special look for the characters,” she maintains. Others, even designers, say supervisors are perfectly capable of handling shows where the need for creating original costumes just isn’t there.

Unemployment in the Designers Guild, say supervisors, may come from mediocrity among some members whose lack of artistic abilities leave them tearing pages out of magazines to “design” a show. They note that the top designers are always working and rarely complain about supervisors taking their jobs.

Jane Ruhm, a one-time supervisor who has earned three Emmys for her work on Tracey Ullman’s HBO comedy/variety series, says the ’80s created a glut of designers. “A lot of people who were supervisors in that ’80s boom period said ‘Hey, I’m getting on this bandwagon. I’m going to be a designer,’ ” Ruhm says. “And they became designers, but now they don’t work because a lot of them aren’t really qualified to be designers.”

Larry Harmell, head of Universal’s costume department, says a lot of designers are working on more than one show, shrinking the job pool even further. Ruhm agrees, often juggling more than one TV project at a time with the help of a talented staff.

Ruhm also believes supervisors can handle many contemporary shows. “I’ve gone on job interviews where people have said to me, ‘We want this and this and we don’t want to pay any money.’ And I look at the script and I say, ‘I’m sorry, but I really don’t understand why you want to spend the money for a designer on this. This show doesn’t need a designer. If you hire a really great supervisor, they can give you everything you want.”

Designer Jeffrey Kurland, lauded by his peers for his work on numerous Woody Allen pictures, says contemporary film is misunderstood by the industry and the public. Countering the charge that designers have turned into shoppers, Kurland says, “In contemporary films, the reality quotient is that you’ve got to find things. I can honestly tell you though that I have never bought a piece of clothing in a store that I have actually put on a person and put directly onscreen. It’s always recut, redone to that person for that character.”

Though the Designers Guild’s Frazier maintains supervisors have a long history of working without designers in film and television, the practice still creates animosity today. Supervisor Sue Moore, who handled “Jurassic Park” and “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” without designers, says, “I am in the unique position of having been able to work on a couple of major films without a costume designer and this has created great resentment from designers that I have been given this opportunity.”

Moore also supervises films for costume designers. She recently worked with designer Ruth Carter on “Amistad,” where the two initially had different approaches to the film but were able to work them out. Carter came from the budgetary constraints of many nonunion pictures where she had to work as both supervisor and designer. Moore had overseen many large union pictures on her own.

Cater says the marriage of younger designers with experienced supervisors at the union’s insistence is inherently fraught with difficulties. “You have to pick from (the union’s) No. 1 list of supervisors. And once you pick that person, you’re probably going to get a person who can do the job but you’re also going to get a person who is used to doing things a certain way. It’s an automatic conflict of interest.”

In addition, says Carter, “You get supervisors who want to design. They feel they have worked for very weak costume designers who don’t really know what they’re doing and they have bailed them out, year after year.”

Designer Kym Barrett believes the designer must take responsibility for hiring the right supervisor. “It’s up to you to choose someone who’s going to complement you,” she explains.

Others feel the solution is to merge the unions. Says designer Bob Ringwood, “I think they’ve got to get one union where everyone is in it. To me, a costume designer is like an orchestra leader. You’re conducting the orchestra and everybody else that makes and works on the clothes is the orchestra. You, the costume designer, are at the mercy of those people. Unless you get good people and you have a good relationship with them, you’re not going to get a good result.”

Discussions regarding merging the unions were held last year between August and December, Frazier says, but resulted in a stalemate. “The talks are on a hiatus period right now. It’s not likely to happen in the near future,” she says. Some members felt there would be strength in numbers by combining the unions, Frazier explains, while others felt they would lose their identity.

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