Costume designer Jennifer Johnson (“I, Tonya”) was blissfully unaware that she was less valued than her peers until she was given the wrong paycheck and discovered that the production designer she was working with on a low-budget film was getting paid a thousand dollars a week more than she was.
“I took it for granted that I was the head of a department, the same as production designers, and surely we were getting paid the same,” says Johnson.
Maybe she was a bit naïve. And maybe her lower pay rate was a result of gender bias against a guild that is predominantly female.
While there are a handful of Oscar-winning costume designers who can command $8,000 a week, that’s not the financial reality for most in the profession. Under the basic agreement between the Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers currently in effect, the weekly on-call rate for costume designers in the Costume Designers Guild (CDG), IATSE Local 892, is $2,622.91 for TV production and $2,789.73 for film work, while the weekly on-call rate for department heads in the Art Directors Guild (ADG) is $3,754.47 for both TV and film.
There is growing frustration among costume designers, many of whom feel the pay discrepancy is especially unjust given their important creative role in projects and their intimate relationship with the actors whose characters they help form, not to mention the fact that — unlike the work of cinematographers, production designers and editors — their creations can be marketed to the masses and launch cultural trends.
“You can go into West Hollywood on Halloween night and find people dressing exactly like ‘Westworld,’ ‘Mad Men’ or ‘Game of Thrones,’” says costume designer Catherine Adair, a four-time Emmy nominee for “Desperate Housewives,” currently working on Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle.”
Adding insult to injury, costume designers also get pushed into the background when it comes to screen credit.
In the opening credits for television shows, costume designers are typically listed behind unit production managers, first assistant directors and key second assistant directors. This is because the Directors Guild of America’s basic agreement stipulates that the only “technical” credits that may receive more prominent placement are the DP, the art director or production designer and the film editor.
“There’s a DGA waiver they have to apply for and secure, which means moving around some of the DGA members and, of course, a lot of them won’t agree to that, so the costume designers are usually in the end titles,” says a source at a major talent agency.
Why the low pay and lack of respect? Many believe the root cause is gender.
The CDG membership is 83% women, and the high ratio of females stands in sharp contrast to other Hollywood guilds repping behind-the-camera talents, including the ADG, the DGA and the Intl. Cinematographers Guild, which are 27%, 23.7% and 15% female, respectively.
“There really is no way to overstate the entrenched gender discrimination that afflicts the field,” Deborah Nadoolman Landis (“Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Coming to America”), who served two terms as president of the CDG in the aughts. “Whether practiced by men or women, costume design is seen as women’s work, and that’s by women producers and studio executives, as well.”
“There is really no way to overstate the entrenched gender discrimination.”
Deborah Nadoolman Landis
“In my own career, I’ve been told several times by producers, ‘My wife could do your job,’” says CDG executive director Rachael Stanley.
It doesn’t help that many have the wrong-headed idea that costume designers — especially those working on shows set in the present day — are glorified shoppers, a viewpoint reinforced by the fact that “every morning, everybody gets up and dresses themselves,” says Stanley.
But there is also simple math at play. According to Stanley, the weekly rates for production designers and costume designers weren’t very far apart back in 1976, when the CDG (formed in 1953) joined IATSE, the umbrella organization for most of Hollywood’s below-the-line guilds, including the ADG.
“But when everybody gets a 3% raise [annually], that 3% compounds higher and higher on the higher rate, and the disparity between the two grows larger and larger,” says Stanley.
Another issue is that CDG members are paid a flat rate as weekly on-call employees. In theory, that means that they will only have to be on-set when needed. In practice, they’re working from a show’s start until it wraps.
“Especially on a smaller film, the concept of on-call doesn’t work,” says Johnson. “On my last film, I averaged 18 hours a day and was paid for 12.”
This means they’re often earning less than costume supervisors and others members of the Motion Picture Costumers Local 705, working under them — who can manage the department, shop, assemble outfits and do fittings, but not design clothes — because the latter get paid hourly wages and overtime.
“There are members who would like to go to hourly and people who want to stay on-call, but it’s really not just the local’s decision, because the IA has to agree to it and, more importantly, so do the producers [in the AMPTP],” says Stanley. “And, quite honestly, the producers are never going to agree to it because it’s more advantageous for them to have us on an on-call contract.”
Some costume designers are pushing for the approximately 1,050 members of Local 892 to join forces with Local 705, which has more than 2,000 members, believing that it would give them more negotiating power. But Stanley says the CDG spent nearly three years exploring how to combine the two unions, and they were unable to overcome the conflicts between their contracts.
Costume designers are not the only ones with complaints. In May, 1,700 IATSE members petitioned for pay equity for art department coordinators (represented by Local 871), who make as little as $15.39 per hour on TV productions. Members of the CDG say they, too, have taken their concerns to IATSE, but there’s only so much one can do in an industry where “you’ll never work in this town again” is still a powerful threat.
“There are those who say, you just need to fight harder to get a better deal for yourselves, but people also have to put food on the table,” says Adair.