Costume Designers Discuss Pay Inequality: ‘This Is About Feeling Devalued’

Costume designers have been fighting for pay equity for years, gearing up for their 2021 contract negotiations by establishing a committee highlighting the difference in pay between the mostly female Costumer Designers Guild and the primarily male membership of the Art Directors Guild Local 800. According to Amy Roth, who designed costumes on “Motherless Brooklyn” and “Madame Secretary,” those gender issues are at the heart of the matter.

“As a costume designer, I can definitely say that we are arguing up from these decades-long, outdated scale rates, based on it being considered women’s work,” Roth tells Variety.

Costume design has been viewed as a traditionally female universe as opposed to production design, a field largely occupied by men and one that typically sees higher pay than costume design.

“Here’s the issue,” says Salvador Perez, president of the Costume Designers Guild. “Costume designers are 85% women. Production designers are 85% men. We are working for hire. They build. We are two department heads doing what I think is an equal job. But because we are mostly women, we are getting paid less and I think that’s something that needs to be addressed as part of this movement.”

He adds, “Our union started later, our base rate was set, and it’s not fair.” Perez believes the conversation should be a part of the #MeToo movement.

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Oscar-nominated designer Arianne Phillips (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”) wore a Pay Equity Now pin to the Costume Designers Guild Awards and told Variety, “This is about feeling devalued, and we are here to try to make a correction.” She firmly believes in pay equality, reiterating that production designers are the closest department heads costume designers can compare themselves to.

Roth adds to Phillips’ point of feeling devalued. “Costume design is integral to the storytelling. It’s an involved creative process; we work closely with actors, the director, other department heads to achieve an overall look for a show, often working through complex logistics to get there.”

“We’re not taken seriously when we ask for a rate commensurate with our experience or provide an informed estimate on costs or labor,” she adds. “In my experience and anecdotally, there is a tendency for producers to question our budget and labor estimates needed to get the job done that doesn’t happen in the traditionally male departments.”

The key, Roth believes, is openness about pay and coming together as a community. “We need to be more open with each other as costume designers about rates.”

“I’ve heard from many established costume designers who realize that their own crew is making more money than they are during principal photography,” she continues. “In New York, many costume designers are paid less than the assistant art director working 10-hour days and our rates are based on unlimited hours.”

Phillips adds, “As creatives, we can only base it on our basic minimum union scale. Everybody is paid for by their work. We’re doing our best to raise awareness so it’s more equitable. There’s no reason why costume designers and production designers shouldn’t be paid the same.”

Roth believes that historically women are more practiced in deferring their personal desires for the greater good of the group.

“Look at Michelle Williams, who agreed to be paid scale for re-shoots because she thought it was helping the project, only to hear her male co-star was paid $1 million for the same work,” she points out. “This was not an isolated incident — this is a reflection of the business. Women are expected to give something up.”

The rise of streaming has seen more shows in production, which could be seen as an advantage. With a rapidly changing landscape, there’s definitely more work on the table, and audiences and critics are increasingly responsive to the world of costume design in films and TV shows.

“I think studios and producers are noticing this engagement, which might be helpful to us as costume designers,” Roth explains. “There are a lot more conversations on social media about costumes, as much as any discussion about lighting or set design.”

An issue, however, arises when more newcomers enter the field of costume design, and are willing to take lower rates than veterans.

“The rapid increase in design opportunities floods the industry with young, hungry people that may happily take the outdated scale rate, and not argue, feeling grateful for the chance to design,” Roth says.

It doesn’t help that those outside the field think they understand the job of the costume designer. Brittany Griffin, assistant costume designer on “Ocean’s Eight,” says, “I’m sure you’ve heard that everyone gets dressed in the morning and people think they know how to do our jobs. The other day, I had writers and producers and my showrunner said it amuses him when the writers throw out their ideas on costume because the writer will never tell the DP where to put the camera.”

While she hears costume design being dismissed as “it’s just clothes” on a regular basis, Griffin says, “There are tons of opinions about costumes and everyone feels they know how to do our jobs and they exercise their opinions.”

For now, costume designers are fighting for Hollywood to recognize their worth — and give them equal pay.

Perez said at the CDG Awards, “Time is up. Pay Equity Now.” Adam McKay, who was honored with the distinguished collaborator award agreed. “To Pay Equity Now,” he said. “Let’s do it.”

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