Costume designers have ratcheted up their long-running battle for pay equity, using the awards season spotlight and a starry guild video released last month to amplify their message.
Backstage following her Oscar victory March 27, “Cruella” costume designer Jenny Beavan pointed to the embroidered guild slogan “Naked Without Us” on her blouse, and assured media that pay equity is still very much an issue in her predominantly female field. “It’s not gone away,” said Bea- van, who became embroiled in a dispute with Disney for money from “Cruella” merchandising a year earlier.
According to data about artisan pay scales provided by the Costume Designers Guild’s pay equity committee, costume de- signers earn almost $1,000 less per week than production designers, their closest creative peers. And while it can be risky to speak out about earnings, costume designers are increasingly doing so to close the gap between their compensation and that commanded by other artisans.
During her Costume Designers Guild Award acceptance speech earlier in March, Shawna Trpcic, honored for her work on “The Book of Boba Fett,” urged her peers to reveal their pay to spotlight the issue. “They won’t know to fight for us if we don’t report our wages,” she said.
Suttirat Larlarb, nominated by the guild for her contributions on “No Time to Die,” has seen the discrepancy firsthand. On 2010’s “127 Hours,” she doubled as both costume designer and production designer, but her pay scale as a production designer was “18% more than my costume design rate.”
Larlarb had already signed on to work alongside frequent collaborator Danny Boyle. When she did the math, Larlarb says, “A 10% pay cut for me meant that I was going to be going 11 years backward and I would be making less than I made an art director when I first started out.”
Having worked with Boyle before, she knew how important it was for his team to feel like collaborators meant she could express her concerns to her agent. “If they want us to take a 10% pay cut, this is what it means for me. It means that as his long-standing collaborator, compared to everybody else, I’m the only woman, that level of HOD, [and] 10% is like an injury on a lot of levels.”
Ariyela Wald-Cohain, who has credits on TV series and movies including the upcoming horror film “My Best Friend’s Exorcism,” explains it’s not uncommon for bigger-budget films to allocate only a small percent to costume design. “When you think of what we bring to the table, it doesn’t make any sense,” Wald says.
Costume designers believe a misconception of what they do feeds the inequity. They are part of the crew on set from the early hours — prepping costumes, dealing with last-minute cast changes and fittings — and often the last ones to go home at night.
Mayes Rubeo, who won an Emmy for her costume work on “WandaVision,” argues that “production designers and costume designers are two halves of one whole, and we should be paid equally.” She notes that costume designers help performers find their characters: “When actors come into the fitting room, we help crack a code. It’s not just one fitting. It can be two or three.” The process aids the performance, she adds.
Anthony Tran, costume designer on “How I Met Your Father,” concedes that people “tangibly understand” that someone with the title of producer “has a role in the creative process. Whereas I think the term costume ‘designer’ sometimes feels like you’re taking dictation from someone translating someone else’s vision, which is part of the game, of course, but we also are bringing our own ideas out of the box and to the table.”
Rubeo points out that many more key factors contribute to the pay equity fight, including systemic gender bias. Men dominate the field of production design, while women dominate costume design.
“As an organization whose membership is 86% female, we have historically been underpaid when compared to male-dominated departments,” notes Sal Perez, president of the Costume Designers Guild. “This isn’t just about pay equity: We need to change the industry for the next generation of costume designers. It is time to right this injustice.”
Larlarb’s negotiation – with her agent calling the powers that be on the film – resulted in her receiving a 10% raise. But not all costume designers can achieve that. Boyle is one of the few directors along with Ryan Murphy, Adam McKay and Todd Haynes who understand how important it is for their teams to feel like they’re collaborators, all across the board. Whether it’s giving their costume designers the title of executive producer, or McKay being made aware at the CDG Awards of Pay Equity issues. Says Larlarb, “It only really comes when the people above who know your contribution can help you.”
In the guild video released last month, Helen Mirren, Jean Smart, Sofia Coppola and Michael Douglas are among the many boldfaced names championing the work of costume designers.
Says Rubeo: “It’s 2022. We have to be seen as equals. We want to shine a light on the gross inequities.”