The Problem with Over Fitting

The Problem with Over Fitting

In my almost 30 years in the film and television business, I’ve worked with a lot of different designers. Every designer has a specific way they like things to fit, at least in the film and television world. Tailors at men’s suit stores like Brooks Brothers, or department stores like Nordstroms, have standard fit and length parameters they follow.

They’ll tell you that a suit jacket hem must end at a certain point on the wrist and the proper length of the jacket is determined by whether or not you can curl your hand around the hem in a certain way. They’ll also tell you that a pant hem needs to have a specific amount of break over the front of the shoe (the amount the hem buckles in when you’re standing straight up).

In television and film, these things can vary depending on what designer you’re working with. I have five or six different designers I work with fairly regularly and they all have specific ways they want things to fit. I’ve worked with them enough to know what each of them like. One of them likes suit pant hems on the short side but lots and lots of ‘stack’ when it comes to jean hems. Another always wants a rake in the hem because they hate to see an actor’s socks showing in the back when he walks. One likes the shirt sleeves to show a ¼” below the suit jacket. Another tends to want things very slim fitted.

One size fits all

As a tailor, one of the most annoying fit attributes is when a designer wants you to, essentially, over fit something (none of the designers I work with regularly do this). By over fitting I mean, they want me to fit something so tightly that there are absolutely no wrinkles present anywhere at anytime. The main problem with this is that it’s only achievable if the actor or actress happens to be a non-moving, stationary dress form or mannequin. And, as I’m sure you know, most are not.

Actors move, clothing wrinkles. If you fit a dress too tightly, it’s going to ride up at the slightest provocation. If you fit a man’s suit jacket within an inch of its life, the actor won’t be able to lift his arms.

There are a lot of wrinkles I can fix, but I can’t get rid of them all. An over fitted garment looks just as bad on camera as one that isn’t fitted enough. Unless you start putting all kinds of extra seams into a thing, you’ll never be able to get something that isn’t spandex, completely wrinkle free all the time. Wrinkle free-ness is only completely achievable when the actor stands in one specific way and doesn’t move at all, ever.

Oxygen is overrated

I can’t tell you how many times a designer has insisted I take something in so tightly that after it’s done, the actor complains about not being able to breathe. I usually don’t take anything in as much as I pinned in a fitting if I’m working with a designer like this. I honestly find it ridiculous that there are costume designers who don’t understand that when humans move, the clothes they are wearing also move. Sometimes there are wrinkles, and this does not mean that the garment is not fitted correctly.

Stylists who dress people for print or short shoots like commercials tend to fit things more tightly because they’re not used to dressing people for realistic scenarios and situations that involve actual movement.

Stylists who dress people for print or short shoots like commercials tend to fit things more tightly because they’re not used to dressing people for realistic scenarios and situations that involve actual movement.

Stylists who dress people for print or short shoots like commercials tend to fit things more tightly because they’re not used to dressing people for realistic scenarios and situations that involve actual movement. In a photo shoot for print, there is no movement so you can over fit to your heart’s content. That’s why clothing never fits you like it does the model in the catalogue or on the website. And this is not a bad thing.

I’ve also worked with designers who do this thing where they grab a whole wad of fabric center back to demonstrate how something should be taken in. Well, first, when you do that, you’re pulling the side seams into a weird place that they shouldn’t be. Unless its men’s pants, I rarely take something in just from the center back, especially if it’s a wad-full of fabric. One reason is that I like to avoid having to reset the zipper if possible and secondly, it probably needs to come in from the side seams and the side back seams anyway. Or, if it’s four to six inches, it might make sense to purchase the garment in a smaller size. If I were building the garment from scratch, I’d want to recut it if possible.

Stress fractures & signs you are doing it wrong

I don’t know if other people notice this but when I see a dress with side seams that swing backward instead of hanging straight, I think that someone who didn’t really know what they were doing did that alteration. Costume Designers don’t necessarily need to know all the nuances of fit and balance but they should know enough to trust a good tailor when they have one.

Sadly, it normally doesn’t do any good to try and explain yourself to a designer who tends toward over fitting. They’ll just assume you don’t know what you’re talking about.

When I find myself in a situation with a center-back-wad-pulling designer, I just nod and pin it, then alter it in the way I think is best.

Because, as any tailor who’s been in the television and film business for awhile knows, “alter as pinned” is simply a suggestion (and a way to appease an over zealous fitting designer).

Sewing With Voices

Sewing With Voices

As is my custom, this weekend, I was out with the guys riding bikes up mountains and we got to talking about podcasts and television shows and books and stuff. One of them said he didn’t really ever have time to listen to podcasts and was surprised I had time to do so.

“I listen while I sew at work,” I said.

“Really? You can pay attention to both of those things at once?” he asked.

“Yes, I really can,” I answered. And I can.

Listen while you work

I hadn’t ever really thought about it before, though. I’ve always been able to listen to radio shows or audiobooks or podcasts while sewing. I’ve even been known to watch Netflix if I’m not in a super time crunch. By “watch”, I really mean listen to a show I’ve already seen and don’t have to pay that close attention to. Or something like Law and Order that you don’t need to see the whole thing to get the gist of. Or something really cheesy like The Ghost Whisperer that only requires half your brain, at best.

Long ago, when I worked at The Alley Theatre in Houston, TX, we’d listen to audio books on the shop stereo in the afternoon. It was actually a really cool way to “read” a book. Then we’d get into lengthy debates and discussions about whatever we were listening to. We had our own sewing book club down there in the costume shop.

Hammer time

My friend Kassandra and I used to watch the morning talk shows while we made costumes for the VH1 special on MC Hammer. And these days, if I’m at work and not in a fitting, I’m listening to something like This American Life, StarTalk , Stuff You Should Know, Undisclosed, Radiolab, Ear Hustle – my list goes on and on.

Every once in awhile I come across an article that claims that humans are, in general, unable to do more than one thing at once and anyone who says they are a multi-tasker is not being completely truthful. Usually, the author will then go on to explain that people can’t really concentrate on more than one thing at once, that its scientifically impossible.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson.

But I just don’t think that’s true. I can listen to Neil Degrasse Tyson talk about black holes and the speed of light and measure, cut, pin, and sew at the same time. I can even pattern or drape while listening to something. I guess because, at this point, a lot of what I do sewing-wise I’ve done countless times before so its kind of second nature and I don’t need my full concentration to do it correctly.

In contrast, though, I can’t talk on the phone while sewing and if someone has questions or needs to have a conversation with me, I have to stop what I’m doing (and its not just because I think its rude to not look someone in the eye when conversing). I have worked with people though, who seem to be able to video chat or skype while sewing. One of the ladies who worked for me on Boardwalk Empire was always skyping Russia.

Which reminds me of one particular day during Boardwalk. It was the afternoon and we were super busy. There was music on the background. We always had music on, just some Pandora station that we’d take turns choosing. Everyone was working away steadily on different projects, immersed in their own little worlds. I was patterning something, I don’t remember what, when I paused for a minute to look up and listen to the conversations going on in the shop.

There was one in Russian, another in Turkish, still another in French, a couple in English (obviously), one in Spanish and one in Arabic. It was all quite wonderful and made me really proud of the amazing diverse shop full of talented people I had around me.

And speaking of languages; that’s another thing you can do while sewing. You can listen to a language learning app or book.

I love that I can learn something new or get lost in someone else’s story while still creating something with my hands. I think it’s a wonderful ability to have, a gift even.

I think most of us who sew are true multi-taskers. (We’re pretty cool like that). I’d love to know what other people listen to or watch while working on projects.

I’m also in search of any new and interesting podcasts to listen to if you have any suggestions.

Happy sewing! (and listening).

It Takes a Village

It Takes a Village

I was thinking about writing a post this week about some of the favorite things that I’ve made throughout the years. But, once I really started trying to decide, I realized I had way too many ‘favorites’ to put in just one post, mainly because I’ve made a ridiculous amount of stuff. Truth be told, I can’t remember a lot of it.

Also, ‘favorite’, is a bit of a shifty word. I have favorites for all kinds of reasons: favorite fabric, favorite pattern, favorite last minute construction miracle, favorite vintage piece, favorite thing made without a pattern, favorite complicated pattern, favorite funky design detail, favorite sewing technique.

So, I decided instead to write a little about some of the most memorable things I’ve made. Most (perhaps all) of them listed here were for HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, designed by John Dunn and Lisa Padovani.

And speaking of designers…

I just want to clarify that every show and movie has a Costume Designer. Sometimes, on low budget and indie or college productions, the costume designer is the same person who also makes and shops the clothes. This is not the case on any mid to high budget shows. It takes a village to create the finished product. I didn’t design anything for Boardwalk Empire or any of the other major television shows and movies I’ve worked on as a tailor and pattern maker. I just make what is in the designer’s head.

How do I know what’s in the designer’s head?

Sometimes I get a sketch, sometimes pictures and photos from magazines and catalogues, sometimes vintage garments to use as a starting point, and sometimes it’s just a conversation with a scribbled line drawing on a manila oak tag.

And one other thing about the village: I made the patterns for all of the pieces to follow but, most times, I had the help of very talented tailors in the construction of the finished product.

A (partial) list of most memorables:

Outfit from an existing vintage pattern.

Outfit from an existing vintage pattern.

I used an existing 1930s vintage pattern for this ensemble. I altered the pattern slightly for fit. It’s a bit hard to see in the photo, but the jumper has an asymmetrical over lap opening in the front (that button is functional.) If I recall correctly, I did put together the blouse but I know that the jumper was constructed by one of the tailors in the shop, Amy.

Showgirl ensemble:

Showgirl ensemble.

Showgirl ensemble.

We made quite a few showgirl ensembles for Boardwalk but the sailor girls were my favorite. The trickiest part of any of the showgirl things was always the time constraints. We routinely had a week (at most) to construct the outfits, and this was on top of all the other things we were making and altering. Thankfully, the actresses playing the showgirls remained the same throughout the season so once I had their measurements I was able to pattern (relatively) efficiently and go straight to fabric without doing any sort of mock up. Any showgirl extravaganza was always a true group effort, as in the day before the costumes were needed, almost every single person in the shop was working on them.

Costume involving fish:

Costume involving fish.

Costume involving fish.

We made two of these for the final season of Boardwalk Empire. The fish have batting and wire in them to make them slightly three dimensional, and there are two more on the back. These took an especially long time as all the pearl trim had to sewn on by hand.

Complete outfit in shortest amount of time:

Complete outfit in shortest amount of time.

Complete outfit in shortest amount of time.

I will always remember this one. I had literally two days to get this done. On the morning of the first day, the actor came in for measurements. I started patterning as soon as he walked out the door. John (designer) found fabric he wanted to use that we already had in house so I was able to cut as soon as my patterning was done. I handed off the jacket pieces to one person and the pants to another and I put together the vest. The very next afternoon, I did the fitting. As you can see from the photo, the only changes needed were a sleeve and pant hem. This illustrates the importance of proper (and extensive) measurements.

Strangest costume:

One of the oddest costumes I’ve made were these lobsters, again for Boardwalk.

One of the oddest costumes I’ve made were these lobsters, again for Boardwalk.

One of the oddest costumes I’ve made were these lobsters, again for Boardwalk. I think the over bodice and sleeves were attached to the tail bit and it was put on like a coat, snapping and tying center front. I do remember the use of quite a large amount of wire.

Most adorable:

Most adorable.

Most adorable.

I patterned all of the boys’ things for Boardwalk. The principal men’s suits were made by Greenfield’s in Brooklyn but the in house shop that I ran always did the suits and jackets for the younger boys.

So that’s a short list of some of my most memorable projects. There are definitely many more though. One of the best things about my job is that there is always something new to make.

Getting In

Getting In

Whenever I tell people what I do for a living (Tailor and Pattern Maker for film and television) they inevitably say one of two things.

“Wow. How did you get into that?” or “What a cool job!” Sometimes acquaintances will ask me if I can talk to their niece or son or daughter’s friend or cousin or something and give them advice on how to ‘break into’ the business.

I’m never entirely sure what sort of advice to give. As Hunter S. Thompson said (or maybe didn’t say depending on who you ask),

The TV business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There is also a negative side.

There is some truth in that Hunter quote. Especially now when the major networks are increasingly concerned with cost and ratings and everyone wants to do more (and more) with less money. Period television is quite popular right now. The only problem with that is that period television is hard, perhaps the hardest genre.

“But, why?” you may ask, “It looks like so much fun!”

The Devil is in the details

Here’s the thing: period TV is expensive. You have to dress every single background actor and actress as well as the principals. On shows such as Law and Order, often the background (BG) performers are wearing something selected from their own personal closet. What generally happens is that the BG will come to work with a few clothing options. An assistant designer will usually pick which of these options is best and that’s what the actor will wear. Most people don’t have closets full of 1920s or 1880s clothing so, on a period show, the entire costume is provided, fit, and altered. This takes more time and manpower which, in turn, takes more money.

TV is also fast – faster than filming a movie. Most shows shoot an episode in 8 to 10 days, with at least a day or two when they are shooting two episodes at once. (We call those tandem days.) Because of this, you never really get any down time. On a movie, there is most always a point where you’re over the hump – you’ve established all the costumes needed. Or you’re working on something where all the action takes place on the same day and no one changes their clothes. Then, all you need to worry about is multiples and the rest of the work is up to the set costume crew who keep track of continuity and make sure everyone looks how they should in front of camera.

Do your thing & do it GREAT

I guess if I were to give one piece of advice I would say to become really good at the thing you want to do. Then, figure out how to do it very quickly if needed. I may have said this before (I say it a lot) but there are lots of good tailors and pattern makers out there. What there isn’t a lot of are exceptional tailors and pattern makers who can also work really fast. If you want to work in TV and film that will definitely give you an advantage.

As far as finding TV and film jobs, talk to people, contact your city’s (or state’s) film commission. Word of mouth is still the best way to find a job in this business.

Mind your manners

And be nice to everyone, even if you think they have no ‘influence’ or are looking for the same kind of job as you are. You never know who knows who and you never know when someone might need help because they have more work than they can handle on their own.

Oh, and that “What a cool job!” comment… Some days it is and some days it isn’t. I can assure you there is nothing glamorous about it but, at the same time, it is also rarely boring.