I’ve worked in a variety of costume and tailor shops over the past twenty-five years – some of them very permanent spaces, others makeshift and temporary. Some of them have been hellholes, some of them heavenly, and most of them somewhere in between.
One of the worst “shops” I’ve worked in actually happened this past summer. I was working on a new period Netflix show that was going to be filming for a few weeks in Savannah, GA. Now, Savannah itself is a very lovely city with a beautiful historical district, a properly chilling Ghost Tour and interesting & welcoming people. Sadly though, the space that I was told was mine to work in was an inner room of a sprawling low industrial type building. There were no windows, the air conditioning vents in the room didn’t work (think Georgia summer humidity), and none of the overhead lighting was functional. The room was essentially a hallway, providing the only path between the front and back of the building.
You Can’t Touch This
Long ago, in Houston, TX, I worked on a VH1 movie about MC Hammer (Yes, we made many pairs of Hammer pants). The Costume Shop was housed in a vault (as in a bank vault). We had so many lights rigged up in the space that I was sure one day we were going to start an electrical fire. That never happened but Tropical Storm Allison did. The Friday when the storm began, we were doing iron on letter transfers on t-shirts and sweatshirts – the kind where you peel off the backs and then stick the letters to the fabric. The Monday after the storm we opened the vault door to find about a foot of water and all the letter backs floating around like some giant pot of alphabet soup.
I spent most of my twenties at The Alley Theatre in Houston, TX. The original Costume Shop there was deep in the basement. As far as underground shops went, it was actually a very nice one with adequate lighting, three huge cutting tables, and lots of floor space. Sadly, that shop didn’t fare so well during Allison as the entire basement floors of the Alley filled with water when some underground bayou retaining walls broke.
All Washed Up
The only real ‘good’ thing about Tropical Storm Allison is that it hit late on a Friday night so most of downtown Houston was empty of people. The Alley was dark that night (meaning no show was scheduled). A few of the actors had been out and decided to stop in to The Alley on their way home. They were the first to discover that something had gone horribly awry in the underground tunnel system of Houston. Water was almost to the top of the steps and ramps that led down to the tunnel and shops. They immediately called the Production Manager who was sound asleep and had no idea yet what was going on. Her response, which since then has been immortalized in a very exclusive, limited run t-shirt, was, “Just put some towels down.”
It took a few years but, after the storm, The Alley built one of the best Costume Shops I’ve seen in my life. My friend Alice, who ran the shop for many years, called it “The Costume Shop in The Sky.” The shop (along with the rest of production) is up on one of the two top floors of the parking garage attached the theatre. There are huge windows and tons of space. It is truly a spectacular thing.
Another exemplary shop is the one at Troublemaker Studios (Robert Rodriguez’s studio) in Austin, TX. Again, it has large windows all along one wall. The windows are especially cool because they are the kind that, although the people inside can see out, folks outside can’t see in (perfect spy conditions).
Boardwalk Empire Refugee Camp
The Boardwalk Empire Shop was in a quanset hut – one of those dome shaped metal buildings – and essentially (no matter how hard we tried) always looked like a refugee camp. It was in the back of the ‘hut’ near a big rolling metal garage door. In an effort to provide sunlight and some sort of energy efficiency, the set construction guys made us wooden frames stretched with plexiglass that we set up in the doorway. We’d raise the rolling garage door to just above our “windows”. I saw lots of beautiful sunsets over the East River from those rickety plexiglass windows.
One of my favorite shops is the one I have now at Blindspot, mainly because of the big windows that look out over a busy Brooklyn intersection. For me, natural light and windows are one of the key things that make a good shop. If I have that, I can usually make the space work. The second thing would be proper electricity/power. I like to be able to plug all the things in at the same time without blowing a breaker.