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Catherine Kodicek: Costume graduates are being cut out of chances to learn on the job

Photo: Shabthai/Shutterstock We can't expect everyone to become an expert by magic but need to create an environment where graduate costume makers flourish, says Catherine Kodicek. Photo: Shabthai/Shutterstock
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Over the past few weeks I have had the pleasure of visiting lots of costume graduate shows. It never fails to impress me the amount of work the students have to accomplish in the course of their degree. In many costume production courses, their final projects are showcases for their newly acquired skills at cutting, making, distressing, dyeing, printing, embellishments and fine detail. Many of the students will also have completed numerous unpaid work placements.

But the degree is only the starting point – life and work provides the rest of the training. So it sets me thinking: Where will these young people work? Where will they get their break into the industry? Who will take a chance on employing them; encourage them when times are hard and provide an income while they find their feet?

‘If there is such a dearth of experienced makers, the solution is not to produce more inexperienced makers but to ensure ones already out there have opportunities to gain experience’

The Royal Opera House has recently cited a shortage of experienced costume makers as a reason to launch its own degree course. Cynics on social media have suggested this may be an underhand way to get a source of free labour. It would be good if the ROH could put these suspicions to rest by committing to providing paid employment to some of its graduates, as well as those of other courses.

If there is such a dearth of experienced makers, the solution is not to produce more inexperienced makers but to ensure ones already out there have opportunities to gain experience. We can’t expect everyone to become an expert by magic but we need to create an environment where makers flourish.

Which costume training is the right fit for you?

It used to be the case that makers could find entry-level work with other costume makers and in publicly funded producing houses. When freelance costume makers are paid appropriately for their work, they in turn employ younger, less experienced makers to do entry-level work for them.

This experience allows the new makers to move up to the next level and, when they are established, they take on less experienced makers, providing a continuous exchange of skills and training.

For many established costume makers, this was their route to their present success. Nowadays, as any freelance maker will tell you, costume making is a tough industry financially. The beautiful symbiosis of the entry-level maker has been gradually eroded over time.

With budgets being squeezed, and producers expecting more for their money, freelance makers are finding it hard to make ends meet, let alone squeeze any spare capacity in their day to mentor or teach new makers.

One might hope at least that the publicly funded producing houses would cover the shortfall. In theory at least we have the luxury of full-time, permanent employees who should have the capacity to take on trainees and apprentices.

Lots of departments do this with great success, but when budgets are squeezed, training is the first to go in the drive to complete more with less.

There is no shortage of graduates, just of opportunities for them to work and get paid.

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