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Catherine Kodicek: Stop tipping your dresser – it’s time to pay costume professionals properly

Recently WhatsOnStage compiled a Twitter-sourced list of things theatre people all know but audiences might not be aware of.

Fun as it was, I was disappointed to see the top spot given to “tipping your dresser”. Of course I know that there are actors who still tip, mostly lovely human beings who only want to show their appreciation, but I was starting to hope we were seeing the last of this practice.

The argument for tipping runs like this: if I get good service in a restaurant, I tip the waiter; if I want to show my appreciation to my hairdresser, I tip them; if I want to get special treatment from the concierge in a hotel, I tip them. So if I want to show my appreciation or my dresser has been particularly helpful, shouldn’t I tip them?

What is it about the relationship between actor and dresser that makes them feel this is appropriate?

But do actors tip the stage managers? Or the front-of-house staff? What is it about the relationship between actor and dresser that makes them feel this is appropriate?

Some actors employ a personal dresser, who picks up dry cleaning, arranges lunches and dinners, replies to fanmail, arranges for pre and post-show visits and generally goes above and beyond the remit of a dresser. But the extra duties of these PA dressers are reflected in their higher salary. Most dressers are costume professionals whose job it is to ensure that actors are on stage in the correct clothing in a timely fashion.

But the impulse to tip reflects the ‘soft skills’ dressers also possess; they nurture and care for the actor and they are the shock absorbers when an actor has had a bad day. They become closely connected to the actors in their care and may well start reading their minds about when they need an interval tea, how they prefer their clothes laid out, whether they want the lights on or off and if they want visitors at the end of the show. All of this comes under the banner of ‘emotional labour’.

This part of a dresser’s job is generally unstated. It isn’t included in the job description or measured in appraisals, hence the desire by grateful actors to show their appreciation in a tip. It is an understandable confusion with service industry jobs that involve similar emotional labour. But tips are a reflection of an unequal power dynamic and their discretionary nature leads to huge potential for abuse.

When we tip waiting staff, we acknowledge that they are badly paid. Tipping a dresser sends the same message.

Simply, the employer should be paying for this work. When we tip waiting staff, we acknowledge that they are badly paid. Tipping a dresser sends the same message. It is an acknowledgement that the dresser is not being paid enough for the work required of them.

I would like all dressers to be working to clear guidelines about what is part of their job and what isn’t. I would like all actors to know what is an acceptable thing to ask a dresser to do and what is overstepping the line. I would like all the emotional labour carried out by costume professionals to be recognised and remunerated. And then tipping the dresser can go the way of the old five and nine panstick make-up.