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Catherine Kodicek: Working-class costume workers are vanishing thanks to low pay

Photo: Shutterstock Photo: Shutterstock
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Sometimes in this business you can be talking about an issue and, all of a sudden, it is everywhere in the press. I experienced this recently after the publication of a report into cultural inequalities in the creative industries.

Coming from a working-class background, the question of how to encourage more people into backstage theatre from socio-economically diverse backgrounds resonates with me. I know I am not the only costume professional who ended up subscribing to the ‘fake it till you make it’ school of fitting into the middle-class culture of theatre.

Many more of us are hiding in plain sight than might be imagined, but we are so assimilated that we are no longer role models for working-class young people. We look too much like the middle and even upper-class people we were so keen to fit in with.

Having come to the realisation that this benefits no one, least of all the industry we love, I am trying to ‘come out’ as working class, to acknowledge my path into the industry and attempt to make it easier for other working-class people to enter the industry, because by God we need them.

Let’s be clear: without the cushion of family money to support you, the path into backstage theatre is hard

Let’s be clear: without the cushion of family money to support you, the path into backstage theatre is hard. I relied largely on the savings I’d built up through six years working in a bank.

Many working-class costume professionals I meet now started their professional lives years ago when degrees were free, rents were reasonable and pay was actually rather good. A generation of costume professionals have lived through the ‘good times’ and are dismayed to see the ladder being pulled up behind them.

What’s has happened in the intervening years that we are losing working-class staff and not replenishing them? To paraphrase an old political aphorism: it’s the pay, stupid.

Costs are going up. Pay in real terms is going down. BECTU-agreed minimums are being flouted with the increased use of ‘buyout’ contracts, where the producer pays a set amount each week irrespective of how many hours the person works. It is good for the producer, but ripe for exploitation.

I have written before on how daunting it is to become a costume designer unless you come from money. The same applies to non-creatives. The middle-class culture in the arts encourages the belief that talking about money is vulgar.

Catherine Kodicek: Diversity in costume can only be achieved with fair pay

A costume supervisor who wants to work with successful costume designers cannot complain about the fee, cannot speak about student debts, cannot speak of the stress of impossible rent payments while making less than the minimum wage on a ludicrous buyout fee, for fear of looking unprofessional.

And as the numbers of openly working-class costume professionals fell, with them went the union memberships that might have given us more bargaining power. Has the time come to accept that for all the hand-wringing about socio-economic diversity, producers are not going to put their hands in their pockets without some collective bargaining?

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