I sometimes ask myself: if there came a magical time when money was plentiful, budgets were not being squeezed and we wanted to increase pay, who would be at the top of the list? I can think of far too many people working in the arts who, to some degree, are underpaid and subsidising the industry they work in: young directors and assistant directors, designers and associate designers, and fringe technicians to name just a few.
Were the day to come when pay rises were being handed out, I believe costume supervisors would not even make the list. This is partly because so few in our industry really understand what they do. It is also because their job description varies widely depending on the designer they are working with, the budget, the venue, the genre. This is also partly because (whisper it) as a predominantly female workforce costume supervisors are invisible and victim to an unconscious gender bias.
Costume supervisors are seldom employees: they are mostly freelances paid by a flat fee. And it ought to go without saying that the fee should be enough to live on. Employees get sick pay, holiday pay and have employment rights. Freelances by contrast do not, so their daily rate ought to be higher than their contemporaries in full-time employment.
Talk about increasing fees for supervisors causes a ripple of fear and whataboutery that attempts to silence the argument
This being fairly obvious, who sets these fees? By what metric are fees calculated? For the person earning the fee, the metric is simple: it’s what I need to pay my rent, buy my food and do my job and live in the city I work in. It is less clear by what metric producers or theatres calculate these fees. There is a whiff of the dark arts and backroom dealing to these decisions, but the fee never seems particularly linked to the hours worked or the expertise needed to do the job.
Talk about increasing fees for supervisors causes a ripple of fear and whataboutery that attempts to silence the argument. What about the other creatives on a fee? We can’t pay the costume supervisor more than the production manager or designer, they say, it would be wrong.
Somehow the act of setting a single fee, rather than having an hourly rate like full-time employees (who can easily earn more than the designer on a show once long hours and overnight infringements are taken into account), makes the sums seem so much more exorbitant. But break down the fees earned by supervisors to an hourly rate and they can easily be earning less than minimum wage, which, lest we forget, is illegal.
We need a real grown-up conversation about how we pay people on fees. Yes, of course directors, designers, prop makers, costume makers, but I would like to make a special plea for costume supervisors. As they so often get forgotten in the conversation.
Catherine Kodicek is head of costume at London’s Young Vic theatre. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/catherine-kodicek