I am torn this week. Like many people, when coronavirus hit the UK, I felt helpless and looked for some way to do something meaningful. One obvious option was to make face masks, and lots of costumiers I know started talking about how best to make them: the best materials, filters, patterns to use, and whether they would be as good as the professional ones.
These were intended for friends and family: it simply never occurred to me that NHS staff and care workers would not have a sufficient supply of personal protective equipment, nor that it would prove to be beyond the capability of our government to provide it.
Less than two weeks into lockdown, almost all the costume professionals I knew were making scrubs. At first, I celebrated. Many of the people I was speaking to were on furlough and it warmed my heart to see a principle was being spontaneously demonstrated – that when people are given financial security in a crisis they will not choose to sit about and do nothing, they will fill their time with worthwhile pursuits. My community was rallying round, giving the lie to those who argue that a financial safety net makes people lazy.
But as I spoke to more people, a worrying picture emerged. It was turning into a full-time job, occupying all of their time. The demand was so high, they felt that they couldn’t stop. Health workers did not have adequate PPE and people were dying. It became a wartime effort in peacetime, encompassing those not eligible for furlough or self-employment income support as much as those who were.
I’ve become distinctly uncomfortable with the army of free labour making scrubs
I’ve become distinctly uncomfortable with this army of free labour, and what it tells us about the value we place on costume workers and how easily we accept this huge labour force working for nothing. There are women I have spoken to who are facing bankruptcy – their businesses will fail if theatre does not get on its feet soon. Let down by employers and the state, they are still working for nothing, providing something the government has decided it won’t pay for.
It is no coincidence that this labour force is predominantly made up of women. Economic austerity has always hit women hardest. A recent Twitter thread by American writer Dayna Tortorici refers to “maternal auto-starvation” where, in austere times, a mother will starve herself to feed her children first.
Governments that favour austerity over taxing the wealthy knowingly rely on women’s self-sacrifice and unpaid labour to supplant what they decide the state will not provide – care work, cleaning, supporting the elderly, child rearing and education. No wonder that when it comes to mobilising a nimble and formidable army of people to create PPE, the vast majority are women.
I celebrate these women for stepping in to save lives. I think they are utterly amazing. I just wish that this government, society and even some of their employers valued them as much.