Introduction: Good Clothes Open All Doors
I am a costume designer living and working in Hollywood, California. You might be wondering what a costume designer even does, which makes sense—I wondered the same thing, even as I was agreeing to be one! If you’ve ever thought that your favorite character’s wardrobe on that really great show was the bee’s knees, you have a costume designer to thank for it. Because that character didn’t just wake up that way—a clever costume designer created the look you love so much.
Being a costume designer means I’m the one responsible for the designing, fabricating, shopping, fitting, accessorizing, altering, repairing, and customizing of every single piece of clothing that actors wear while on camera—right down to their underwear and socks. Whether I’m working on a film, TV show, or commercial, I’m pounding the pavement at fabric stores, boutiques, flea markets, shopping malls, and costume houses twelve to fourteen hours a day, every day. The jobs I take are particularly unglam—because there is a world of difference between a professional costume designer who dresses actors as the characters they play and a celebrity stylist who exclusively outfits stars for red carpet appearances.
One of us (the celebrity stylist) has every top clothing and jewelry designer in the world on speed dial, while the other (the costume designer, that’s me!) usually has only five hundred bucks and a pocket full of ingenuity to get the job done. You’re not likely to find me delivering ball gowns to hotel suites in glamorous locales or being name-checked in an actor’s Oscar acceptance speech. More often than not, I’m standing on a ladder in a dusty costume house looking for showgirl outfits or hunched over a folding table in my basement office on a studio lot, trying to figure out how to sew soda cans onto a furry seal costume in time for the afternoon’s shoot. But I wouldn’t have it any other way, because the thousands of hours I’ve spent in the trenches figuring out what works for my actors’ wardrobes has made me an authority on anything and everything having to do with clothes—from determining what constitutes proper fit to what to do when a wardrobe crisis strikes. I’ve also made a ton of mistakes along the way, so whatever your particular problem, I can guarantee it’s happened to me—and that I probably have the solution.
I actually lied my way into becoming a costume designer. (That’s some hot career advice right there, by the way: fake it ’til you make it!) I’ve been a rabid collector of clothes, shoes, handbags, and accessories my entire life—so much so that my first apartment in Los Angeles really just functioned as one giant closet. There were rhinestone cowboy boots lining the walls of my living room, a dozen cut-up vintage prom dresses hanging in the bathroom, and nothing in my bedroom but racks of clothes and a mattress on the floor. One day my neighbor (who also happened to be a commercial director) came over to borrow something, took one look at this total mania, and asked, “Whoa, are you a costume designer?”
He didn’t even notice the white polyester dress I had bubbling away in a pot on the stove, which was an unsuccessful attempt to dye it black using India ink. (There aren’t enough words to explain how badly that experiment failed, by the way—so save yourself a headache and skip to chapter 10 for some pro-style dyeing tips if you’re interested in making the things you own change colors.) I froze for all of three seconds before I decided to answer that yes, of course, I was indeed a costume designer. I suspected that whatever a costume designer actually was, I could probably be one. I innately knew that what I already loved doing could probably become my career and that I likely could be just as good at it as anybody else. That director called to hire me for a small commercial the very next week. And just like that, my career was born. It wasn’t fate, it was just an incredible opportunity that I smartly grabbed—and then held on to for dear life.
People always ask me what special skills I learned to become a successful costume designer and are consistently shocked when I tell them that the answer is “Pretty much none!” Not only did I not attend fashion school, I barely attended college. I struck out on my own early in life, taking on a number of jobs that depended solely on my ability to communicate well and get people excited about things. I was a shopgirl in clothing and jewelry stores, and the experience I gained while working with the general public is what most effectively prepared me to be a costume designer—because dressing people is really all about sales. I can paint a picture with words and images that allows people to believe in me and see what the end result will be—and give them the confidence to let me spend rather large amounts of their money!
Long before I worked retail, I was a scrappy eighteen-year-old DJ at my local alternative radio station. I started out as the receptionist but eventually badgered them until they broke down and gave me an overnight on-air shift, provided it didn’t interfere with my daytime responsibilities.
I slept in my office (which was also the station’s front lobby) from the time my shift ended at 5:00 a.m. until my daytime receptionist gig began at 9:00 a.m. I learned how to talk, communicate, schmooze, and how to “figure it out” at all costs—skills I’m still utilizing to this very day.
That’s not to say that I don’t still wake up almost every single morning wondering, “Why do these people trust me? What’s wrong with them? And what if I screw everything up?”
I’ve learned the hard way not to psych myself out too much—to just push through and focus solely on the task at hand. This single-minded, eyes-on-the prize, dogged determination is what makes me uniquely qualified to solve any wardrobe problem the universe manages to come up with. (It’s also the reason I can’t ever attend a wedding without being grabbed out of the congregation at the last minute to tie the bride’s French bustle or repair a flapping bra strap.)
Looking back, I’d really been preparing to become a costume designer my entire life—I just never realized it. As a teen in Texas, I’d be dropped off at the mall by my parents each and every Saturday with my five best buds and $30 of babysitting money in my pocket. While my pals were busy blowing their allowance on CDs and Slurpees, I was hunting for cool clothes I could actually afford that fit the vision of myself I had in my head. (Figuring out what image I wanted to project to the world via my wardrobe makes me the very first character I ever dressed!) This was a valuable lesson—because while having great style is an essential part of being a costume designer, good budgeting skills are really at the heart of the job description. Designers who go over budget don’t tend to get rehired, so knowing your way around a clearance rack is a very valuable skill.
Being a costume designer means that when things go wrong, I’m the one who takes the heat. You haven’t really lived until you’ve gotten a shocking amount of red lipstick out of a white Gucci blouse in front of a live studio audience because someone hugged an actor too forcefully in the middle of a taping. It costs about $1,000 per minute while the camera is held and everyone waits for me to fix it. Situations like that are why I’ve had to come up with a stable of solutions to disasters that really work—and work incredibly fast. Wardrobe disasters are a way of life when you’re a costume designer, and I’ve had every single one possible happen to me at some point in my career. So the next time you find yourself suffering from a terrible clothing malfunction, you can take heart in knowing that what you are experiencing has likely happened to your favorite star as well. But you can also rest easy—because now that you’re holding this book, you’ve got the solution to almost any dastardly wardrobe disaster that could occur.
In the coming pages, I’m going to pull back the curtain and show you what really goes on behind the scenes at a wardrobe fitting. We’ll figure out together who the heck you really are and what your clothes are saying about you, and I’ll let you in on all the style secrets my actors probably wish I wouldn’t—while teaching you how to keep the clothes you’ve already got in your closet in tip-top shape. (Because, yes, wardrobes need tune-ups and maintenance, too.) I’ll also open up my costume designer’s tool kit and share all the gadgets I use to make those stars look like stars. Because the old saying really is true: Good clothes open all doors. But I’m of the belief that it’s not so much what
you wear that makes people sit up and take notice—it’s how you wear it. By the time you’re done reading here, there won’t be a single one of my secrets you won’t know. Everyone’s wardrobe could benefit from having a professional costume designer (and her secret bag of tricks) in their back pocket—and that’s just what this book is: Me, Alison Freer, at your service.
Copyright © 2015 by Alison Freer. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.