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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

Dressing the part

By Linda White
Special to The Sun

It's long been said that clothes make the man. The same can be said for movies, making you believe Russell Crowe was truly a Roman Emperor in The Gladiator and Hilary Swank was a down-and-out waitress turned boxer in Million Dollar Baby.
To become a costume designer you must be able to sew, but organizational skills are also incredibly important, says Malcolm Pearcey, program co-ordinator of Seneca College's new Costume Studies (Film and Television Production) certificate program.

Costume designers may work behind the scenes, but their intimate insight into a character and their knowledge about fabrics, styles and colours is key to believing the faces on the big screen are who they're supposed to be.

"Before an actor speaks, their costume speaks for them," says Malcolm Pearcey, program co-ordinator of Seneca College's new Costume Studies (Film and Television Production) certificate program. "Costume design is an ancient theatrical craft and designers are an integral part of a production. They must serve the story ... Actors often discover their characters through their costumes."

But just like so many of today's hottest actors, it typically takes years of perseverance, bit parts and dedication to succeed before you land the starring role in a costume department.

Lisa Martin recently worked as costume designer on Fever Pitch starring Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon. She graduated from fashion merchandising and worked as a stylist before landing a job as a wardrobe assistant. "Using clothing as a language was already part of my life." she says. "I also knew how to sew, which is crucial in this industry."

A wardrobe assistant is a jack-of-all-trades. "I took very teeny, itsy bitsy steps," Martin says. "You have to make sure you understand the roles and jobs of everyone. Everything is predicated on everyone finishing their tasks. It's a very goal-oriented business."

After four years, Martin worked as a truck supervisor, managing the portable costume department that accompanies a crew to location.

"You work in tandem with the set supervisor, who's responsible for making sure the costume designer's vision is carried out," Martin says.

Though she's made it to the top of her craft, work isn't always available as a costume designer and she'll work as a buyer and other roles. She also teaches wardrobe management at Seneca in Toronto, where students learn how to create a wardrobe department and how to break down a script to determine the costumes each character needs.

They learn garment construction and fitting, how to manage a wardrobe budget using computer software programs and how to break down a costume.

"The breakdown artist is another major player in the costume department," Pearcey says. "It's about dying and aging fabrics, creating bagging at the knees and other techniques to make a costume look worn."

Pearcey studied fashion in England and worked for 20 years as a fashion designer in Europe. He has worked in the film industry for the past 12 years, often as a production designer. He recently worked as head cutter on Resident Evil with Milla Jovovich and was part of the wardrobe crew on Atom Egoyen's Arafat.
There are many roles in the costume department of a film production. Graduates of Seneca College's Costume Studies - Film and Television Production full-time certificate program, for example, may work as: designers, assistant designers, costume supervisors, buyers, wardrobe assistants, cutters, stitchers, breakdown artists, set supervisors, truck supervisors, background supervisors and star dressers. -- To learn more, visit

"The film industry is a growing industry," he says. "SARS had an impact on Toronto, but not all of Canada ... but it's coming back strong. There are many employment opportunities for students with garment skills."

It's not the kind of industry that posts jobs in the want ads.

"You start by calling the local (International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Technicians) union office to find out if they're hiring any permitees," Pearcey says. "When the union needs more bodies, you will be called. That helps you find out if you're made for this industry ... Some people are on the permit list for a number of years before applying for membership."

High pressure

What characteristics does it take to be successful? "You want to be able to sew. Organizational skills are incredibly important," Pearcey says. "If you're a procrastinator, this is not the business for you. It's a high-pressure atmosphere, so it helps to be even tempered."

He lists Fight Club as one of his all-time favourites. "When I got to a movie, I need to see it twice. The first time, I get pulled in by costume and production design ... The second time, I see the movie for its story."

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