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Interview with Elsa Hiltner – Costume Designer, Stylist and Campaigner

24 February 2021

Interview with Elsa Hiltner – Costume Designer, Stylist and Campaigner


Photo credit: Joel Maisonet

Elsa is a Chicago based Costume Designer and Stylist, in 2016 she wrote an essay about the challenges facing costume makers and designers in the US
. It went viral, and sparked a series of conversations, campaigns and successful actions that have contributed to increased support and awareness for costume professionals in the US. 

In our interview, she talks to Emma Tompkins about her work and her world.

What brought you to Costume design?

I always wanted to be an artist, but I was also interested in history and people. My High school had a really good theatre department so we were able to work in a costume shop (UK: Wardrobe Dept) and design costumes and make patterns. It was very unusual for a high school. I discovered theatre as a merging of the arts, history and people, and the collaboration really drew me in. Art can be a lonely career path and theatre is definitely not, I loved how theatre drew together fine art, fashion, sculpture, music and poetry into one thing.

Tell us a bit about your career and your activism so far?

I’ve worked in theatre my entire career. I got a degree in costume design from the Western Washington University and jumped right into freelance design, I moved to Chicago, worked as a freelance designer and did some shop management. In 2016, I saw all the racism and sexism of the 2016 presidential election in the US, that really made me angry and made me want to do something that I could control about those issues, and looking at the system that I work in myself, I decided to start talking and writing about and organising around the issues in theatre. Also in 2013 I became really interested in the garment work Industry, how clothes are made. The Dhaka garment factory collapse. was really shocking and awakening for me, and I realised with the whole lead up to the 2016 election was that all the issues that I was so passionate about in the garment industry were exactly the same issues that I was facing as a female garment worker in the theatre industry. I was surprised there hadn’t been a lot written on it, it was something that costume designers talked about amongst ourselves but we wanted to organise around it, put thoughts into words and show the systemic nature of it and show why historically this is how we’ve ended up here and set forth some options for moving forward.

How did you go about organising?

When you’re working on a theatre show you’re working with designers from all other specialisms but you usually don’t work with other costume designers unless you are assisting somebody or someone is assisting you, there’s not a lot of overlap. I wrote my first essay in 2016 and I had been in Chicago for almost 10 years but I knew very few other costume designers, so when I wrote that essay and it opened up all that community and for those who weren’t in the union* too, we were further isolated from other costume designers. At the same time the essay was published the Union in Chicago was setting up a Costume Committee that was dedicated to the same labour equity issues that I wrote about and they were doing things to ensure that costume designers were not required to build costumes, or come in and do laundry. The initiative started in the Chicago regional office and since then it’s moved to become national. With the essay coming out, people started talking more and I was invited into the committee as the non union liaison. That really kicked everything off. I tended to do a lot of organising by my own because as an individual you can make decisions and move quickly on things but there is alot a group can do and not having a singular name can be helpful, so that’s why a few organizers (Christine Pascual, Theresa Ham, and Bob Kuhn) and I created ‘On Our Team so we could create initiatives and get designers on board so that it wasn’t an individual thing.

* Union membership in the US (United Scenic Artists Local 829) costs $1500-$3500 to enter

In UK Theatre it’s very rare to have costume design as an independent position outside of West end, high end Opera and Dance. In most UK theatres Costume and Set are considered and paid as only one design job. How does that differ in the US?

Usually it’s two different roles here. it’s definitely not the norm for one person to design both costumes and the set, it would have to be a really special show and have a real reason why you’d have to have the same costume and set designer. 

What is expected of a costume design role in the US?

It depends on the size of theatre, the larger theatres have a costume shop that you work with and the costume designer designs and hands off the design to the shop manager and/or costume director and staff and stays very hands on throughout the process (fabric shopping, fittings etc) but you have a team of people who are doing the dying, pattern drafting, draping, alterations and repairs. For smaller theatres, the costume designer is also the costume technician and you design the show and realise it, this is one of the things we’re working to change, because other designers are given labor support at these smaller theatres. Occasionally you are even asked to come back and do laundry once a week, repairs for an example if a shoe needs re rubbering, this is true of even some of the mid size theatres, like the ones with $1.5 million annual budget. (Emma: The equivalent of main house shows at 200 seat theatre)

What is a costume director?

Costume director could be a shop manager or a costume technical director that’s the equivalent to a technical director role (UK equivalent to Production Manager) so the costume designer doesn’t have to manage the budget, returns, isn’t hiring stitchers (Costume Makers) out of their own fee which is common, managing laundry and repairs etc. (UK Equivalent to a Costume Supervisor)

Designers will pay for makers out of their own fee?

So for instance, on a particular show I got paid a flat rate of $1500 and if I don’t want to spend the time sewing and doing alterations (alongside the job of the design itself) I hire that out. If you’re lucky the budget might cover that but budgets are often so small and this is your art, you care about it, you want it to look good, this is your portfolio, this affects you getting hired back, all of the ways in which the power is structured. I would use my own fee to hire an assistant to help me with shopping, hire a stitchers out of my fee. On this particular show, there was a cast of 6 and there were lots of scenes, so I had around 4 or 5 looks per person. It was modern dress but they were very wealthy characters. 

The last show I did with that theatre company was period (1950’s) and because through our organising we’d made progress with the company, I was given a $500 technical budget so I was able to hire stitchers to do all the alterations. 

Tell us about your Theatrical Designer Pay Resource?

I discovered in the summer of 2017 that I had been paid 25% less than all the other designers on a show (Scenic Designer, Sound Designer, Video Designer and a Lighting Designer). It led to a really contentious negotiation with the production company, but I was lucky because I found out before anyone had signed a contract. As a feminist who’se working on labour issues, I had always assumed I was being paid the same but I was just not being given the labour support (money to cover makers/wardrobe dept) but to find out that I was being paid less and doing twice as much work was just so maddening and crushing and I felt really stupid for thinking theatre was beyond paying women, people of colour, non binary artists less. 

The theatre in question had a unionised scenic and technical department but not a costume shop. It means the technical labour has to be done by union roles. In the costume shop they do not have to be union roles, so because the scenic, lighting department and sound department were all unionised, the designers wouldn’t do any of the technical jobs, because the costume shop was not unionised I was “allowed” to do all my own alterations etc, so I didn’t have any technical support. It’s layered marginalisation and oppression of the groups that are mostly women.

I’ve found that often you can never feel confident or comfortable enough to ask for what you need, you just assume that what you’ve been told is the limit is the limit. How did you manage the situation?

Because this show was a remount (with a new cast to a larger theatre) I knew who was on the design team, I had a hard time getting a specific sentence I needed in the last contract, so I asked if the team minded waiting to sign the contracts until all of us have what we need, and everyone was happy to do that. As a result I heard that everyone else had higher pay in their contract. So I brought it up to the producer and I said I wouldn’t be doing the show for less than the other designers. Also knowing I wasn’t getting labour support, I felt I had to choose between the two. This is a pretty common-sense negotiation but I was penalised for asking for parity, it went on for weeks with angry phone calls and I was threatened with legal action. I’m pretty sure of myself and I stand my ground but if I wasn’t it would have been terrifying. I’ve also heard that the producer has claimed I’m “difficult” to work with in other meetings since. It’s so common, do we really have to choose our battles and potentially give it all up?

Because I found out by chance, and because you usually don’t know who is on the project before you sign the contract as there is a big culture of secrecy around pay and people don’t share rates, I thought what can I do to get people to talk more about money, rates & share their information? So I created an Open Spreadsheet. so that people could put their information in anonymously and people could reference it. Really the goal was to get people talking in person whether or not they’ve used the document. That came out of the #MeToo movement, lots of activists were using google sheets as a way of sharing information anonymously and organising. I put in on facebook, hoping other people would add to it and they did, way more than I imagined it would (400 and counting). It slants heavily to women and people of colour sharing their data. Marginalised groups have more to gain from sharing their data, I really wish more set designers and lighting designers and more straight white cis men would share their info on it, but its grown more than I could have imagined. 

What changes have you seen as a result of your and your community’s activism?

There’s a few different groups in the US working on this. Like Costume Professionals for Wage Equity, Elizabeth Wisler wrote a fantastic essay, which went viral too. Costume professionals talking about job postings in particular, job listing transparency, talking about clear rates of pay, non emotional language, clear job descriptions and so there’s been a huge movement on having clear rates of play on american job boards. It’s been huge because so many people have been able to see pay inequity because of job postings and people can take that to the employer and hopefully make change. In Chicago there’s been a big push about getting labour support for costume designers, and a good number of theatre companies have added a labour budget to the costume design role. A Lot have started offering mileage, so if you’re having the costume designer shop it’s not their own fee going on the bus ticket. A few have added a costume technical director position in the way a technical director (UK Production Manager) would. 

The thing that I am working on right now is a pay equity piece, looking at how much people are being paid within a company, and how those roles have a relationship with each other. Like in the US the carpenters are being paid a lot more than the stitchers (Costume Makers). There’s a reason for that, there’s this weird rule that we are all adhering to but not talking about. There’s a few theatres in Chicago that have come out with Pay Equity Statements or policies, so trying to get consensus around that way of working, so enough of these companies have pay equity policies then it will become the norm.

Is there a risk of rates going down as a result of this?

The thing that is really important is that there are huge benefits to a company to doing pay equity, it’s not just about costing more money, you are going to get better returns, all the science shows that when people are paid equitably, or even when there is just pay transparency people are more efficient when they work, they care about their job more, they make the art better, you have a better standing in the community and the way you are looked on by grant maker. All of it translates to money the company is making. And maybe it’s not about taking money away from people, maybe it’s about taking money away from stuff that you are buying, one thing that people often say is that it means we can’t do a ‘Big show’. Well there are already shows we cannot do, we are all living within our limits, but of course, if you are concerned about how you are treating people, the product and the process of your product in that way, it shouldn’t be as much of a concern.

What would you like the UK theatre design community to know?

I am just completely always amazed at how similar the issues are that we are facing, there are some structural differences but the reason why stitchers are paid less or women are paid less or people of colour are paid less, they are still the same reasons. I’m really excited about the early collaborations and conversations that are happening between activists in the UK and the US, I’m really inspired by these groups like yours and CITEA and there’s a lot to learn between the two!

Tell us about a design experience, either process of the end result that you are really proud of?

Working with really good collaborative groups or directors that were willing to take a weird concept and run with it is always my favorite, I did a show called Paulus at a theatre in Chicago and Paul is the disciple of Jesus Christ in the story and in the first meeting with the director I was like ‘what if it was runway fashion, but with a 20bc twist’. The time where directors were really willing to listen and collaborate those are the times where it really feels the best. It’s always the people. A good collaborative group of people. 


Interview with Elsa Hiltner – Costume Designer, Stylist and Campaigner
Photo by Michael Brosilow, Courtesy of Silk Road Rising. Scenic design by Dan Stratton and Lighting Design by Rebecca Barrett.

Is there an element of your life that has nothing to do with being a costume designer that makes you a better costume designer?

I really like non fiction books, and learning about other things that have nothing to do with costume or theatre but have to do with people and history and science and the environment and how things are and I think a big part of being a designer in theatre is about making connections between things and making poetic connections between things.

In the UK there are established hierarchical systems within theatre that are being challenged, what are the systematic challenges in the US theatre scene?

In the US White supremacy in theatre and in every other aspect of life has been a huge part of the conversation and the way that not letting people talk outside of their discipline is all part of the hierarchy. Who you listen to and when, there are definitely theatre companies who are doing the good work making that not the system.

There’s a movement called We See You White American Theatre, which is a coalition of BIPOC theatre artists with a list of demands for the industry to do better and how to do it. From ensuring when you present shows by actors of colour on the smaller stages you put them on the main stage too and you can’t have different pay scales for them, and the need to have hair designers that know how to work with hair that isn’t caucasian. It’s a great document. There’ve been a lot of theatres who’ve come up with responses, with public statements saying ’we heard it and here’s what we’re going to do’ with steps along the way so they can be held accountable. And they’ve been really good about who has responded and who has remained silent. All the requests are so reasonable to achieve. (Emma: There is a similar organisation in the UK Called Stage Sight )

And finally, what advice would you give to someone who was interested in joining a campaign, helping other designers or furthering the support for their industry.

So I am a firm believer that it’s not up to the artists to point out the failures in the system, we are the least powerful in this theatre system and its really the onus is on the people who hold the power to make the change, that said, as a person in the system, there’s a lot of power in small individual actions in particular when lots of people make them, even if its sharing your pay data with everyone else on the team. I’d never ask an artist to do anything that would risk their career or their livelihood or the things that happens when you challenge power but there are alot of things that people can do and share between each other to ask the right question to the right person. Like Scenic Designers can ask if the costume designer is being paid as much as they are and that probably won’t affect them negatively but asking that question is really important because it makes people think about it Also those who work in the office and the admin side of things have a lot of say in how budgets are allocated and people get hired. I’m director of development at Collaboraction and even though we do have a pay equity policy I can still ask what the pay is for this project, what is the labour support structure, I have a voice in a way that a freelance designer might not have. Boards of directors in theatres should be asking these questions, audiences should ask what their ticket is supporting, I want to know that I am engaged with a production that isn’t exploiting someone else, and I make my consumption choices based on these issues. People who donate and buy tickets can ask how the artists involved are being paid and does the system make sense?


You can find Elsa on Twitter

Her portfolio is available here

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