The Wardrobe Department is a separate specialty in Local 470, with its own Apprentice program, test, and seniority system. Most of the time the wardrobe crew serve as dressers during a performance, but there is more to Wardrobe than that; it is neither and "easy" or a "blow off" job.

The task of dresser involves more than just assisting the actor. A dresser must be constantly alert, organized and prepared for anything. Items and personnel can change from show to show. The dresser must deal with personalities, some of these are very difficult, but at all times the emphasis must be on making sure the actor can do his or her job. Wardrobe ALSO includes Stitchers, Beaders, Makeup, and the subsidiary department of Wigs and Hair. Yet in this Local, stagehands are expected to be able to serve as Wardrobe crew, just as Wardrobe members are expected to be stage crew as needed. Each area calls on the other within the Local before going out side to fill a call.

On a call, the Wardrobe Department is under the Job Steward like everyone else, but since they are usually working away from the stage area, in practice the department reports to the Wardrobe Department head upon arriving. Like other areas, the crew should arrive early enough to be checked in, coat put away, and ready to go by 5 minutes before call time. They should be dressed in dark clothing, with sturdy shoes. Lots of time is spent standing and walking on concrete, which can be very tiring, and proper shoes are important.

Basic items wardrobe crew should always have with them are:

Throughout the entire In-Show-Out, the duties of a wardrobe person are basically THOSE ASSIGNED BY THE WARDROBE MASTER/MISTRESS. During Load-in they may include (but are NOT LIMITED to) machine laundry, hand laundry, steaming, ironing, unpacking gondolas, sorting and hanging clothes, delivering make-up cases, mending, minor costume construction, shopping for materials and supplies, spot cleaning, painting or polishing shoes, going to the dry cleaners or shoe repair shop, knitting, crocheting, brushing fake fur costumes, and setting up on stage quick change areas.

During the show they may include may include (but are NOT LIMITED to) preparing presets, helping actors with changes - fast and slow, helping actors in the dressing rooms and stage area, delivering costumes to another area where they will be needed, collecting "dead" costumes and laundry, carrying 'supplies' that an actor will need (water bottle, hand props, etc), collecting and returning things the actor(s) have finished using (costume pieces, hand props, etc.) emergency repairs of rips and broken zippers or snaps, etc., making notes of necessary repairs for day work, changing "character heads", setting costumes to dry for the next show, .... You will normally receive a cue sheet that will list the "regular dressing" duties of the track you have been assigned.

During load out they may include (but are NOT LIMITED to) packing gondolas, sorting and hanging clothes, packing shoe bags, packing show equipment (irons, ironing boards, steamers, sewing machines, etc.) delivering make-up cases, shoes, hats and other costume pieces for packing, collecting costumes and laundry, making notes of necessary repairs for the next city.

Dresser tracks: Many shows have cue sheets and very often each wardrobe person has his own. These are called "dresser tracks". If there are sheets, there are enough cues that you cannot possibly remember them all. Do not try to memorize them. Instead, check them constantly, even if you're sure you know what is coming up. These notes often are altered somewhat because of circumstances in this particular house, if a regular actor is out, etc, so carry a pen or pencil with you for the first preset and throughout the first show to jot down any verbal changes.

When handling any wardrobe pieces, there are two things to do EVERY SINGLE TIME.
First, if there are any names or numbers on the hanger, clothes, pieces and parts, check them to make sure everything matches. Check them when you hang them up, when you set them out in a preset and when you are doing laundry. Even if you have already checked them, double check them and then triple check them. You must be very diligent about this. This is not only to double check yourself, but very often other people will move wardrobe presets for WHATEVER reason, and you are responsible for making sure all presets are correct. Make sure shoes haven't been kicked out of place.

Many costumes have Pit pads. These are small crescent-shaped pieces of absorbent material which snap into the arm-pits of costumes. They help protect the costumes from damage from perspiration stains. They are removed and laundered separately from the costume. If your actor's costumes use them, you must snap them in place before the show and remove them for laundering afterwards.

Secondly, every time you pick up a piece, give it a quick look at zippers, buttons, snaps, hooks & eyes, (and anything special like skate covering hooks, etc.) to make sure there are no loose or broken items, hooks that are squeezed shut, etc. Check for holes, ripped seams/hems, etc. If it's before the show, determine whether or not the problem is all right to go on stage. If there's time get it fixed. If there's not time, make a mental note of it. When the actor is done with the piece, put a safety pin by the problem, take it to the wardrobe room and tell the road crew about it. They usually will have a notebook where you can write down the costume piece, its number and problem. Before the next show you MUST remember to go back to the wardrobe room, pick up your pieces and return them to their show positions.

A dresser's main job is to assist the actor in getting into and changing costumes. Often quick changes are required, these can present challenges. Wardrobe presets are costumes arranged to expedite a quick change. Presets most often will be placed on a chair or on a drop cloth and should not be touched. The wardrobe person sets out the clothes in the order that the actor needs to put them on (the first thing to be put on the top of the preset, the last thing to be put on at the bottom of the preset). The zippers, buttons, velcro, and other fasteners are open and ready to be picked up and put on by the actor.

For even quicker change, "underdress" may be employed. Underdress is when the actor wears one costume under another, so that he only needs to remove the outer one to be ready, an he is already wearing the next costume needed.

For almost any quick change a drop cloth may be useful. This is a large cloth placed on the floor where the quick change will happen off stage. It helps protect costumes from areas that may not be very clean or items that might damage the costumes. It is helpful in "keeping track" of small costume pieces like jewelry.

Getting an actor into a tight costume like a body suit can be tricky. Usually the actor will help you by arching her/his back. Firmly grip the costume at the bottom of the zipper and pull down. Gently pull the zipper tab up. You may be able to put your index finger behind the zipper tab and move up with the tab as an additional protection against catching skin in the zipper.

If the fabric gets caught in the zipper, care must be taken not to damage the costume (or the actor). Look at the fabric in the zipper. Will it likely do less harm to gently pull the zipper up and try to free the fabric, or will it be better to try to pull the zipper tab down and free the fabric that way? Choose the best option, being sure to guide the fabric out of the path of the zipper tab as you try to work the zipper free. You may have a better chance of freeing the material by gently pulling the tab one way and then gently the other, while trying to free the fabric. The trick is to work gently, but quickly and avoiding damaging the fabric -- if possible.

A dead costume is one that will not be used again in the current performance. It can be returned to the place it will be set for the next performance, (or taken to be cleaned or repaired, if needed). In the last performance of a run a dead costume can be prepared for packing for the load out.

Many shows have slow periods. You can bring a book or magazine along just in case, but don't bring busy work that has a lot of pieces and parts. But, do not assume it's all right to read. The road crew will tell you on the first show whether it's all right. If they don't mention it, DO NOT READ. Pay attention to your job.

Ditto about watching the show. Sometimes they will tell you when it might be all right and sometimes they will say don't do it at all. If you DO watch part of the show: keep constantly aware of where the backstage crew is and when actors are going to be coming offstage. There are cues you know nothing about that are probably coming up any second.

Also, talk as little as possible, and only in whispers. You often hear road crew talking, sometimes quite loudly. DO NOT TAKE THIS A LICENSE TO DO SO YOURSELF.

Go very lightly on makeup if you wear any at all. There is too much chance of things rubbing off onto costumes. You are in close personal contact with sweaty, naked bodies. EVERYONE is concerned about transmitting whatever these days. Wash your hands frequently, both for your sake and the actors'.

Occasionally, there are shows where the people you dress will tip you. This is acceptable, but its not standard practice. Don't expect it, but be happy if it happens!


Costumes need cleaning, maintenance and repair each day. One some shows, there may be a "day call" where a few hands are brought in to do laundry, ironing, and repairs. This is always a four hour minimum. On other calls, the show may choose to do "continuity" calls.

A "continuity" call is normally a one hour call between a matinee and an evening show. This amount of time is all that is available to prepare the costumes for the second show of the day. This call allows wardrobe personnel to put out clean laundry, perform emergency repairs, prepare or preset costumes into their preshow location and a chance to iron or steam the most important costumes for the next show. This is the only "acceptable" call that is less than the house "minimum".

Usually one person is made responsible for doing the laundry, but each dresser is often responsible for ironing his or her actor's costumes. The wardrobe head will usually give you any special instructions. Otherwise, use common sense and iron the costumes with the appropriate heat settings. Above all, do not use too hot an iron, or you could damage a very expensive costume.

If you must iron a man's collared (dress) shirt, there is a trick to it.
The clue here is to think "from small to large".

There are other tricks that are useful when ironing special shirts like ruffled front tux shirts. The wardrobe journeymen will be glad to pass those on if you need them.

A sleeve board is often useful for ironing sleeves when no crease is desired. A sleeve board is a miniature iron which can be slipped inside the sleeve. By rolling the sleeve around the sleeve board as you iron, it can be pressed in sections without creasing.

A steamer is useful for removing wrinkles from fabrics that should not be ironed, like velvet, brocades, heavy wools, and some very delicate fabrics. Care must be used, though, as steamers can cause severe burns. The steam from a costume steamer should be kept away from your skin. The metal head of the steamer, as well as the copper coupling between the hose and water reservoir, can cause burns. Sometimes a steamer will "spit" drops of boiling hot water. This "spitting" can be reduced if you hold the head of the steamer up in the air for a few moments, allowing the condensed hot water to drain back down into the reservoir.

Velvet can be particularly tricky. Velvet is a fabric which has a nap woven into it, so it is easily crushed. NEVER IRON VELVET ON THE NAP SIDE. If possible, it should be steamed. You can also use a pin board, a pad with many "pins" set in it, points out. The velvet can be placed nap down on the pins, and the back pressed gently. The pins support the nap without crushing. If you have neither steamer or pin board, you can still be successful with extreme care. With terry cloth towels under the fabric (if available) place the fabric nap side down. Use a damp pressing cloth and iron on the back side of the fabric. Be sure iron is only warm enough to remove the wrinkles. Do not use downward pressure on the fabric, and avoid crushing the nap of the fabric, or damaging the fabric with too hot an iron.

A pressing cloth is a medium to light weight piece of fabric (often cotton) used with an iron to press a costume. This may be to protect the costume from too much heat from the iron, residue of starch or other material that may be on the face plate of the iron, and/or to keep a fabric from getting "shiny" from the pressing process. The press cloth can be damp if that is appropriate for the fabric.

A Stitcher is a costumer responsible for building and repairing costumes. A stitcher must know hand sewing AND the use of sewing machines, and how to alter costumes as necessary if another actor takes over a roll.

A sewing machine is meant for sewing the various cut-out pieces of a piece of clothing together into a finished costume. It will do straight stitches as well as several others, zig-zags, mending stitches, and sometimes decorative stitches. A serger is a specialized machine meant primarily for simultaneously trimming and overcasting the edge of a piece of cloth. It produces a semi-finished edge which can be used as a hem, but more often helps keep fabric from unraveling before and after it is sewn together on a regular sewing machine. It is a neater overcast than the zig-zag stitch of a regular sewing machine, and helps the costume to last longer.

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Copyright © 2002 Mick Alderson