The First Designers

An article in the New Idea Women's Magazine says that by 1906 theatrical costume design firms flourished in most major cities. Some, like Eaves or Van Horn's, in New York and Philadelphia respectively, began as manufacturers of uniforms or regalia and expanded into the theatrical market. By contrast, Mrs. Caroline Siedle and Mrs. Castel-Bert, both in New York, established their ateliers specifically to cater to the growing theater industry.

Producers hired these pioneering designers at their discretion. They were under no obligation to commit to the services of a designer and many preferred to rent existing costumes. For a modern dress show, leading actresses might commission their dressmaker, while minor players raided their closets. Two events changed that.

The actor's strike of 1919 put an end to the practice of performers providing their own wardrobes. Thereafter, producers were required by contract to supply costumes for everyone. Then, in 1923, the stage designers unionized. As part of the collective bargaining agreement, producers of Broadway and touring productions had to hire a union designer. The first union members were set designers who might also design costumes. By 1936 the union recognized costume designers as a separate specialty.

Film designers also emerged in the 1920s. At first, actresses in contemporary films wore their own clothes, "so ladies with good wardrobes found they got more jobs" (Chierichetti 1976, p. 8). For period films, producers rented costumes.

Costumer designers at the Palais Garnier, Paris. Once the concept for a particular production has been agreed upon, the costume designer researches the script and creates sketches of possible garments for each character. © Annebicque Bernard/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.

The industry moved from New York to California in the 1920s and the studio system replaced the independently shot films of the teens. Designers emerged partly because studio heads wanted their films to have a cohesive look but primarily because the shift from black and white to color film, and from silents to talkies, required costumes especially designed for the medium. The early film distorted colors. Blue, on film, appeared white. Red photographed as black. The early microphones were so sensitive to sounds that only soft fabrics could be used. Crisp fabrics rustled, drowning out the dialogue. By the end of the 1920s, every studio had at least one house designer, a support staff of sketch artists and costumers, and a research department and library.

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