Costume Designers Fashion a Plan to Fight for Pay Parity in Upcoming Contract Talks

Zoe Hewitt

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The Costume Designers Guild Local 892 is gearing up to fight for pay equity in its 2021 contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, establishing a pay-equity committee to raise awareness of the scale disparity between the mostly female CDG membership and the mostly male membership of the Art Directors Guild Local 800.

Committee head Kristin Burke says the CDG is using production designers as an example of a higher-paid comparable position under the California Fair Pay Act. Passed in 2016, the amendment extends the equal pay for equal work provisions of 1949’s California Equal Pay Act to cover “substantially similar work” — a definition that includes skill, effort, responsibility and duties. 

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“It’s about our day-to-day responsibilities, accountability, working conditions, education that may or may not be necessary and the overall effect of our work, which is to create a world,” says Burke, a costume designer appointed by the CDG to head the committee.

Two-time Oscar-nominated costume designer Arianne Phillips further links the positions of costume designer and art director as key department heads who are considered to be off-set— that is, not part of the actual filming process. “We are on par with our job descriptions and our contributions,” she says. “We don’t get paid overtime or meal penalties or anything that a shooting crew would make.”  

Tracking the specifics of pay disparity is somewhat difficult. Production designers retain an honorary title within the ADG, as do supervising art directors; neither is recognized anywhere in the contracts with producers. Instead, the agreements set scale rates for art directors, leaving the top two art department positions to negotiate over-scale rates for themselves.   

Costume designers seek parity with art directors, who are paid nearly $1,000 more per week when comparing the ADG’s Crafts Wage Schedule for feature films with Showbiz Labor Guide’s West Coast IATSE Basic Agreement for costume designers on feature films. The ADG did not respond to requests for comment. 

CDG president Salvador Perez says costume designers’ contributions are undervalued in another way: Their work generates ancillary income from sales of children’s costumes, toys, clothing and other products. Other departments that create marketing opportunities for studios, such as composers and musicians, earn residuals. “The financial gains from merchandising are [significant],” says Perez, yet “we don’t get any kind of compensation, let alone credit.”   

Costume designers gave up ownership of their work in movie and TV productions decades ago (though stage productions still allow designers to earn royalties and residuals). That means they’re frequently overlooked in the studios’ quest to capitalize on what they’ve created. For example, Burke’s costumes from “Insidious” and “Insidious: Chapter 2” were displayed at Arclight Hollywood to promote the second film, and although she sat and sewed them by hand at her kitchen table, her name was nowhere to be found on the installation. Arclight Hollywood did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did Olson Visual, the company that created the display, or multiple studios contacted for this story.

“I don’t think there’s a conspiracy out there to deny us credit that’s due,” says Phillips, “but I do think there’s an ignorance about it. It doesn’t occur to them that a person actually created these costumes.”

While there have been some gains, it’s been an uneven path. “Game of Thrones” costume designer Michele Clapton narrated a traveling costume exhibit based on the show and is helping to curate a display for the “Game of Thrones” studio tour set to open next year in Northern Ireland. HBO confirms it will have her name attached.   But a new collection of clothes based on “Game of Thrones” costumes from apparel designer John Varvatos includes no mention of Clapton.

Jeff Peters, VP of licensing and retail at HBO, responded via email that although HBO is a fan of Clapton’s work, she was attached to another project when the clothes were designed and “since no HBO talent or crew was part of the creative process, we did not feature any specific names in the marketing, which is our general approach.”

Clapton is working on location and responded to requests for comment via an email sent through HBO: “I’m very excited to see that there is such strong consumer interest in these types of film, television and fashion collaborations. I know that the increase in these partnerships will continue to highlight the creativity and hard work which costume designers put into their craft, and that is very gratifying. I strongly believe that participation by costume designers and recognition of their roles in these projects is an important topic, and I’m encouraged that our industry is engaged in this incredibly vital discussion.”

The CDG goes back to the negotiating table in early 2020. Until then, the goal is to spread awareness. “We’re fighting for scale,” says Burke. “We have to make the point that our work is valuable.” 

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