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Have you ever watched a popular television show, like Madame Secretary or Blindspot, and thought, Wow, that dress Archie Panjabi is wearing is amazing! I’m going to find out what brand it is and buy one for myself? And then you track down what brand the dress is by scouring Twitter or some fan site and order one, but when it arrives it hardly looks like the same dress and doesn’t fit you at all?
Well, there’s a good reason for that.
Every single article of clothing an actor wears in a television show (yes, even Law and Order) has been altered specifically for them. For something like 25 years, I’ve worked as a TV and film tailor and patternmaker. Trust me, nothing is ever off the rack.
We put darts into men’s shirts. We take apart women’s shirts, recutting the backs to get rid of the pleat or extra fabric that is gathered under the yoke. The pleats or gathers are there to allow for “ease,” which is tailor speak for freedom of movement. We hem an awful lot of T-shirts. I’ve even, after an actor severed tendons in his fingers doing a stunt, created a pair of gloves out of leather and spandex to hide his bulky hand cast. I don’t think it fooled anyone, but I did it.
Another thing we do an awful lot, and the main reason why the dress you bought doesn’t look like the one you saw on television, is completely deconstruct a dress, alter every seam, add things like sleeves or a collar, and put it back together.
Sarah Bacot, a New York City costume designer, describes this as “the ‘Thanks for the fabric, Tahari’ (or whatever designer label is appropriate) process.”
“I’ve seen a Prada dress completely reworked, dyed, and under-layered,” Bacot says. “The print of the Prada dress was still distinct, but the dress technically was no longer a Prada. I’ve seen an entire season of Tahari shift dresses hacked and added on to for a particular actress.”
“We ask a lot more of garments than everyday life does,” Bacot explains. ”They have to fit a storyline, make our talent feel amazing and in character, and fit into the production as a whole. This wouldn’t be possible without a tailor to help mold the garment to meet these demands.”
Butts get a lot of attention in the fitting room. Everyone wants to look good from behind. Cherie Cunningham, whose tailoring credits include Mr. Robot, says the most common alterations she does are adding butt darts to jeans and narrowing pencil skirts.
“No pencil skirt goes untouched,” she says.
Drea Tartaglia, tailor for Girls, explains: “High-end skirts often have shape, but in general labels make skirts to fit and please everyone, losing the nuance of individual fit.”
That’s where tailors come in.
We call the pencil skirt alteration the “butt thing.” What we actually do is take in the center-back or side-back seams just a bit so they curve slightly under the butt instead falling straight from the widest hip point, which is the most efficient and effective way to make anyone’s posterior look fantastic.
“I always ask for this alteration,” says costume designer Jared Leese. “That and raising the hem on the sides of a shirt or blouse just a little so that there isn’t a straight line around an actor’s widest point. And butt mullets. Butt mullets always need to go.”
A “butt mullet” is that thing that happens when a shirt is shorter in the front and longer in the back so, when worn un-tucked, it cups the derriere (not a desirable effect).
Unless you’re proportioned in a specific way say — like a mannequin — form-fitting dresses often don’t fit a person’s form so well. Especially when you’re curvy. Many of these dresses will have extra fabric pouching out at the back waistline. In this case, we add a waist seam to get rid of the excess, shortening and resetting the zipper in the process.
Contemporary television shows usually just employ one full-time tailor. Period productions, on the other hand, often require a whole shop, ranging from three to 10 full-time craftspeople. The show-specific shops are set up at the film studio along with shops for other departments, like set construction and props.
Jonathan Knipscher, who ran the Vinyl and Greatest Showman shops, says the one very simple thing they seem to do the most is sew closed or remove pockets on garments to alleviate bulkiness.
“The project I’m on now, though,” he says, “is all about period men’s suits. We’re resetting sleeves to fix drag lines and changing out shoulder pads to repair damage from decades of being stored on wire hangers.”
Many shows feature characters in the armed services. In real life, military personnel are prohibited from altering their BDUs, or field uniforms.
If a uniform is sized correctly, it’ll be kind of baggy, says Marcia Evers, an Austin-based tailor who has worked on quite a few military films.
“But, in the movies, if your leading man or woman is wearing a uniform,” says Marcia, “You have to make alterations all over the darn thing so it fits better and sits better and looks HAWT — in a subtle, strong, leading-character kind of way.”
While viewers often don’t realize just how much work goes into making costumes fit, most actors are well aware (and appreciative) of what tailors do.
Jo Armeniox, an actress who has appeared in Boardwalk Empire, Blue Bloods, and more, gives a window into what being fitted is like. “My agents and a few friends had prepared me for my fitting, describing the department as nothing less than magical. They were right,” she says. Armeniox was wowed by the “rows of vintage dresses, tailored suits, and hats that lined the walls.”
The next step? “Stripping down to my nude G-string in front of a whole team of wardrobe experts. The stripping down part is typical for actors.” (Armeniox says you “kinda feel super grateful to be there while also feeling like you're being sold to auction.”) In the end, she was elated: “I remember thinking how incredible their work was; the amount of detail and craftsmanship that went into every outfit was shocking.”
“For the most part, viewers have no idea the amount of work it takes just to build one character's wardrobe, much less tap into the emotional state of that character and how that reflects in their attire,” Armeniox says. “And of course all the while carefully organizing the clothes for continuity. It's a beast of a job, and I am one lucky and grateful girl to have worked with some of the very best in the business.”
Being a tailor for film and television means being able to consistently come up with creative solutions to fitting challenges and design visions that you’re able to execute without leaving any obvious evidence, kind of like the ‘leave no trace’ philosophy of camping and hiking. My main goal as a tailor is for no one to be able to tell I was there.
One of the best compliments I ever get is when someone says, “Has this thing been altered? I can’t tell.”
The answer is yes.