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Starting again – A wardrobe professional’s journey from the USA

Starting your career as a wardrobe professional can be a minefield. Climbing the greasy pole in a freelance world can feel more like snakes and ladders – and to top it off there is no tried and tested route to follow. So imagine how it must feel to get to the top of your game in your own country only to be faced with the prospect of starting again in another.

That’s the story of wardrobe professional Undreia Capewell who emigrated from the US to the UK to start a new life…but not a new career.

Undreia got in touch with Kozzii to tell us her story. She talks us through her life in the states, starting again in the UK, and trying to juggle her career whilst being a fulltime mum.

Starting out…

I started my career at the University of Houston with a Double Major B.A. in Theatre Arts and Art History. Most Theatre Programs in America require its students to take Crew Hours (or crew credits in which you have to be involved in the Costume Dept, Prop Dept, Light, sound, or Stage Management each semester, so I was first introduced to Wardrobe that way. My university encouraged us to learn more than just what we were majoring in. My emphasis was acting/directing track within my degree but by my 2nd year, I was all Wardrobe and Costumes.

I took on a work-study job in 2001 as the Assistant to the Costume Supervisor in our costume department and I have been doing this ever since.

I have to say that I have been lucky enough to work in a wide range of areas within the Theatrical industry. I was a Stage and Production Manager alongside working in Costumes. I never wanted to put all my eggs in one basket – I wanted to learn everything there was to learn about this business.

“I can’t stress enough that Experience in this profession is the best teacher.”

I started out professionally in Regional theatre as a Dresser at the Alley Theatre in Houston, Texas, and from there I worked in the Wigs/Makeup Department for the Houston Grand Opera. All the while continuing to do other projects on the side. I can’t stress enough that Experience in this profession is the best teacher!

I graduated from University in 2003 and continued to work in Houston for a few years until 2007 when I became the Head of Wardrobe for the Santa Fe Opera in Santa Fe, New Mexico. From there I got into touring Broadway Musicals as the Wardrobe/Wigs Supervisor and that’s when I really got to see what being a working Wardrobe Mistress or Supervisor was REALLY like.

95% of the time I was a one-woman show…yes you had a team of people that worked with you at each theatre, but in America what grade of tour you’re on will determine the type of crew you will have at each venue.

An “A or B Tour” you will definitely work with experienced union dressers and technician..and “C or D tour” you could have students from the local school or even the old ladies from the local sewing/knitting club! Yes, I tell you this from experience…it has happened to me.

Leaving the USA…

In 2009, I moved to Birmingham, England, to marry my husband and I didn’t know where my career was going to go from there. I went from running my own department with my own team, touring all over America, to basically being someone nobody knew.

I knew that moving to England and trying to continue my career in costume was going to be a challenge. Another key point in this business is that it is all about “Who you know?”, if you’re good at what you do people will always have work for you.

I started from the bottom with only my CV of American work to go on, and being a Wardrobe Supervisor in America is slightly different from a Wardrobe Mistress in the UK.

A new way of working…

In America everyone’s job is separate and they don’t generally ask a Wardrobe Supervisor to make costumes; running repairs, alterations. Maybe the occasional make if there’s been a major accident – but in the States you’re not asked to do the job of a Cutter, Draper or Costume Supervisor.

In the UK, they expect you to do all of those jobs and more.  To be honest the pay is terrible and you’re usually working in ridiculous conditions.

Trying to find work within costume in the UK is extremely competitive. To be honest there are not a lot of jobs available [in the UK] like back home. No matter what my CV said I had a feeling that because I wasn’t educated here, and there was no point of reference on my CV, I was literally stuck.

So starting from scratch I started casual dressing for the Birmingham Hippodrome – I guess it was like riding a bicycle and I jumped right back in. From there I went on to work as a Wardrobe Assistant for the Birmingham Royal Ballet, touring around England, and worked as a Deputy Wardrobe Mistress for the Royal Shakespeare Company.

“The hours you have to put in to do the job is just not workable with a child at home and so I set out to change careers or even go back to school. I wasn’t willing to miss months and years out of my sons life.”

So it took me 5 years to work my way back up the “Costume ladder” but the hardest part about all of this is that it was ‘contract work’. You may work for 6 months and then nothing for 2 or 3 months. I found that trying to find consistent work was like finding a needle in a haystack.

The industry has changed drastically over the past few years with fix-term, and casual contracts making it hard to earn a living. I became a mom in 2015 and I thought I would have to give up my career altogether.

This industry leaves little for its employees with children especially someone who works in Wardrobe. The hours you have to put in to do the job is just not workable with a child at home, and so I set out to change careers or even go back to school. I wasn’t willing to miss months and years out of my sons life. I wanted to be there to put him to bed at night and make sure he’s eating and eventually help him with homework. I wanted to make memories, and working 10 to 12 hour days would not allow me to do that.

I have met many women, both in America and in the UK who decide not to have children, or they realise one day that time has passed them by and it is too late. It is the part of this line of work that makes me sad. A lot of women and men make so many sacrifices for this business, and the thanks is few and far between.

Landing THE job…

In 2017 after lots of prayers and “rain dances” I became the Costume Supervisor for the University of Birmingham. For the first time in my entire career, I was working in Costume year round and in one place. This type of job is hard to find. It took me almost 10 years to get to this place. It was a lot of hard work and a lot of tears….a lot of “I don’t know why I do this!” but it was worth it in the end.

I feel like I have come full circle, back in academia but no longer a student but a teacher. It has been a crazy journey and I have met and worked with so many people from so many walks of life. I think working in Opera is my favorite, with Musicals a close second. The music is something you never forget, and you get to hear it night after night.

If I could give my younger self-advice….I don’t know if I would tell her to choose another career – that would be easier. I would say learn more, experience more, keep your ambitious eye on the prize and change nothing. All of these experiences both good and bad made me damn good at my job!

Have you got a story to share? We’d love to hear about your career journey. Get in touch with us here to start a conversation.

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