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Costume Designers Guild launch pay equity movement

After the months-long actors and writers strikes in 2023, costume designers are now stepping up to end a decades-long battle for equal pay and gender equity. In early 2024, the Costume Designers Guild, or the CDG, launched Pay Equity Now, a movement focusing on achieving pay and gender equality among designers within the film and television industry. 

The co-chair of the Pay Equity Now Steering Committee, Ariyela Wald-Cohain, stated, “Costume design has historically been viewed as ‘women’s work’ and due to the lack of understanding of our job, there has been a lack of respect for our craft.”

According to the CDG’s Pay Equity Committee, or PEC, the CDG membership is 87% female, and more than 20% of the members identify as LGBTQIA+. Within the department consists of the highest population of female workers. The PEC also states that the gender pay gap for costume designers widens yearly. It is also considered to be the lowest-paid creative department in film and television, with costuming jobs averaging only around $2,500-3,000 weekly for a 60 hour work week.

For that 60 hour work week, the scale rate or minimum amount of pay, from the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, or IATSE, basic agreement is upwards of 25% lower than the next creative department head. Even worse, the CDG letter of support mentions that the costume designers' scale rate is 45% lower than those with the highest scale rate. The letter also points out that assistants for higher-ranked, male-dominated positions have a higher scale rate than costume designers.

Before negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, or AMPTP, began in March, the CDG announced it gained nationwide support for its gender pay equity demands. Many top labor and women’s rights groups and organizations have signed a letter of support for the movement, including the National Organization for Women, the Feminist Majority Foundation, Black Feminist Future and Justice for Migrant Women. 

Fran Drescher, president of SAG-AFTRA, shared support for the movement at the CDG Awards. She said, “Please know SAG-AFTRA supports you in your upcoming negotiations and commitment to pay equity.”

At the CDG Awards in February, many of the designers came to the award show with the “Pay Equity” phrase embodied in their red carpet attire. Trayce Gigi Field, chairman of the CDG Diversity Committee, stated, “We’re our own business cards” and the awards ceremony was “really a time to show up and show out.”

The PEC established a four-step plan for its fight for wage inequality. The first step is to educate others about the movement and its history. The second step includes initiation, or getting fellow designers or supporters involved in the cause. 

Negotiation is the third step in the plan, as costume designers are motivated to demand the same pay as roles like production designers or directors of cinematography. The fourth and final step is advocacy, which involves sharing posts on social media with hashtags like “#CDGPayEquity” and “#NakedWithoutUs.” 

#NakedWithoutUs relates to how costume designers have played a huge role in cinema for decades. They are consistently responsible for dressing every actor, actress and extra shown on camera. Designers are also tasked with replicating costumes from different periods or creating pieces for fictional universes.

Designers have created memorable artifacts in film and television history, like Dorothy’s ruby red slippers in “The Wizard of Oz” or Marilyn Monroe’s white cocktail dress in “The Seven Year Itch.” Their work goes on to become Halloween costumes, toys or fashion lines.

Although these costume designers create such commemorated items in pop culture, they only work on a “work-for-hire” basis and the studios that hire them own the intellectual property of the work they make, according to the CDG website

Designers are typically the first to come on set and the last to go home that day. According to Variety, they usually work a total of 18 hours a day. Variety further describes what designers do daily through the lens of Mayes C. Rubeo, an Oscar-nominated costume designer. 

First, she meets with supervisors and assistant directors to understand which tasks are assigned that day. She then goes to a warehouse where she answers every question about each costume. Next, Rubeo meets with department heads before meeting with actors and stunt doubles for multiple costume fittings, often hundreds. “It’s nonstop,” Rubeo said. 

Essentially, costume designers are stepping up to ask studios to see and recognize their hard work in their craft. And with studios recognizing their dedication, they should have the right to acquire equal compensation for their artwork. 

As the union undergoes its battle for pay equity, Wald-Cohain is hopeful about the negotiations making a difference for their industry. To Variety, she said, “Costume design is powerful and its impact is universal. We hope that by highlighting our tireless work as magicians behind the camera we can ensure our contribution is recognized and compensated fairly and equally to our creative peers in production.”


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