Deborah NADOOLMAN LANDIS, the leading character in the contemporary drama "Costume Designers Don't Get No Respect," sits at one of the small tables lining the sidewalk outside Il Fornaio in Beverly Hills. She can barely be heard above the roar of passing traffic and the chatter of late lunchers, yet as she leans forward to make a point in this imaginary movie, her intensity transmits clearly, filling the frame.
"Our craft is marginalized and trivialized," she says. "It's misunderstood. It is perceived as a job of shopping, when what we do is really all about character. We're storytellers."
Landis successfully ran for president of the Costume Designers Guild three years ago because she was tired of hearing her colleagues complain. They gripe about producers who think their talents lie in procuring name-brand freebies, including designer duds that probably won't be seen on screen. They cringe when the press ignores their work then showers publicity on fashion designers who've provided a gown or two for a film.
They grouse about stars who treat them like the help. They're livid when they're confused with -- bite your tongue -- stylists, shoppers who lack the experience and skill of costume designers. They deplore that they're paid less than other creative contributors to films and condemn the practice of being denied merchandising royalties, even when their designs are reproduced line for line. But most of all, they beef about not getting respect.
Writers have long assumed the role of most-disgruntled group in Hollywood. They need to move over. "Costume designer is probably the most underappreciated job on a movie set," director Gary Ross says.
That's what Landis is working to change. "I'm the tallest, so I volunteered to be the leader," Landis jokes. "Everyone could get behind me." If all the costume designers in Local 892 did literally get behind Landis, nearly 600 women and 60 men who work in film and television would queue up. Their leader stands 6 feet tall and seems to take up even more space when her thick, salt-and-pepper mane curls up and out or when she rants about how smart and talented and abused today's costume designers are.
On this afternoon, she wears an orange cabled crewneck, tan cargo pants, orange driving shoes and understated jewelry. "In every contemporary film, what a character wears is a combination of things," she says. "The pieces will be custom-made, or altered. Even if they were bought off the rack, they will be fit, they will be aged. We're punished for our virtuosity. When costume design is good, you don't notice it. Everyone knows there are costumes in 'Shakespeare in Love.' But what we do supports the narrative of contemporary films too."
It's just clothes
Everyone has to get dressed every day, so we all think we understand clothing. And the producer's girlfriend likes to shop. How hard could it be to dress a movie star? Ask Judianna Makovsky. A graduate of the Yale School of Drama with a background in theater, a sterling list of film credits and three Academy Award nominations, she is typical of the current crop of top-tier designers who have a sense of their worth. "She is astoundingly knowledgeable about her craft," says Ross, with whom she collaborated on "Big," "Pleasantville" and "Seabiscuit."
"For 'Seabiscuit,' we were dressing 700 people for every big racetrack scene," Makovsky says. "A producer asked, 'Can't you just go out and rent the costumes?' "
No, she couldn't, no more than she could borrow Quidditch uniforms for "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."
"We wanted 'Seabiscuit' to tell the tale of America in the 1930s, which meant showing people in all walks of life," she explains. "The clothes we needed ... just aren't around anymore. You always have to make more costumes than anyone thinks."
Makovsky got her first solo movie credit when production and costume designer Santo Loquasto, who had hired her as his assistant, decided he didn't want to do both jobs on "Big" and told her, "I'll just do the sets and you do the costumes. Have a movie."
Until recently, costume designers were typically more competitive than collegial. When they're isolated on location in Prague, Vancouver or Auckland for months at a time, it can be difficult to share information or feel very invested in a common cause. Landis has encouraged solidarity and has effectively coerced, charmed and provoked her fellow designers into speaking up for themselves. With rallying cries such as "We hang together or we hang separately," Landis can sound as if she's speaking lines from a melodrama about the birth of the American labor movement.