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Alice Smart: Interview with a London based Costume Constructor

By Michelle Sciarrotta

Alice Smart is a London based Costume Constructor. She graduated from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London which involved being trained in the art of cutting and making costume for men and women. Since graduating in 2015 she has also worked as a fabricator, making creature costume for TV and film which is the idea of creating a structure within a costume or puppet to enhance the wearability and functionality. Her previous roles have included wardrobe assistant, costume alterations, puppet wrangler, puppet maker, assistant fabricator and costume constructor roles with the BBC, Disney, English National Opera, Netflix, and as a freelance maker for West End musical productions.

How did you first get into the world of costume?

I loved studying and working with textiles at school in Bristol. I really felt it was something that I was both good at and loved doing! After having limited careers advice and applying to fashion courses, I decided to hone in on my sewing skills and did a Foundation Arts course at Weston College – the only course locally that offered a Theatrical Costume element, which allowed me to follow-up interests in costume and social history.

Finally finding a subject that was a perfect fit for my passions, I then progressed onto a vocationally focused degree that demanded technical excellence, yet also nurtured creativity and fun! Naturally, making contacts is a huge part of working in this industry, and the contacts I made at University were very important for entering the industry after graduation.

What’s been one of your favourite moments or career highlights so far?

Definitely working on ‘The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance’ fantasy series from The Jim Henson Company/Netflix, where I worked as costume assistant and puppet wrangler on set. This involved monitoring costume continuity and looking after the puppeteers and body performers in creature costume.

“It was hard work, very intense, but some days were truly magical.”

I particularly remember when we filmed the beautiful Podling Village scene, where the cute Podlings are bathing, and while one colleague was creating giant bubbles off camera, two of us were fluffing foam up and checking puppets – not an everyday experience for a costume maker but a great experience!

Alice Smart on set DC

What’s been your biggest “fail” or learning curve?

I think fail is such a harsh word, although I tend to be quite hard on myself and maybe need to ease up a little! As a young creative I am keen to learn, grow and try new challenges. Every job I do builds my skills and confidence as each brings new specifications, a new designer’s desires and requirements, considerations around the health and safety of the performer and what strains the costume has to function under. Making sure all of these are fulfilled to the highest standard means a lot of problem solving and constant attention to detail, new ways of working and thinking.

To answer the question though, in summer 2019 I worked on English National Opera’s ‘The Mask of Orpheus’ designed by fashion designer Daniel Lismore and sponsored by ‘Swarovski Crystals.’ I was assisting Maggie Cooke in realising her creation of the Principal Lady’s wear: an avant-garde style that looked both sculptural and elegant, which was covered in hundreds of beautiful Swarovski crystals. The challenge was that the dress had to be worn by performers elegantly doing a number of different stunts, safely, and with the appearance of being other worldly. It was quite a challenge but Maggie is very skilled, so working with her was a fabulous opportunity to learn against a demanding brief.

What advice would you give to aspiring costume constructors and seamstresses getting into the field?

You definitely need to have a passion for costume and technique alongside a very strong work ethic and a good dose of resilience! Most of our work is done to a tight timeline, and at the beginning of your career you are often over-worked and underpaid, and self-doubt can creep in if you let it.

Freelancing is also stressful because you are always needing to keep an eye on the next job opportunity. I took the view that it is ok to not know what you want to specialise in to begin with, but that some costume makers never specialise and instead, what you find with a lot of small workshops is that you learn to do every stage of the make and embellishment also.

“I will never know everything there is to know about costume construction, but I can learn as much as I can.”

Every day at work I learn something new about a certain culture’s national dress or fellow makers’craft skills and tips. It’s exciting to be open to all that new knowledge and skills and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

COVID-19 has been tough on the entire entertainment industry, especially those who have been failed by lack of Government help like yourself. How has your experience been and how are you coping?

I have been shocked how badly let down the creative industries have been by government – especially since they are such a key part of the national economy and cultural life. I especially worry about independent theatres and venues and all the associated professionals and wish the government were better informed and held the arts in higher esteem.

I don’t think certain people realise how much will be lost if more is not done to save our nation’s artistic culture, the Arts are part of our everyday life through TV, music, Netflix, gaming, radio etc. which all involve creatives.

On shutdown I was working freelance with English National Opera’s fantastic costume team. We spent weeks all making scrubs voluntarily from home with fabric funded by opera fans – a lovely act of solidarity – but many of those freelance creatives (me included) have had no income for three months and no prospect of that changing.

“To be able to pay rent I have started making reusable, breathable cotton face masks for sale. I have really enjoyed essentially starting up a mini-business, and in turn supporting the local ‘Village Haberdashery’ in West Hampstead, where I currently buy most of my fabrics.”

I think especially in a time like this it’s really important to support your local small businesses. We have really made an effort to do this during quarantine, and some of the business owners have been so kind as to put up advertisements for my masks. Communities working together and helping each other is an uplifting thing to see in times like this.

The financial struggle through this time because of the UK’s current system has hit so many freelance and self-employed creatives really hard. Have you found any useful resources during this time that would help others in the same situation as you?

I have had to look at whether I would be eligible for support from any of the charities that have been supporting theatre crew and performers. The website www.theatresupport.info/ was helpful, but of course the charities are flooded by requests from people in hardship.

I was kindly helped by Bethany Wells’ Go Fund Me page for creatives that have been refused government support or are in need; in my situation, working as a freelancer and some time on PAYE ruled me out of government help for freelancers.

It does make a huge difference to feel that people who don’t know you care enough to support strangers and appreciate the often anonymous workers at all levels in the arts and cultural industries. If you can help others please visit the theatre support page.

You can find out more about Alice on her website www.smartcostumes.co.uk/

Alice’s Etsy shop sells bespoke creations all handmade with love, including the made-to-order facemasks.

www.etsy.com/uk/shop/SmartCostumesShop

Alice Smart headshot

Also by Michelle Sciarrotta:

Women’s Audio Mission: Free Online Learning Resources

Sophia Dalton: Interview with a London based Stage Manager

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