Workers at Work and How They Got There.
Unbuttoned: The Art and Artists of Theatrical Costume Design
by E. Shura Pollatsek with Mitchell D. Wilson
Focal Press, 2017; 176 pages
Paperback $49.95; E-book $49.95
My first reading of Unbuttoned: The Art and Artists of Theatrical Costume Design by E. Shura Pollatsek, with photos by Mitchell D. Wilson, was interrupted by the arrival of a prospective student and her supportive, but uninitiated parents (into either theatre or higher education) escorted by an admissions staff member. This student had a phone full of images of some very impressive crafts projects she had completed for a community theatre, part of her "enrichment" section in her home-school curriculum. Her parents beamed with pride, as they should have, but we in arts education can sense parental anxiety for job security immediately. I have a speech about seeking opportunities and finding a part of the job you cannot wait to do when you get up, but it was me talking--the salesperson, in this scenario.
On this day, I had in hand this volume: pages of clear job descriptions, testimonials of fulfilled and accomplished professionals, and to seal the deal, photos of working hands and faces--diverse hands and faces. In this masterful composition, each section (Design, Sourcing Materials, Draping and Cutting, Fabric Embellishment, Construction, Crafts and Millinery, Wigs and Hair, and finally "Putting It All Together") opens with a clear, accurate, and evocative summary of the area to be covered. Then what follows are frank and frequently funny artisan interview summaries with photos focusing not on the products, but workers at work. Yes, you can see sneak peeks of new and treasured designs and garments, but the main focus is on the people.
True to the prologue, in which Pollatsek calls attention to the general tendency of media to skip over the lengthy and masterful process of creating clothing objects, this book lovingly documents the creation process secondary to the product. It is this quality that made me immediately recommend this book, after a cursory leaf-through, to the student and her family. My hope was she would see people working like she does and think: "That could be me and this lady who suggested it will teach me these things," [but that's another article].
My second and third readings were thankfully relatively uninterrupted, and that leads to my second use of this book: a required text for a combined levels and interests costume design course next fall. In this course, I have a strong candidate for design assistant work--a natural craftsperson, an intended entrepreneur, a strong wardrobe manager, a pageant makeup artist, a design as performance artist, and finally a theatrical cultural anthropologist. What text can address all those career goals without shoehorning them into a repertory syllabus, leaving them to make the connections on their own or trust me that there is a place for them in the art? How can I address all those creative individual goals with a common reading?
I had a stack of copied articles, anecdotes, and websites, and then this book landed in my lap. Inspirational, evocative, and entertaining, this book looks like it will solve my problem. For example, none of the artists featured in the aforementioned "often funny and frank" artisan profiles came to the profession in the same way. I think the diversity of path and process presented by the selection of profile subjects is particularly valuable and noteworthy. Not only are the photos diverse in age, gender, ethnicity, and presumed career length, but the text reinforces the mantra about building a creative career: You make your own way using the education and opportunities you seek. There are plenty of anecdotes and profiles to be found, but this book addresses costume design artists' interests, as opposed to software development or real estate development.
More immediately, and of interest to those outside costuming disciplines, in addition to describing education and preparation paths taken to the current positions, the profiles narrate instances of challenges met and conquered collaboratively in production. Each story included features a careful individual preparation somehow surprised by a change or variable, and then describes the team effort to successfully meet the challenge. For an experienced artist, these are sometimes familiar, always inspirational stories. For a budding artist, these are parables teaching how to "think outside the box [sorry]" and use what you know in order to learn what you don't.
In conclusion, I recommend this book to those who do not teach, as it is enjoyable and inspiring, and I recommend it as a valuable tool for those who are in need of a supporting text for students looking for their "place" in costumes. The well-written and interpreted stories are entertaining quick reads with beautiful photographs by Mitchell Wilson, accessible to old pro and newbie alike.
Emily Gill is an associate professor of theatre focusing in costume and makeup topics at the University of Montevallo in Alabama.