Good. Fast. Cheap. Pick Two.

"Now for the real excitement the actual cutting." Sewing article in The Delineator, Feb. 1936, p. 7.

“Now for the excitement, the actual cutting.” Sewing article in The Delineator, Feb. 1936, p. 7.

I recently ran into a costume designer I hadn’t seen in years; I woke up the next day remembering a wonderful story he once told:

He was visiting a costume construction shop in Los Angeles — the owner was an old friend — and he overhead her on the phone with a client. It was obvious that the client was arguing over her estimate for the job. After a discussion that didn’t seem to be going anywhere, she finally sighed and said, “Good…. Fast…. Cheap…. Pick Two!”

Every shop manager I’ve known loves this saying — not because you want negotiations to reach the stage where you have to spell it out like this, but because it’s true.

If it takes 60 hours of skilled labor to tailor a suit from high quality fabrics, the cost will reflect that. There is no “good and fast and cheap” custom work:  “Pick Two.”

Stitching. The Delineator, Feb. 1936.

Stitching. The Delineator, Feb. 1936. (Reaching through the machine with your right hand seems rather awkward….)

Good + Fast:
If you want it good and you want it fast, the shop will have to hire more skilled labor, including the time it takes to locate last-minute overhire workers in addition to the usual staff; or it will have to pay overtime; and it may have to put aside other work to fit your rush order into the schedule (which means overtime on that job, too.) The material will have to be ordered immediately, at full price, from someone who ships overnight — not at discount.
So it won’t be Cheap.

Amelia Earhart, aviator and designer of " active-living" clothes for women: "Learn the fundamentals of business. Bring imagination and zest to work." The Delineator, June 1934, p. 12, article on careers for women. The Delineator, June 1934, p12. article on careers for women.

Amelia Earhart, aviator and designer of “active-living” clothes for women: “Learn the fundamentals of business. Bring imagination and zest to work.” The Delineator, June 1934, p. 12, article on careers for women.

Fast + Cheap:
If you want it fast and you want it cheap, the shop has to take shortcuts in labor and materials. Real, quality custom tailoring needs natural fibers — real wool, real horsehair — not cheaper polyester blends. There won’t be time for much hand sewing, so fusible interfacings and prefab padding may be used. The front of your cheap suit may bubble after one dry cleaning. You won’t have a final fitting in which the tailor adds a quarter inch to one shoulder pad to hide your low shoulder — or makes other subtle modifications to fit and flatter as only a custom suit can. The material will look cheap.
So it won’t be Good.

Shopping for fabric. The Delineator, March, 1936.

Shopping for fabric. The Delineator, March, 1936.

Good + Cheap
Almost impossible. However, if you’re not in a hurry, there are times when the shop may not have enough work to keep its permanent staff busy, so it may be willing to build “at cost” or close to it. Or, if there’s no hurry, the shop may be able to work on your project in between other orders, as time permits. But they won’t be able to commit to a firm delivery date; your order may be put on hold if a rush order comes in. If there’s no hurry, the shop manager may be able to locate a really high quality material at a much lower cost than usual. However, shopping takes time, and costs money — unless it can be combined with shopping for another client or project — who will have priority.
So “Good + Cheap” is not impossible, but it won’t be Fast.

Good…. Fast…. Cheap…. Pick Two.

I used a custom-tailored suit as an example, because turning a costume design into a fully realized costume to fit a specific actor is custom work.

Costume design for a character in Ah, Wilderness. The actress was not a standard size: custom work.

Costume design for a character in Ah, Wilderness! The actress was not a standard size, and the color palette was limited:  custom work. Click to enlarge.

Although mass-produced Halloween costumes can be cheap, theatrical costumes are usually custom made. When a TV show needs costumes for people on another planet; or an opera designer needs a full set of Renaissance costumes for Rigoletto in a limited palette of black, gold, and red; or a movie needs six copies of a year-old white Armani suit made in 48 hours — that is custom work.  Building a one-of-a-kind costume has all the costs of developing any prototype, without the prospect of eventually sending it into mass production and recouping the development costs. The “Pick Two” rule applies.

If you’re a costumer, you may get a smile from this 1934 ad:

"Design Hollywood Fashions." 1934 ad for Woodbury College; Delineator, Oct. 1934.

“Design Hollywood Fashions.” 1934 ad for Woodbury College; Delineator, Oct. 1934.

“Mingle with the elite, win financial independence….” The ad is for a “home-study course in costume designing.”

Woodbury University is still offering a fashion design program. It is located in Southern California. Click here for more information. [This is not an endorsement – I have no personal knowledge of the program, except that it’s still there after 130 years!]


Filed under 1930s, Musings, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Resources for Costumers, Tricks of the Costumer's Trade

9 responses to “Good. Fast. Cheap. Pick Two.

  1. I love these stories from your life as a costume designer.

    • Costume shops are full of interesting people. I got the story about the rush order on white Armani suits from a film costumer: they were planning to spill a glass of red wine on the suit in the movie, so they needed several suits in case multiple takes were necessary. The scene was short, but expensive.

  2. Yes, yes, and YES! So true!

    LOL – that 1934 ad! Further perpetuating the myth of costuming being a glamorous job.

    Here’s another story to add to the absurd time-frames in costuming: I recently worked on a period television show where the creator and producers thought renting everything would be the cheapest and fastest. Then they would write in specific clothing details in the scripts and wonder why we couldn’t magically pull something out from stock to fit whoever they happened to cast.

    During my time there I single-handedly managed to build & fit a ballgown from scratch in only 6 days (granted that 6th day was 18 hours long), helped build & fit an entire outfit for a last minute casting in only 24 hours (part of it was a tailored leather jacket that had to be distressed!), and then I ended up building an entire “couture” gown (after building 2 doubles to be worn) just so they could throw it in a fire. We had to buy a close-to-matching fabric for the burn dress because the doubles we made previously were made from a blend that didn’t burn well – something we had not considered originally because the script about burning it had not been written yet.

    And people in the film industry still wonder why costumes aren’t cheap! Costumes don’t “just happen”.

    • Thanks for those real-life behind-the-scenes stories! I can’t imagine how you managed the leather jacket — a distressing experience in both senses of the word. Two phrases you never want to hear from a director: “We can pull the whole show from stock,” and “We’ll do it in Modern Dress because that will be cheaper.”

  3. Pingback: Good. Fast. Cheap. Pick Two. | By the Bodkin

  4. Your Woodbury College ad from the 30’s isn’t too far off the mark for that era, as Travilla graduated from there, along with others such as Michael Navarese, who went on to produce ‘couture’ gowns for the Hollywood set.

  5. Pingback: Watching But Not Enjoying: Downton Abbey & Mercy Street | witness2fashion

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