When you walk into the Production Department of The Australian Ballet on Melbourne’s Southbank, clouds of upturned tutus and bejewelled bodices grab your attention. But then, you notice how quiet it is. Every wall of the open-plan floor is lined with racks of ornate costumes or rolls of materials, and these encircle row upon row of cutting and sewing tables. Yet, within this brightly lit, bustling workplace, there is a pervading sense of calm productivity.
This dichotomy begins to make sense when I meet softly-spoken ‘Costumier’ Alice Mere, and a number of the ‘Cutter’ colleagues with whom she works closely. Sewing awe-inspiring garments for our national ballet, they all verify, is one of the most pleasant and rewarding ways to spend your day.
The 32-year-old has been doing this for the past eight months. Twenty-seven years prior, you would have found her making tutus for her teddy bears, period costumes for Barbie dolls, or fashioning a particularly memorable mermaid’s tail from a pair of old leggings!
In-between all of that, Alice completed an Advanced Diploma Fashion Design and Technology, took time out to explore the world (including a two-year stint living in London), graduated from VCA with a degree in Fine Arts – Production, and even ran away with Circus Oz (…well, kinda).
The dedicated costumier interrupted some Spartacus leotard sewing to chart the inspiring pathway that’s lead her to The Ballet.
The most important verb in the get-your-dream-job lexicon is…
You have to work hard. You also need to have enthusiasm and just put yourself out there and see what happens.
I landed this job by…
I lived in a small South Australian town called Port Lincoln until I was 14 and then we moved to Adelaide. My mum was very crafty – she sewed our clothes, knitted, and all of those kinds of things. So, from as early as I can remember, I was always sewing scraps of her offcuts together.
In my early 20s, I studied Fashion Design and Technology at TAFE in Adelaide (2005-2008), which was a practical, three-year-long Advanced Diploma. In our final year, I took work experience at the State Theatre Company, and for the first time, I realised I wanted to work with costumes rather than in fashion. In my fashion-focused course, we started with the price-point and worked backward, often using the same patterns and tweaking them. Costume-making felt more creative to me, and you would never know what you were going to get to do next.
After TAFE, I just wasn’t sure how to get into it costume design, so I kind of forgot about it for a while. I have a seven-year-gap between my studies, where I travelled and supported myself with different hospitality jobs.
When I came back and moved to Melbourne a friend recommended that I look at courses at the Victorian College of the Arts and, AMAZINGLY, I got in! For Fine Arts -Production (Design Realisation) the application was a folio application, two interviews and a group interview, so that was full on! For the folio, you could choose between three plays and then you had to design costumes or set or props and do a presentation. I chose Cloud 9, and I designed all of the costumes for the entire play. Afterward, I realised that they only really expected you to do one!
The course was, again, mostly practical, and we learned how to design and make costume/sets/props, predominantly for theatre and dance. I did an internship with Circus Oz, almost full-time for five weeks. It was really interesting and the functionality was very different to what I had done before. For example, the trapeze had to have part of the neck covered, other costumes needed a little pocket with some protective foam over the spine, and you couldn’t have anything that may catch with a lot of people twisting around one another!
After graduating from the VCA in 2016, I was freelancing as a Costume Maker for about six months, taking work with the Melbourne Theatre Company, Circus Oz, and a few days at the Victorian Opera – mostly gained through word-of-mouth recommendations. I sort of assumed I’d be freelance for a long time, as there aren’t that many full-time jobs around for makers. But I sent out my CV to the companies I really wanted to work for on a permanent basis –The Australian Ballet, The Melbourne Theatre Company, and ABC – anyway. I tried not think about doing this too much; my email wasn’t very formal or long-winded, more like: “This is my CV. If you need a hand please give me a call.”. I just got it out there.
Months went by and then out of the blue I got an email asking if I was available to work on The Australian Ballet’s Alice in Wonderland for a few months. I was surprised and so excited. It was pretty hectic. There was quite a bit of overtime and I just tried to work hard and be as efficient as possible. At the end of that job, it just so happened that one of The Ballet’s full-time staff was leaving and I was offered a longer contract. I’ve been here ever since!
A typical day for me involves…
I’m definitely more of a morning person, so I like to get up early and (most of the time) ride my bike to work from my home in Brunswick, so I’m really awake and can start by around 7:30 or 8am. It’s really amazing that we have this flexibility to start when we want to (within reason) and it means I can get home early, walk my greyhound Louie, and have those extra hours to potter around, run errands, cook a nice dinner etc. I always try to meditate in the evening as well. It just helps me to relax, stress less in general, and is a really nice way to just reset at the end of the day.
Work each day is really varied, and it depends what show we’re working on. As a Costumier, I work under the Cutters. They interpret the Designer’s sketches and do all the patternmaking and cut the fabric, then delegate the construction of the garments to the Costumiers. So I spend a typical workday sewing, either on a machine or by hand; it depends on what needs doing.
For example, we just finished working on Merry Widow (see costumes in the film below), which has pre-existing costumes that need to be fitted and altered to new dancers, as well as lots of repairs. There are lots of big ball gowns, and feathers in the hair, fans and gloves… it’s very decadent! Now we’ve started on Spartacus, which is a new show opening in September. For this show, all the costumes have to be made from scratch. There is a lot of Grecian style draping, flowing fabrics; it’s going to look beautiful!
The most rewarding part of my job is…
This might sound too obvious, but after working on a show for weeks or even months, when you finally see all that hard work up on stage in a performance it’s so rewarding.
I always take a different friend with me each time and point out the little bits I contributed to. It makes you so proud to have been a part of the spectacle.
On the other hand, the most challenging aspect is…
There are constant challenges, but that’s not a bad thing at all. There are so many different ways of doing things, and so many techniques and processes to learn; I don’t think you could ever know everything, which is really lovely and humbling.
The culture of my workplace is…
… supportive, friendly and easy-going. Everyone seems happy to be there and just gets on with their work. Usually, everyone is working on something different, and we all sit at our machines and listen to podcasts throughout the day (I like My Favourite Murder, The Dollop, a lot of audiobooks and lecture series… anything historical I find fascinating).
It feels pretty relaxed most of the time, but when we’re getting closer to a show opening, everyone pulls together and works hard to get everything done.
On Job Day at school, I dressed up as…
I’m not sure we had one, but I was always playing dress-ups or making costumes for my toys. So, I should have figured out that being a Costume Maker was an actual job way earlier than I did!
The best piece of advice I’ve received is…
… ask questions, lots of them! Never be afraid to ask because you feel that you should already know how to do something. There are so many ways to do things and you’re never too old or experienced to learn a new skill.
In the next five years, I’d like to…
… keep working as a Costumier, gaining skills and experience, and eventually, I’d like to try working as a Cutter. I love pattern-making, I find it oddly soothing – there is definitely a satisfaction when you have something flat as paper and then you turn it into 3D. I’ve got much more to learn before then!
The Australian Ballet’s ‘The Merry Widow‘ is currently showing in Sydney until May 19th, followed by Canberra from May 25th to 30th, and Melbourne from June 7th to 16th. Visit Australianballet.com.au for more information on upcoming performances.