A Rare Gem: VCU’s Smallest Major


You don’t know my past, my likes, my dislikes, my favorite food, or the smells and tastes of the world that disgust me. You don’t know how I came to love writing or who my favorite poet is. You don’t know why I find Starbucks water to be more delicious than any other water. But what I hope you will know after reading these words that I have turmoiled over on this white piece of paper on your screen is this: I am a part of the smallest major at VCU. Such a rare gem in this school that barely anyone knows it exists.

What is this mystery major that no one knows about? Well I can’t just forthright tell you, now can I? Next we are going to play a little guessing game. Many people compare my major to Fashion Design (spoiler alert, it is not Fashion Design). I work with clothes of all centuries and builds. I sew day in and day out until my fingers are numb. I work in millinery and draping and patterning. I own scissors that cost more than my laptop. I work with actors and actresses, potentially both on screen or on stage. Any guesses?

Blue Dress Credit of Kinky Boots Costume

I guess I’ll just give you the answer. The smallest major at VCU is Costume Design. Hidden in the Singleton Building basement and covered in strings and fragments of fabric, we sew, draw and pin in fluorescent lighting all while the world above us is clueless to our very existence. 

As a writer, my goal is to write about what I know and share with the world aspects I see that others can’t. That is why when I learned how few people know about this complex and unique major, I knew it deserved some of the spotlight. 

Now some of you readers might be questioning why you should be reading a whole article about Costume Design. Simple. Your life involves Costume Design a lot more than you probably think. Every television show, every movie, every commercial requires a Costume Designer. Every concert you’ve been to has a Costume Designer. Every play and musical had a whole Costume Crew! Costume Design is surrounding your life and you’ve been blind to it, up until now. It’s a dying profession with a great need for new blood..

I interviewed six people involved in VCU’s Costume Design programme out of the six Freshman, seven Sophomores, four Juniors, five Seniors, one Graduate student, two full time Faculty members, three Adjunct Faculty members, and one overhire Stitcher. That’s twenty-nine people in total that are involved in this programme. Now compare that number to the Art Foundation majors, or Business majors, or the Pre-Med majors. It’s become a tiny forgettable fraction of the size of all the rest of the programmes here at VCU, but it shouldn’t be.

One thing people want to know more about when I share with them my major is: What is that? How did you choose that? Why did you come to VCU to study that and not some high-end fashion university in New York? The answers are wide and varied in different people and their different experiences. For everyone I’ve interviewed in this program, it’s different answers because in creative minds like our own, we don’t look at these answers in black and white. 

How do people decide to go into Costume Design? For Kasey Brown, Graduate Costume Design Student, she explained how from a young age she found her path in life through Costumes. 

In seventh or eighth grade we had to take a career aptitude test, and my number one choice was Costume Design… And I didn’t know what that was so I looked into it and I had already been sewing and knew I wanted to do something creative… So when I found that, it led me down the path to start doing theatre and I have always done the costume aspect.” Brown stated her love for this major and career path by stating throughout the interview: “It doesn’t feel like work… It’s nice.

For most people, like Freshman Costume Design Student Melanie Garber, getting settled into the idea of Costume Design as a future came at a later age in a way similar to others, including myself. 

Well I never did any theatre in high school or middle school, no theatre experience. However, I’ve always been interested in arts and design as well as fashion overall. I knew I didn’t want to go into the fashion industry. My junior year of high school I took a film class and loved it and that’s when I thought of doing costume design for plays and films.” Garber explained.

This is also a similar path Senior Costume Technician Student Melissa Dargo spoke upon in her interview. 

I joined Costume Crew in High School and then thought I wanted to go into fashion… [but] I didn’t like the trend aspect of it, like keeping up with trends and stuff. My dad works in theatre so my family was like ‘What about Costumes?’ and I was like, ‘You know what, you’re right.” Dargo reminisces.

In VCU’s Costume Design program, students start taking classes specifically for their major right away. You start drawing, designing, sewing, working on main stage plays, and getting hands-on experience right away. 

Jillian Parzych, the Costume Shop Manager and Assistant Professor in the Costume Department, stated when asked what she loves and appreciates most about the program here at VCU is:

 “Unlike other universities, we don’t rely on hired professionals to drape and put the productions up. It is all student-run. Our students are more prepared to work when they leave. Our students are ready to work straight from graduation.” 

When I asked Emily Andrew-Mateos, Freshman Costume Design Student, she responded with:

 “I love how accepting everyone is and how everyone is willing to help you and doesn’t judge where you’re starting from.

As someone who is working through this programme right now, I can back up these two responses, and say that I also feel well prepared to work a job after graduation, and along with that I feel as though I am getting hands-on experiences some other universities lack. 

Professors Jillina Parzych and Maura Cravey, Adjunct Professor in the Costume Department at VCU and Resident Costume Designer at Swift Creek Mill Theatre, answered the question: What is your favorite part about teaching Costume Design at VCU? 

My favorite part is being back in this room,” Parzych says right off the bat. As an alumni of this very program, she has taken these same classes and worked in the same Costume Shop just time before mine. “The ‘aha’ moments, when things click for [students], that I really enjoy.

Cravey stated that the “One-on-one and hands on work. You get to interact with everyone,” is her favorite part of being a faculty member. That truly is a perk of being in such a small programme. 

You learn new things everyday. You walk into the shop for class or to work on shows or projects and you learn another secret of this career. 

Such an immense and largely formative career, you have many options coming right out of college. You can become a Costume Designer, a Costume Technician, a Milliner, a Draper, A Tailor, a Dresser, a Stitcher, a Shop Manager, a Professor, a Shopper… yes you heard that right. There is a job out there where you get paid to shop all day for productions. The list of jobs are endless with this career, and all dependent on your connections, your experience, and your artistic ability. This is something Fashion Design and Costume Design don’t have in common. A Costume Designer can become a Fashion Designer with their degree, but a Fashion Designer cannot become a Costume Designer with their degree. 

Now before everyone rushes over to the Costume Design programme to apply for a switch in study, let me share with you the hard work we Costumers put into our career. 

As a student in the programme, I am required to take very meticulous classes before graduating. These classes range from Figure Drawing to Sewing to History of Costumes to Makeup to Acting. You are required to know every aspect of theatre. From the costumes to the hair and makeup to the scenic design to the lighting to the performance. 

Not only are you required to take these challenging classes that subject your creativity and skills to the test, you are also required to work ten hours in the Costume Shop every week on miscellaneous projects for productions. We are essentially required to have a part-time job on top of being a student… unpaid.

Then there is the preparation for the real world aspect of the education process. Your Freshman year you are Wardrobe Head for a Main Stage Production. Your Sophomore or Junior year you are a Costume Designer’s Assistant for a Main Stage Production. Then your Senior year you are the Costume Designer for a Main Stage Production. It is a brick load of extra hours on top of your outside school work and life. 

But before I scare everyone away with the demanding details of the major, let me share with you the reason every student in the programme chose this rigorous career. 

I really like designing. There is something about reading a script and creating a whole character out of words.” Andrew-Mateos stated

Helping identify the character on stage, and all the details and thought behind it.” Garber added.

I’m doing my dream.” Brown explained, getting to the heart of it.

That truly is the reason why the sacred amount of us in this programme are so motivated to take on the taxing work load. This is our dream, and who would we be without our dream?

Now you can say you know more about me. Sure, you still don’t know the title of my favorite novel, or why I say the word “bruh” too much. You can’t answer what my hair color is or what my favorite painting is in Musee D’Orsay (It’s Intérieur, Strandgade 30 by Vilhelm Hammershoir. Although I do enjoy the immense collection of Renior). But you can answer one thing: Why I love Costume Design. It’s my dream. Just like it is to all the other students in the basement working with their seam rippers and sheers and sergers. It is all of our dreams, and we want to share our passion with you through this article. 

Pink dress Credit of Kinky Boots Costume

So if you’ve made it to the end of my rant on the secret, smallest major at VCU, I want you to take away one thing from my writing. That dreams are still dreams even if only twenty-nine people are working towards it at this university and even if you’ve never even heard of our dream.

Photographer: Isaiah Mamo