The Fight For Pay Equity In Costume Design

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Costume designers Deirda Govan and Ariyela Wald-Cohain are speaking out about the pay disparities that have gone unaddressed for years. The two women who are members of the Costume Design Guild Local 892 union chapter in Los Angeles express commonalities in regard to pay, benefits, and more. Govan and Wald-Cohain also believe that there is a general lack of knowledge surrounding what they both accomplish once they are on board for films, television shows, and other projects. 

Pay Equity Now, a campaign launched by their union in March aims to address the fact that costume designers are at the lowest tier of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees pay scale–women make up 87% of the guild. The scale includes male-dominated craft counterparts including cinematographers, grips, and production designers.

Additional issues and tangible effects are what lie beneath the pay gap. Govan says that the inequity of how much they are paid falls into the respect they receive in regard to marketing efforts around their work, how they’re represented, and further monetization. Govan has led costume design for Sorry To Bother You, I’m a Virgo, and more, she is the current vice president of the United Scenic Artist Local 829. “The fight for pay equity is a universal issue. It is a complex soup, but I think it’s very important to note that it is far-reaching,” she said on Zoom. “It’s a pretty systemic issue. It is a glaring issue because we are considered the tripod of the creative trifecta that helps our director achieve their vision.” She believes cinematography, production design, and costume design work hand in hand to execute long-standing works.

Over a Zoom call, Wald-Cohain known for lending her skills to works such as Sherman’s Showcase explains that if people understood the amount of work that goes into their work then the pay disparity might be addressed. She is also a co-chair for the Pay Equity Now campaign. “As well as [being] department heads, we are creatives. It’s a village, I think that respecting our work and the respect that we deserve in terms of upfront credits [is important].” She tells me that for the past 20 years, the guild has been requesting fairer pay that would assist with beefing up their pension and also address overtime (they are not paid overtime even after working 60 to 80 hours a week).

In January, the union officially launched a gender pay gap initiative, following this, an open letter was published to further push Hollywood to address the pay disparity issues both Wald-Cohain and Govan are hopeful is altered. For future generations to not cope with the pain points they’ve felt and lived through personally, changes must be made.

Inside The Costume Designer Guild’s Wage Equity Campaign
Pay Equity Now/CDG Local 892

“We see ourselves as trailblazers in the industry because we know there’s a lot of other departments that have pay equity issues,” Wald-Cohain says. “We really want to [raise] everybody up and make everybody aware of it. It’s our fight right now, but it’s definitely a bigger issue that happens in Hollywood.”

Below we caught up with Dierda Govan and Ariyela Wald-Cohain to learn more about the core of the Pay Equity Now campaign, its lasting effects, and more. 

ESSENCE: Can you break down the core of the Pay Equity Now campaign?

Ariyela Wald-Cohain: Our main concern is that we are the lowest-paid creative department heads for work that goes on screen and it’s been going on for years. In 2002, we [made] requests in our negotiations pay parity, and we were walked out of the room and it was shut down and no conversations [followed]. Nothing happened with that and we’ve been asking for it since then. So this is over 20 years of requesting it. I know that the last negotiations, it was right [after] COVID-19, so it was an agreement that we’re not going to go in with any personal requests. So it was side-tabled. Now, we feel like the time’s right because as the increase in pay has happened over the years, the gap between what we receive and other creative department heads receive is just growing.

Dierdra Govan: The fight for pay equity is a universal issue. It’s a national issue. We are, I think, approximately roughly 300 Locals under the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which is our parent international local that governs all of our locals. So in each demographic of the state, there are varying degrees of costume designers that are represented by that state’s local. Outside of the CDG, USA 829 also represents costume designers and they have the largest body of costume designers. Most of us, well I wouldn’t say most of us, quite a few of us are dual members. We’re both members of the CDG as well as 829. So I want to just preface it by saying that it is a national effort. Our sister, Local 829, 892, obviously the West Coast locals are up for negotiations first, so we are leading the pay equity effort in that endeavor.

Can you walk me through what the last few months have been like since announcing this open letter?

Ariyela Wald-Cohain: The open letter came out and really we’ve been in the last three years, really pushing for this and we started a legit campaign at the end of last year. I mean, there’s definitely been recognition in the press and just in the general public we see, following on Instagram and TikTok has definitely evolved in the last couple of months and we find that people are being educated more. When we would show the chart we’re at the bottom of it. When people [saw] this chart, even producers or directors, nobody understood how bad it was or had no idea that, that was the case. 

What do you two feel would be the long-term and lasting effects if your goals are reached?

Deirdra Govan: I definitely am not in a utopistic mindset to believe that this is all going to come to pass, especially in the climate that we are in now. I think what’s most important is the message, that it’s clear, it’s consistent, and we stay the course. This didn’t happen overnight and it’s a long distance effort. So I think to think that it could change with negotiations or to think that it can change instantaneously is a mistake.

Ariyela Wald-Cohain: Maybe I’m optimistic here, but I do hope that we get the pay equity we’re asking for in this negotiation, but that’s a monetary thing and hopefully of course it will impact our pension and so on. I think that the bigger picture here is really getting the respect and the understanding of our contribution because once we are, I mean at the end of the day in a business, it’s the bottom line. So if we’re being compensated the same as a production designer, it would be lovely at some point to be at the same level as [the] cinematographer, but that’s the whole other hill to climb.

I think that we will feel more equitable in terms of the way we’re respected. Also it would impact the amount of money that’s allocated for our budgets and the amount of manpower that we get because there’s no understanding of our job as Deirdra said about the education of what we do and how we do it. When you show up on set, you see the grips climbing and electricians hanging the lights. And I mean what you see mostly for the vanities, which I hate they call it, but we come up and we adjust the tie or we pick up the collar and all the work is behind the scenes. The people on set don’t see our work, they just magically see the character come to life. They have no idea of the process that goes in with research about working with the actors, the psychology behind it.

Inside The Costume Designer Guild’s Wage Equity Campaign
Pay Equity Now/CDG IATSE Local 892

Deirdra Govan: Education is crucial. I think with the advent of streaming and where our industry really took a turn, and I don’t think it happened overnight either. I think it’s been a very slow transition, but I think where we are in the world today really helped further cement the fact that costume design [is] complicated. I’m being very careful with my words because I don’t want to be offensive, but costume design is not about shopping. To be a costume designer does not mean that you have a good eye and you know how to shop. That’s not what our job is. Our job is about creating worlds, creating characters that exist in those worlds.

Is there anything else that’s of high importance that you would like to share?

Deirdra Govan: There is a real skill, artistry, and craft to what costume designers do. A lot of us are professionally trained, a lot of us have advanced degrees, a lot of us are makers, builders, crafts, I mean, you name it, we are that. Styling is a completely different entity into itself and it addresses a different aspect of entertainment in itself. It is not costume design. And part of the issue, which is an undercurrent issue, is that we are dealing in situations where styling is conflated as costume design.

And it creates inequity in its own right, and it’s a very slippery slope. So we as costume designers, yes, some of us also style, but those of us who do both and do both well are very clear that they are not the same thing. So when you open the conversation and you bring in styling and for this conversation and where Ariyela and I both stand, and Ariyela, I’m not speaking for you, but you can definitely speak on this, I think it’s just very important to make that very clear because there are some issues in the styling world and they have their own issues about pay and how they’re treated, but we do not want to conflate so it causes more of an issue.

Ariyela Wald-Cohain: ​​Costume design is about building characters and building worlds. If it is like The Devil Wears Prada, which is about fashion, it’s the same to us as if it’s a motorcycle movie about bikers. If we do that research, we get the work done and we make it as accurate as possible. 

And what’s interesting, there’s a lot of people because of TikTok and Instagram, that maybe they don’t go to costume design college or they don’t get a degree, and then they come out there and become a stylist and then think they can just blend into costume design. But it is a whole different world. I think that it’s very tricky. I do see a lot of people joining our guild now who are very young and not necessarily haven’t had that education. And it’s a different situation. And I think that, again, I know I’m drilling this, but I think it’s very important to understand that we’re artists and we are storytellers, but we’re also department heads. And running a department of between five to 200 or 500 people is very different than styling a celebrity. And not to take away from that because I’ve done that and oh my God, that’s so hard.

You need so much more than just shopping skills. You’re working your butt off and my respect [goes to stylists] because I walk away from styling jobs because I can’t handle [them]. I do think that [in] this world of educating the audience [it’s important to connect with us on the] Pay Equity Now Instagram and TikTok [accounts].

The Pay Equity Committee of the Costume Designers Guild, IATSE, Local 892 is advocating for the fair pay of costume designers, assistant costume designers, and costume illustrators. For further information on the Pay Equity Now campaign follow the official Pay Equity Now Instagram account and TikTok account. If you’re hoping to keep up with all the happenings of the CDG, IATSE Local 892 chapter in Los Angeles, head to their official Instagram account. Alternatively, the CDG’s official website is

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