CS – In Costume design there’s this term called a “French alteration.” Basically what that is, is when someone requests an alteration, like raising a hem a quarter inch, or something that won’t be at all noticeable on stage, like it’s just an unreasonable request and a waste of time. So some costume shop workers might say oh yeah we can definitely do that, no problem, a nice little French alteration. So it’s kind of a code word to others in the shop that it’s a waste of time, but it sounds fancy to people who don’t know what it means. And then you give the costume back to them and they see it on stage and are just delighted at the wonderful alteration job, and that extra quarter inch (not) lifted from the hem looks great.
The informant was talking to a coworker about wether of not they should do a small alteration that would not be noticeable on stage. The coworker argued that it was a stupid request for an alteration, and that they could easily say they did it, but not do it, and the person wouldn’t notice. The informant asked, “Like a French alteration?” The coworker had never heard the term, so the informant explained. They then agreed that the play’s director would not notice, but they decided to talk to the director rather than fib to them.
There’s the saying that, “The customer is always right.” But the person who actually specializes in something is going to know more than the customer (in this case the play’s director). This term can make the “customer” think that they are right so they don’t put up an unnecessary fuss, and the costume tailor can avoid getting yelled at.
Interview and Context
CS: It’s just a saying. And I think its partially because there’s nothing you can do about it, and it’s a way of sort of justifying and making yourself feeling better that one: you may have hurt yourself, and two: that you may have, like, made a stain on a costume that you may or may not be able to remove as well as you would like?
Interviewer: So as far as you know its less of a superstition and more of a justification
CS: Ya. Hahaha.
Interviewer: When’s the first time you heard that?
CS: Probably the first time that I , probably when I was in college and… I don’t think, I don’t think I ever heard that outside of theater. I think I heard of it mostly, you know, like— it’s something I thought about, like, I’m sure I must have poked myself and may have bled on a garment when I was learning to sew like in home ec, as a teenager, but I don’t think that I heard of it more that, at a costume shop, that it’s good luck for the actor, y’know.
Interviewer: Good luck for the actor, bad luck for you.
CS: Right? Ya.
Interviewer: Any idea how long it’s been around? I know you said you he
HS: I have a feeling that this one is, a long time. I just have that feeling.
CS: Because people have been probably bleeding on costumes since costumes have been made.
The first time the informant told me this proverb was when another worker poked themself with a needle while mending a costume. I later asked the informant to repeat the saying and their explanation for the sake of recording it.
This is an example of a proverb. I found it interesting that it is said so sarcastically, rather than earnestly. However, in other versions*, it is not necessarily sarcastic or bitter. Seeing that it isn’t a saying unique to making theater costumes—or unique to a bitter saying—the attitude with which a participant in this folklore says the proverb changes the intention of the proverb. The attitude also indicates that the saying is useful despite differing levels of belief in superstitions: the reciter may believe whole-heartedly that their drop of blood (it must be accidental) will give the actor a better performance. Or the reciter may not believe the proverb, but say it anyway, as participating in the tradition or just in case it is true.
HS (informant): So it’s, unofficially lending something. Lending without renting, but with no formal requisition process. The idea is, the boss has gone home, any administrative types have gone home and the people left there just let someone borrow something.
Interviewer: So its like if you’re working at a costume shop and you have like, a friend or someone who wants to use a piece, but you can’t like rent it, or don’t want to rent it, so your friend working in the costume shop might just like, wait until everyone else has left.
HS: Ya. People who, people who are working late at night just let someone they know, borrow something, off the record.
I: Do you know how long that saying has been around?
HS: I would’ve heard it by the early 80s. It may have, I don’t know if it exists in other fields. It might.
I: How long have you been working in costume shops?
HS: Since, Oh, I can’t tell you that! ’73? 1973!
I: So there was like, seven-ish years that you hadn’t heard it.
I: Did you hear the term when you were working late night?
HS: Oh, it was like when I was a grad student. Dealing with ISPs (Independent Student Productions). When something wasn’t going to matter to just let it out, or lend it out. I don’t know how limited it is as a term. One of the other grad students was the one who I remember using it the most. Somehow I don’t think it would apply to tailors, because I think it has to do with if you have access to stock.
The informant and I were speaking generally about sayings around a costume shop, so this term did not occur in a fully natural context. In addition, this particular costume shop does not operate late into the night, so the term does not apply in this particular environment. I recorded our conversation and later transcribed it.
The term midnight requisition is an official-sounding label to discuss under-the-table activities behind the backs of workplace superiors. Costume shops generally have hundreds of items of clothing in storage for use and reuse in theater performances, ranging in time period, culture, and levels of decay (some pieces are decades old and barely holding together). Generally a midnight requisition would be a request by a costume shop worker’s friend to borrow a costume, which they may not want or be able to spend money on. The informant mentioned such requests may be for 1920s flapper dress, a pristine top hat, or something more comical for a halloween party.
The term recognizes the improperness of the lending, but makes it sound more official and therefore less objectionable.