Running a Costuming Business, part 3:The Art of Objectivity

 

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A short follow up on my earlier posts, ( part 1 and 2), dealing with running a creative business – not only a costuming one I suppose, but applying to many art- and craft-related business as well.

This point has come up recently, but in quite a few places, and so I though it was worth discussing it here. I have mentioned ‘constant learning’ and pointed out how important it is if you want your  business to succeed, but  I neglected to mention one important thing:

MISTAKES.

…and believe me, ladies and gentlemen, mistakes are  your friend.  They show  you clearly in which areas you need to improve, they make you aware that there is yet more research todo/ techniques to study, and  as a result, you get better! The thing is, everybody makes mistakes- but not everybody learns from them.

I am often asked by  folks for an opinion on their creations – and they all ask me for an honest opinion. And an honest opinion I give, highlighting both the points of excellency, and  stating what areas could do with some improvement (as a college teacher I have had decades of practice on how to do this, at least now it comes  handy for my own business too!); and guessed what?  A few folks are happy,  a few take the comments on board and apply in their future work, a few listen, thank me and ignore whatever was suggested – and that is all fine. However, quite a significant  percentage are angry and actually resort to abuse,  (“how dare you criticise my gown! I spent months working on it!” ; “You are just  jealous, you must hate my work –  all my friends are saying this piece is perfect!”; and even “go fuck yourself, you ‘know- it-all’,  my work is faultless; afraid of competition, huh?”).  They do make for an interesting read sometimes, and sometimes they leave me puzzled – so after some thinking and a few discussions with friends,  I realised  an important thing:

Very few people are able to view their work objectively.

It works in both directions. Some  people create amazing things  but in their own eyes they are nothing special, just ‘something I made’ . The are the perfectionists, never satisfied with the end result, and sometimes suffering from ‘impostor syndrome’. As a result they do put their own work down, and either under-price it or, if making things for themselves, they get disappointed with the lack of perfection. Usually  they just need a bit of a boost, usually from another person whose opinion they feel they can trust, to start looking at their creations in a different light. Sometimes their sense of underachievement may come from comparing their own work to other artists to whom they look up – and that issue can be dealt with as well.

If you think you might be one of these folks, there are a few things you may do, to try to look at your own work in a more realistic light:

  • Read up on the Impostor Syndrome and ways to overcome it; (a good start here)
  • Set yourself realistic goals. Aim high, yes – but in small steps rather than one huge leap.  Take small steps, each bringing you closer to your ideal.
  • Identify the issues that you think your work has, write them down and then discuss  – ideally with a specialist in the area, an outsider who will be objective, but if you have friends who are able to tell you what they really think, that can work, too. Seek out a few good, informed opinions – if none of them perceive the same issues as yourself, there is a high probability that the issue is really only in your own head! If they agree and state that there is something upon which you can improve, don’t despair. Simply note the advice and plan for how to deal with it. This is one of your targets, and gives you something tangible to work on, whilst on your way to ‘perfection’.
  •  Talking about perfection – well, it means something different to  everybody.  I  usually assume absolute perfection is unattainable, but one can damn well try to get as close as possible! Do not over-obsess though – that one, tiny, skipped stitch you found on the inside or that one buttonhole 0.2mm out of alignment?  It will most likely not be noticed by 99.9% of the population…
  • Know your limits: everybody has different strengths and different weaknesses – use your strengths to your advantage.  You can make a great piece of clothing with a commercial pattern, but when trying to pattern things yourself you end up in a mess?- either take lessons or a course in patterning, or just concentrate on doing what you are good at! Or, if you cannot follow a pattern at all and get lost in calculations, but can free-hand them with ease and the end result is amazing – well, ditch the patterns! There are may ways leading to the same result, all of them equally good.

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  • Don’t always compare yourself to the top of your profession. Yes, look up to them and learn from them, but also take time to compare yourself to your peers, and also to those who are just starting out.  This is crucial – and works for many walks of life.  I  had a similar experience in Mixed Martial Arts quite recently –   for the last year or so I have been trying to spar with the best fighters, thinking that these guys are the ones to learn from. I was right, but only partially.  I was learning, but couldn’t see it, and the fact that I was having my arse handed to me again, and again, and again, wasn’t particularly motivating. I did some sparring with the beginners, and enjoyed the teaching and coaching part, but it was only when I came across somebody who was my peer, more or less,  when I understood how much I had learnt. These guys were not the cage fighters I usually worked with, but blokes who had been coming for the last year or so – fit, young and looking quite formidable. I sparred with them a few times half a year ago or so  and was just about able to handle it.  So now I expected something similar – but it turned out much better. Suddenly all the moves that I wasn’t able to pull with the ‘pros’ now worked! I seemed faster and more agile – although obviously I wasn’t – they were just a bit slower than my usual sparring partners. My ego soared! At least until the next round when  I was ground to dust by one of our pros…  it is a lengthy example but I hope it shows how working with all, levels, higher and lower can help you understand your own capabilities: Working with the best can provide you with inspiration and will make you learn; working with peers will help you assess your own work better and you learn from each other a lot too; working with beginners will help you realise how far you have come – and will help them to improve as well.

 

* Take photos of you work and if you are feeling particularly low, have a look at the old ones.  more often than not, you will see how far you have come!

*and a final note – Do not use the Impostor Syndrome as an excuse for sloppy work – if  one sleeve is longer than another, if the collar doesn’t align or the hem buckles it is not you telling yourself you are trying too hard to be too perfect and most people wont notice it anyway. Grab that seam ripper and set too work, it will be worth it!

 

Now, let us have a look at the other end of the scale.

Some people are not able to see their own mistakes – and the reasons may be  numerous, ranging from a case of Dunning- Kruger Syndrome  to the fact that your family and friends may be pumping you full lies so that you stay happy. Or maybe  you are starting  on a long road and are so ecstatic about the first step as a whole, that you cannot see the details which could be improved (been there, done that, got the tee shirt. I now cringe when I look at those ‘masterpieces’ I used to be so proud of!)

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one of my early corsets…. essentially a tube. but gosh, i was so ecstatic about it!

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4 years and about 60 corsets later…. getting better!

Most often, the apparent confidence in one’s own brilliance comes not from an over-abundance of self esteem – but rather a lack of it. Often, people are bought up in the belief that mistakes are bad and to be avoided at all cost – and that admitting to one is just as bad. Years of self delusion, denying all possibility of any fault, usually re-enforced  by the white lies that family and friends feed you, and you somehow loose the ability to see your mistakes – and most importantly, to learn from them.

Now, if you are making things for yourself, and love what you doing – that is really all that matters – especially when  you are happy about your results. You are happy and that’s the end of it – enjoy it, and what everybody  else is thinking does not matter at all.

However, if  your professional career depends upon it, and you are making things for other people, this can be detrimental to the development of your business and indeed can stop you from fully realising your creative potential. It will also make you very unhappy – you are producing fantastic things, but nobody wants to buy them – why?  If you want to succeed, you need to understand how to adjust your perception – even though your mind is telling you clearly that there is no fault with the product, it is just that all of those other people are wrong, and being awkward! ;-0).
There are a few techniques that may help:

  •  It is very difficult to judge your own work accurately – so seek the opinions of outsiders, just as mentioned above. Try not to get upset when critical advice is offered, but do take notes and decide which parts need more work. Make sure the ‘experts’ you are asking for advice are indeed knowledgeable folks with experience and not just a friend of a friend who once made a hankie….
  • Assume from the start that what you have just made may have faults. Although lots of art is deeply subjective, at least in costuming things can be made easy – you cannot  ‘objectively’ state how pretty something is, but there are measurable quantities and aspects – below are two of my check-lists, for corsetry and off-the-peg  Victorian dresses. Lists like that are  great, and you will soon find that in time they become mental check-lists, and that you are  noticing a mistake as you work  along and correcting it as you go – much easier than doing so after the garment is finished!
  •  Seam ripper is your best friend –  it is frustrating, dull and infuriating, but it is really worth it to rip and redo a wonky seam!
  • …as is the tape measure. You may not see that the collar is uneven, but you cannot argue with the tape informing you kindly that one edge is half an inch higher than the other….  These may be details – but oh, so often they do make a difference between a mediocre dress and a superb outfit!
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Your Best Friend

  • Get some distance – after you make a garment,  put it away overnight, or at least for a few hours and go for a walk, or do something different. Then look at it with fresh eyes and try to asses it as somebody else’s work. I once spent a whole day working on a replica bolero jacket for a museum. I was battling with a lurgy and not feeling great, but decided to soldier through.  I shouldn’t have. I felt better the next day and one look at the garment made me go: “Oh, crap, I need to do the blasted thing again”.   There was nothing inherently wrong with it, but it just did not seem right, I went through my checks with a tape measure etc, and realised what was the problem : the bias bits were not done well enough, the trim was a bit uneven, buttons just a notch out of alignment… I spent the whole day remaking it from scratch. As it turned out, the client liked both –  but I felt better knowing that I had made an item better suited for public viewing
  •  As in the opposite spectrum, perform frequent ‘reality checks’. Seek advice from people you admire, compare your work to your peers’ and study together, help beginners –  a few times, I have realised my own mistakes only after seeing them on a student’s work. And the occasional bitch-and-stitch sessions can be not only educational, but fun 🙂
  • As before, do take pictures. Compare your old work with new pieces; if you are learning and improving, there will  be clear evidence of it, and it will sharpen your ‘mistake hunting’ senses. By the same token, if you look at the skirts you made over the last 3 years and they all feature an uneven hem – well, you know precisely your next personal improvement goal!
  •  Having said all that, don’t go over the top trying to find out the slightest faults in every single item. Improving is one thing – loosing your joy in making things is quite another, and it is never a good thing trying to make a living doing things you don’t enjoy any more…

 

Well, that is it – I believe my first blog ever with more text than pictures, a rarity!  I hope my musings were not too hard a read and that they may help some people. If you have any ideas on other techniques people can use to learn how to assess  their own work (more or less objectively), please share in the comments!

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5 thoughts on “Running a Costuming Business, part 3:The Art of Objectivity

  1. And thank you again for your wise words. With every blog I learn new things, I recognize business- and artistic issues and I get more motivated. Thanks!

  2. Excellent commentary, and applicable to all of life, not simply costume-making or crafts. Writing is just one area where attending to your tips would be very valuable.

    Thank you.

  3. Thank you. I second the previous comment. It does have very wide applications.
    I’m particularly interested by the statement that imposter syndrome can be overcome. I’ll be following that up.

  4. Pingback: Running a Costuming Business | A Damsel in This Dress

  5. Just want to say your article is as amazing. The clarity in your post is simply nice and i can assume you are an expert on this subject. Fine with your permission allow me to grab your RSS feed to keep updated with forthcoming post. Thanks a million and please keep up the gratifying work.

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