Looking back over the history of the wardrobe department of City Contemporary Dance Company in conversation with Wardrobe Manager Linda Lee
城市當代舞蹈團服裝部紀錄手冊 Records of the Wardrobe Department at CCDC／攝Photo：董言 Dong Yan
Looking back over the history of the Wardrobe Department of City Contemporary Dance Company in conversation with Wardrobe Manager Linda Lee
Interviewee: Linda Lee
Interviewer: Dong Yan
Translator: Laura Chan
Costumes are an essential part of dance performances, yet wardrobe departments are rare in the Hong Kong dance scene. Apart from the three ‘flagship’ dance companies which receive the most government funding, other groups do not have enough resources to establish such a department. So what kind of people work in wardrobe departments? How do they develop and how do they operate? These are fascinating areas to explore for audiences, artists, researchers and educators outside the industry. Each dance company’s wardrobe department is unique, and the work and lives of the people inside them are worth understanding. This article is an excerpt from the author’s interview with City Contemporary Dance Company’s (CCDC) Wardrobe Manager Linda Lee. She has led the department for over 30 years, and our conversation focused on the department’s evolution and organisation. To make it easier to read, the article was partly translated from colloquial to written language, and efforts were made to preserve the flow of the dialogue, while some of the contents were simplified. The content in square brackets is supplementary information.
城市當代舞蹈團位於荃灣的服裝部 The CCDC Wardrobe Department at Tsuen Wan／攝Photo：董言 Dong Yan
Time and Venue: 29 April 2022, CCDC Wardrobe Department, Tsuen Wan, Hong Kong
Dong: Let us start with how you joined CCDC. What were the opportunities?
Lee: I was fond of making clothes. When I was in primary school there were home economics classes; the morning session was cooking, and I was in the afternoon session, which was tailoring. I guess if I had attended the morning classes I might have been pretty good at cooking, too.
Before entering CCDC, I had taken on some costume making jobs for small theatres. I had also worked for dance companies, but the mode of work was different from now. I had jobs from CCDC but I did them at home.
Dong: So you were already working professionally.
Lee: I wouldn’t say I was professional. It was more like making use of my limited knowledge to complete specific jobs.
Dong: So were you asked to work on those jobs? Or did they come through friend referrals?
Lee: They were referred to me by my friends. I have known Edmond Wong for a long time, and he asked me to help with making some costumes. Before working as a freelance costume designer I was an office clerk. No thinking needed, just knowledge and looks. (Laughs)
Dong: Did CCDC already have its wardrobe department when you were freelancing?
Lee: At that time rehearsals were still conducted at the top of the building; on the ninth floor, they used the first room of around 300 sq. ft. as the admin department and also the last room. I was in one of the corner rooms on the sixth floor. All this was in Wong Tai Sin [at the CCDC Dance Centre]. I spent my working days climbing up and down the stairs. The dancers would be asking for me, then Willy Tsao would look for me; I would have to go up and down all the time, dealing with their requests, and going downstairs to eat.
Dong: So at the time there were only you and Josephine [Josephine Lee, CCDC’s first Wardrobe Coordinator]?
Lee: There was only me as Josephine had already left. Josephine was there for two separate periods. When she joined CCDC she was a dancer, and as the group was small, dancers had to deal with everything, so Willy asked her to help with costumes. Later on she started taking costume jobs for herself and left CCDC. I already knew about CCDC but I didn’t know about the structure of the wardrobe department. All I knew was that I liked making clothes – I didn’t care about anything else.
Then one day Josephine told me, “If you have the time to freelance why don’t you try working at CCDC? The wardrobe department is hiring, and I have already left.” So she had left before I joined CCDC. No one was there to teach or coach me, I taught myself every skill I needed. During my first day of work, Liu Cheuk-leung [the then Stage Manager], one of the higher ranked staff in the technical department, and Tommy Wong [the then Technical Director], showed me round briefly, showed me where the sewing machine was, and then said, “Willy wants to see you”. I didn't even know what Willy looked like, I was like, “Who is Willy?” He was dressed so casually that I had no idea he was the boss. Previously I hadn’t had to deal with the boss – for fitting and delivering costumes, I had only had to liaise with the choreographers, Helen Lai and Sunny Pang.
Dong: When I read the dance company’s annual reports during the 1980s-90s (around 1989-1993). I saw both your and Josephine’s names among the staff.
Lee: Yes, there was such a period. I had been working for some time, but then a lot of things seemed to be…in need of improvement, but I wasn’t sure how to set up the right systems, for example for storage. After Josephine returned the systems were better established, because there were things she had been looking after before. I had joined halfway and with no guidance whatsoever, so how would I know what to do? When Josephine came back she was managing some of the things she had always handled in the past, and I still follow her way of doing things today.
Dong: Is it fair to say that you did things manually, while Josephine had learnt systematic practices and was able to update the initial system for the wardrobe department, such as the structures and operations?
Lee: Yes, we can put it like that.
Dong: I heard that your department had previously visited a film studio to see how they run their wardrobe department.
Lee: Yes. Before I joined CCDC and during Josephine’s time, the technical department went to the Golden Harvest Studio or some other studio to observe how their wardrobe department and backstage systems worked. Our numbering and recording methods were adapted from theirs.
Dong: I saw the formats, names and types in the records of the wardrobe department, were they related to this?
Lee: Yes, Josephine said they came from the film studios. I asked her about the prefixes and numbering and she explained them to me.
Dong: But I saw that you left some things blank, you only filled in what you thought was important.
Lee: That is because some items were not needed, and some of them were already gone. For example, the technical department would have a specific number, say 109. That would mean the costumes, recordings, props, everything for that production. Sometimes I had to ask them, “Which exact number was that? Let me copy it down”. But that lasted for a short period of time only, there was too much going on in their department, so they stopped using the numbering system.
Dong: So it is the technical department who did not make use of the system, but I find it important as you are in the same department as them, and standardised numbering can prevent everyone from recording items differently.
Lee: Since the numbering has stopped being used, I have to write down all the information, title, venue etc. for each dance production in order to keep a record.
Dong: How many people were there in the wardrobe department during the 1990s? There was a wardrobe coordinator, manager, and a group of assistants too. Why did you need so many people?
Lee: That was because at that time one person who did the sewing had to perform as well. Gradually more and more people were recruited. Now, due to restructuring and budget issues, we hire freelancers to do the sewing and their wages are counted under production costs, so it is no longer a fixed monthly expense.
Dong: So at that time the wardrobe department had specific positions for different types of work, and had its own budget, while nowadays it varies, depending on each production.
Lee: Yes, we no longer have dedicated positions for sewing and tailoring.
Dong: Do the assistants who left still work with CCDC?
Lee: No, now we use freelancers.
Dong: They didn’t come from the Academy for Performing Arts?
Lee: No, the only person from the Academy we have now is Jason [Jason Chu, current Assistant Wardrobe Manager].
Dong: Interestingly, in CCDC’s history the wardrobe department was started by people who did things manually rather than those with formal training from the Academy. This is different from the other technical departments.
Lee: Yes, they evolve quickly. (Laughs) Not sure whether I’m the one getting in their way, if I’m not going to leave then people from the Academy will never be able to get in. (Laughs)
Dong: [More on the then wardrobe department.] What was the division of labour?
Lee: When Josephine came back she dealt with choreographers and designers, and she would tell me what they needed after meeting with them. Then I would be responsible for cutting and other things like buying fabrics. After I finished the tailoring the assistants would start sewing the costumes.
董言 Dong Yan
Dong Yan’s ongoing research project titled "Wardrobe: A Critical Research Approach to Dance in Hong Kong" was funded by CCDC’s "Contemporary Dance Research Fellowship".