Dart Waist for Another Damn Prostitute

Alteration notetake in side seams, bust seams, side back seams; take in sleeves. 

Sarah, the tailor on a procedural crime drama, receives this note and garment—a women’s suit jacket—at 4:30pm on Tuesday. Sarah has been at work since 4:42 that morning because of a day-of actor fitting. The cost of flying an actor from Los Angeles to New York City the day before they work is more than bringing them in at the last minute and paying the costume department to pull a stylish, well fitting outfit from their butts. No one really cares how many hours Sarah works anyway. She doesn’t complain. She cancels her plans; all her friends and family are used to it.

Sarah can read the subtext of the note: make this as form fitting as possible, definitely make sure we know she has breasts. Just because she’s wearing a suit doesn’t mean she can’t look sexy.

Sarah isn’t worried about completing the alteration in time. The magical thing about women’s suit jackets is they can be bagged out (turned inside out) through an opening in the sleeve lining. Men’s suit jackets aren’t made in this way. Getting to the insides of them require more creativity—like removing shoulder pads, sleeve linings, and sleeve headers (cute pieces of felt stitched into the seam allowance at the top of a sleeve to give a nice, smooth shoulder fit). 

Alteration noteshorten, keep original hem. mults to follow.

Marcie discovers this note, attached to a pair of jeans, on her table when she gets to work on Thursday. Neither are unexpected. Marcie knew the designer was going to fit a bunch of jeans on the lead actress the night before. In the current episode, the female lead cop gets harassed and stalked by a “perp” she’s been trying to put away. The perp shows up at the female cop’s house, and an altercation and consequent chase ensues. The actress is in her “at home” outfit that includes these jeans and a tight fitting t-shirt. She will, of course, have to have some kind of shoe on because she can’t go running around barefoot, even if it is supposed to be “for her life”. 

Marcie reads the subtext: shorten this pair of jeans to that sweet spot that allows the full high heel of a sexy sandal to show but do it in a way so that no one can tell it was shortened. There will be more coming.

Marcie uses the “Hollywood hem” technique which preserves the original hem, making a factory-aged pair of jeans maintain the proper worn look. If Marcie hemmed a pair of distressed jeans using the normal method of cutting off the excess, folding up, and stitching, the new hem would be glaringly out of place. Anyone would see that the hem didn’t match the rest of the jeans.

So, Marcie sews a tuck right above the original hemline. She presses the tuck upward, then sews a line of stitching above the tuck seam line to keep everything flat. She trims out the excess fabric of the tuck. 

Marcie takes notes on what she did so when the multiple jeans arrive she can do them too. She puts the jeans on the “to-set” rack and makes herself a cup of coffee. 

Alteration notedart waist for another damn prostitute

Nadine laughs. She and the assistant costume designer keep track of how many prostitutes are in each season of the crime drama they work on. They have worked on a lot of shows together, and pretty much all of them include characters called, “Prostitute”.  In television scripts, most prostitutes don’t even merit actual names. 

Nadine can hear the assistant designer’s voice in her head. It’s a mocking voice tinged with a bit of anger because, really, what is it with all the prostitutes in scripts, you’d think men were obsessed with them, and why do they never have actual names…make this garment as tight fitting as possible for a woman character that we couldn’t even bother to name. If there is a second prostitute in the script—and there very well may be—we’ll call her “prostitute 2.” You’ll likely have to add some darts to her outfit also.

Nadine sighs and takes the shortest of short skirts off her rack. Darts are a simple alteration to implement. They just require folding the fabric from the wrong side and stitching. The likelihood of this skirt being used again, maybe in a future episode or even next season on a different character, also named “Prostitute,” is high.  

Nadine uses waist darts when she doesn’t have a lot of time or when she thinks she’ll just have to take them out again later to accommodate a different wearer. Nadine considers darts ephemeral, temporary, something lacking significance.

Alteration notelift shoulders and take in side seams

Maury works on an episodic, subscription network show. The characters wear expensive clothing whatever job they work. Realistic clothing costs are not part of the plot. Maury knows the alteration note means show off her breasts more.

Many women are more short waist-ed than standard garment manufacturing would believe. Or maybe the truth is that most fashion brands make their clothes for tall, willowy, white women lacking in the derriere department. Many dresses require a lift the shoulders alteration, usually accompanied by taking in the side seams. Maury has done this alteration a million times. 

When Maury takes in both the shoulder seam and side seam, the sleeve no longer fits into the armhole. To remedy this, she drops the armhole an inch or so under the arm, then eases the top cap of the sleeve back in.

The sleeve cap is the part of the sleeve that fits over the shoulder and needs to have some ease so that a person can move their arms up and down. But not too much—that would be bulky. 

Easing in is an art form. Some tailors are extremely good at it. Some are not. Easing in basically means there is more fabric in one seam than another but they need to fit together without buckling, puckering, or tucking. This usually requires inserting straight pins perpendicular to the stitch line every 1/4 to 1/8 inch. 

Maury is a pro at easing things in. She’s been in the business for just over 30 years. When she was younger, she never questioned the long hours, or the assumption that she could work any amount of overtime at short notice. She thinks about all the things she’s missed or had to cancel at the last minute because of work. 

If she complains about working twelve-hour day after twelve-hour day, her supervisor says,  “Why do you keep trying to put a cap on your hours?” 

Or, “The lead actor has an event to go to and wants us to alter his suit. We don’t know when he’ll be available, but could you just stay until he has a little break? It may not be until 10 or 11 tonight. 

Or, “I don’t know why you’re complaining, you’re getting paid, after all.” 

Maury eases in the sleeve flawlessly. 

No one thanks her or even really acknowledges her when she does the fitting with the actor for his personal suit. He needs the suit for an event this weekend, and it’s Friday night already, so if she could have it done by noon the next day, he’ll send an assistant to come pick it up. 

“Great. Thanks so much. You’re the best.”

Alteration notetake in neck 

Mary works on a period episodic television show. She knows that what this note really means is: make this vintage garment that is 2 sizes too big fit this very small human and don’t cut it because it’s a rental and we have to return it but really it’s perfect just entirely too big.

Mary decides she’ll have to add some decorative pin tucks along the neck of the garment. The dress has a collar, but she can take that off and fold and hand stitch the front edges under in a pleasing way and reapply the collar to the smaller neckline. 

Pin tucks are a pretty design feature used often in the 1920s and 30s. They’re a series of tiny (1/8 inch is too big!) tucks sewn on the outside of a garment. They’re an excellent way of creating some ease in a dress or blouse or skirt without using darts or center back seams. 

Mary utilizes pin tucks often on her period show, usually when the designer falls in love with an oddly sized piece of clothing that can’t be cut because it’s from a rental house. Pin tucks get rid of excess fabric and make something smaller and more fitted. The more tucks sewn into a thing, the tinier and less noticeable the tucks get. 

Mary has spent a good deal of time on this exact technique, both in sewing and otherwise. When she first started in the business 18 years ago, she was much more vocal. People said she was “not much of a team player.” Mary needed to keep getting hired on jobs so she started altering her behavior. She’d tell herself it would “just be this once” and just in this tiny way. Pin tucks were her skill. 

Alteration notetake in side seams, add slit to skirt

Hazel makes up stories in her head as she sews. She reads this note as the backstory runs through her brain: take in the side seams of this skirt so she can barely walk. Oh wait, she has to walk, doesn’t she? Well, put a slit in the back of the skirt. And make sure it goes all the way up to her ass.

Hazel likes to prep a whole pile of alterations at once. She groups them by color so she doesn’t have to change thread on her machine. She further separates them by type of stitch required to complete the alteration. If they are a knit with stretch, she has to do them on her small domestic machine using a zigzag or stretch stitch. Hazel is a fan of simple things.

When sewing machines were invented, they only performed one stitch: the straight lockstitch and in only one direction: forward. Hazel’s favorite machine is her old Juki industrial that only does one stitch. It does go in reverse though, unlike its older predecessors. And it’s fast. 

Hazel chuckles to herself about taking in the side seams of a skirt and making it too tight for the actress to move or walk while wearing it. If the hem of a skirt or dress extends below the knees and the skirt is narrowed too much, a person won’t be able to walk. Hobble skirt is the accepted fashion term. Hobble skirts came into being in the 1880s with the very specific intention of emphasizing women’s derrieres. 

But women, even actresses, need to walk. Slits can be cut in a tight, below the knee skirt, or the hem can be hiked up to somewhere above the knee, making the skirt ride up, exposing more and more skin with each stride.

Hazel plays out a story in her head about trekking through the Borneo jungle and falling in love with an Englishman with strong and gentle hands. In her fantasy story she wears a baggy long sleeve shirt and light baggy pants in an effort not to expose any skin at all. The Englishman helps her pull leeches from her wrists—the one part of her body that is accessible. The leeches are harmless but still disgusting. 

Hazel switches on the Juki and starts in on the skirt and dress alterations, making them all narrower. She decides that as soon as she finishes these alterations, she’s going to book that bicycle trip to the Karakorum Mountains in Pakistan.

Alteration noteadd a bust dart

Swaizie is a fan of darts.  But adding a dart to an already constructed garment is not as easy as some people seem to think. Swaizie knows this note about darts means: Can you get rid of that extra fabric around her breasts? We can’t see the shape of them clearly enough. Fuck, we really should have just put her in a spandex dress.

Swaizie decides that she’ll just call this one a “French alteration”. A French alteration is an alteration that, for whatever reason, simply isn’t done. 

Adding a bust dart to something that didn’t have one to begin with creates all kinds of problems; the most significant being that it changes the armhole curve in the body of the dress, top, or jacket. The likely result is that the new fabric edge and seam line just created is too far from the actual armhole (the flesh and blood one). Putting the sleeve back in afterwards is possible, but it still won’t fit correctly. Swaizie doesn’t go through the trouble of explaining this to anyone anymore, she just doesn’t do the alteration. She might take in the side seams a bit. That appeases people and pretty much 100% of the time no one remembers anything about a bust dart. 

Swaizie has an internal list of alteration notes that just do not need to be completed. Lowering one jacket sleeve 1/16 inch is an example. In her 42 years in the business, she’s never had anyone notice that a French alteration was indeed a French alteration. Swaizie worked on the original Law and Order, known in the business as The Mothership and one of the longest running shows on network television. Swaizie believes that there is always an episode of Law and Order on some channel at any given time. 

Swaizie also believes there are some fitting problems that just can’t be fixed, not without remaking an entire garment. And sometimes saying, “Sure,” and nodding while having no intention of doing the alteration is much easier than explaining why the alteration shouldn’t be done in the first place. 

Swaizie likes to think of herself as floating outside the peripheral vision of everyone else, kind of like a ninja. That’s always been her coping mechanism, why she can stay there for 12 hours without screaming. 

Author / Ilustrator

  • Vanessa Nirode is a writer and cyclist based in New York City. She works as a tailor and pattern maker for television and film. Some of her journalistic writing can be seen at The Rumpus, HuffPost, BBC Travel, Racked, SYFY, Mongabay, Cricket Media, Healthline, PopSci, and many other publications.

  • Film stills taken from the short film “I Like Tomorrow” by Jennifer Reeder and Nancy Andrews. From the Wexner Center for the Arts description of the film: “Conceived of by longtime friends Reeder and Andrews while the two were working as artists in residence in the Wexner Center's Film/Video Studio on their individual films “Blood Below the Skin” and “The Strange Eyes of Dr. Myes,” respectively, “I Like Tomorrow “is a sci-fi musical that combines live action and animation. As Reeder and Andrews recount, “After work one evening, over cocktails and possibly complaining about the then recently released film Gravity, there appeared a pen and a napkin and an idea about a lonely lady astronaut. From the start, the short film was conceived with actress Michole Briana White in mind.” See the film for free until the end of August 2021 at wexarts.org/film-video/nancy-andrews-and-jennifer-reeder.