Green Theater: How-To: Costumes

While speaking on the phone with the costume designer of our just-closed production she said, “all of the rented items have to be dry-cleaned.” This is, of course, an expected routine but still I winced a little when she said it outloud.

The cleaning of costumes for theatrical use seems like such an easy place to make better, ecologically friendly choices that can have a significant impact on a theater’s environmental footprint.

For my part here in Madison, I have begun to put feelers out to other area theaters from whom we regularly rent costumes, asking if they would be willing to have their costumes cleaned in a more eco-friendly manner when we rent from them.

The problems:

1. Dry Cleaning

So what’s wrong with the typical dry cleaning process? Chemicals. Toxic, nasty, dangerous chemicals.

Dry cleaning chemicals most commonly come in the form of tetrachloroethylene, also known as perchloroethylene, PCE, or tetrachloroethene. For the sake of brevity (and a conservation of finger energy) we’ll call it PERC, a common abbreviation, and the term used by the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR). Say what? Yeah, anything listed with them should probably be considered suspect, and not eco-friendly.

According to the ATSDR, “high concentrations of tetrachloroethylene (particularly in closed, poorly ventilated areas) can cause dizziness, headache, sleepiness, confusion, nausea, difficulty in speaking and walking, unconsciousness, and death.” PERC has also been linked to menstrual problems and spontaneous abortions in women working in the dry cleaning industry. And according to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) “tetrachloroethylene may reasonably be anticipated to be a carcinogen.” And: “Tetrachloroethylene has been shown to cause liver tumors in mice and kidney tumors in male rats.”

This last bit of information is enough to get me up on a soap box for sure. As many of you may remember, I battled cancer last year, and it is a fate I would wish on no living creature. The number of proven carginogens we accept in our daily lives is disturbing. The fact that PERC is a known carginogen is alone enough information to provoke us toward action, for through the simple act of taking our bevy of costumes to a conventional dry cleaner we are contributing to the exposure of underpaid (and obviously undervalued) workers to a toxic substance known to cause cancer in animals, and also believed to cause reproductive problems in women (including the induction of miscarriage).

It’s also probable that exposure to PERC goes beyond the dry cleaners, including residual PERC left on the clothes that continue to off-gas once they’re back in the costume shop (and even being worn onstage), as well as contamination of areas surrounding and connected to dry cleaning establishments.

And PERC is just one problem chemical. Because so much is now known about the detrimental health effects of this common dry cleaning substance, some state governments have moved to ban it. California, for instance, has officially banned PERC as of 2023, with other states expected to follow. Of course, this leaves the dry cleaning industry scrambling to find alternatives. What they’ve come up is in many ways no better than PERC.

What the industry has started to turn to are hydrocarbons and something called siloxane. According to National Geographic’s The Green Guide:

“These solvents are labeled as greener options because they are recognized as less toxic than perc, however, both the EPA and the Coalition for Clean Air have determined that these solvents can’t be labeled safe for health or the environment until considerably more testing is done. Hydrocarbon solvents, such as DF2000 and comexsol, may be toxic or contain VOCs, and the EPA has noted concern over the high flammability of these petroleum-based chemicals. Siloxane solvents such as GreenEarth, while not chlorinated themselves, are currently manufactured using chlorine, and may release dioxin emissions. Again, as with hydrocarbon solvents, siloxane is extremely flammable. Also, the EPA notes that siloxane may be a carcinogen.”

2. Distressing/Dyeing

The processes used by costumers to make costumes look the way they want them to often involves chemicals too. This is neither good for the costumer nor the environment.

3. Indoor Air Pollutants

In Greening Up Our Houses, Larry Fried and Theresa May open the costume section of “What Can My Department Do?” with a quote from Dr. Randall Davidson (aka Dr. Doom): “It is more dangerous to work in a theatre costume shop than in a nerve gas factory.” Say what?

Okay, maybe that is a bit, as even Fried and May admit, “alarmist.” But there’s truth there for sure. For starters, Davidson knows whereof he speaks. He was a founding member of USITT’s Health and Safety Commision back in the early 1970’s and author (his latest book appears to be a serious endeavor entitled Practical Health and Safety Guidelines for School Theater Operations).

Even so, as mentioned above, PERC itself can be an indoor air pollutant, and this is not restricted to the dry cleaning facility but the carcinogenic chemical may continue offgas from costumes once back in storage, or in use by performers.

Other problem pollutants in a costume shop (and its related areas including crafts, millinery, wigs, etc.) include various adhesives, dyes, solvents, plastics and foams, and many other toxic materials. If such materials cannot be dispensed with entirely (the safest course of action), extreme safety precautions must be undertaken. See either The Health & Safety Guide for Film, TV, and Theater or Stage Fright: Health and Safety in the Theatre — both by Monona Rossol. Rossol’s non-profit Arts, Crafts & Theater Safety (ACTS) is also a great resource — Rossol fields the phone calls herself and is a wealth of decisive information on health and safety in the arts.

4. Water & Energy Consumption

According to “Mr. Electricity,” by simply cleaning costumes in cold water instead of hot, about 1400 kWh/year in electricity (used to heat the water) can be saved. Even using the warm water setting rather than hot, you can save 700 kWh/year.

If you are in a position to do so, and your wardrobe department is looking for a new washer, consider purchasing a front loading machine. Keep in mind that front loading washing machines use 40-60% less water, and 30-50% less energy than top loaders. Top loaders might be a better pick for costume cleaning anyway, since they reduce wear on clothes by relying on tumbling rather than an agitator to clean the clothes.

The solutions:

1. Safer Alternatives to Traditional PERC Dry Cleaning

Probably the most popular and well-known eco-friendly dry cleaning alternative is something simply called “wet cleaning.” The process, developed by Miele in the early 1990’s, uses more sophisticated technology and customizes cleaning procedures for each individual garment — unlike dry cleaning, which treats each garment the same. The advantage of wet cleaning is that it eliminates the toxic chemicals used in conventional dry cleaning processes, and according to the EPA, the cost to the costumer is level with that of dry cleaning.

Another alternative, perhaps even better than wet cleaning, is CO2 cleaning. According to nodryclean.com, CO2 cleaning is a process which “works by taking the gas form of carbon dioxide and pressurizing it into a clear liquid.” Soap and clothing are then added to this liquid and voila! Clean costumes. Apparently, Consumer Reports performed a comparison in 2003 and CO2 came out on top, besting PERC dry cleaning as well as “wet” cleaning and other alternatives. You can find a good (albeit probably biased) comparison chart on the various methods of cleaning here. One downside apparent on the chart is that there are so few CO2 cleaners around.

nodryclean.com is also a good resource for finding alternative cleaners in your area.

2. Construction Techniques

By purposefully selecting fabrics for costumes that are more easily cleaned, costumers can eliminate complicated (and toxic) cleaning procedures. It’s really that simple.

3. Selective Cleaning

Another solution is simply being more selective in what sort of costumes get dry cleaned, as well as how frequently the dry cleaning is done. If items absolutely must be dry cleaned and cannot be cleaned with an alternative method, try seeking out a cleaner that is ecologically sensitive in other ways.

The idea of selective cleaning should also be applied to normal laundry since we are also concerned with water consumption and waste (see problem no. 4 above). Just how frequently does the laundry need to be done? Are wardrobe personnel doing it too much just to be on the safe side — so that they needn’t worry about upsetting an actor or other performer? Wardrobe and costume crew members may want to reconsider the priorities here, and may be pleasantly surprised at a performer’s reaction when they let them know why they aren’t washing their costumes as frequently.

4. Eco-(and human)-Friendly products

It’s 2008 now. You can go down to the most conventional grocery store (or, heaven forbid, Wal-Mart or Target) and pick up eco-friendly laundry detergents and related products. Of course, as the sage Monona Rossol warned me a while back, we need to be careful about our choice of so-called “green” cleaning products, since they may sometimes be great for the environment but not very good for us. As Rossol advises, be sure to educate yourself on the types of chemicals being used in so-called earth-friendly cleaning products to be sure that they will not be toxic to you and your staff. The trade offs must be weighed carefully.


4 Responses to “Green Theater: How-To: Costumes”

  1. 1 Sharon Swingle
    June 30, 2008 at 2:34 am

    Great article! Here is a few more suggestions from our costume shop.
    Instead of using bleach in the distressing process, we spray watered down white or off-white acrylic or tempera paint and if the fabric is rough or wooly—we use flour. Cornstarch works also. I also use coffee for the stains and dirt when I can.
    We wash all our wool sweaters in Woolite and silks in shampoo.
    We try not to construct costumes that will not require dry cleaning (unfortunately there are no dry cleaning alternatives nearby.)
    All mock-ups are made from thrift store sheets instead of new muslin and we are just starting to use alternative fabrics when we can. We also found quilters to take some of the fabric scraps.
    We use pump containers of hair spray and opt for spraying dilute makeup for odd hair coloring or wigs instead of the usual aerosol canned color.
    In general we now look at dying fabric or changing shoe color as a last measure instead of an easy fix.
    We use almost exclusively task lighting in the shop, instead of massive overhead lighting.

    There are more suggestions I found just recently in an article by Tara Maginnis who teaches at the University of Fairbanks Theater Department. Her shop has no ventilation and when it is 50 degrees below zero, you can’t open windows. She has a list of some great non-toxic alternatives to some commonly used shop chemicals albeit many are plastics and still not great for the environment. My favorite advice that I haven’t tried yet is using dilute flexible tulip fabric paint to paint shoes. Traditional shoe paint is some pretty nasty stuff. I have been using acrylics, but it cracks terribly and needs frequent touching up between performances. The article is called “Costume Crafts at 50 below” http://www.costumes.org/ADVICE/1pages/COOKBOOK.HTM

  2. 2 Brittany
    January 15, 2009 at 6:16 pm

    Hello. This is a very interesting article. I am a Lighting Designer and a Make-up Artist, not costumes but still, I am curious, have you looked into informing those who make some of the actor-oriented rules? For instance, in many cases, costume shops MUST dry-clean actors’ costume pieces a certain number of times during a run, to be in compliance with the actor’s particular Union legislation.

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