In this recurring column, Not Your Typical Gig, we interview men with out-of-the-box careers to get a glimpse of what goes on behind-the-scenes of their unusual jobs.
For this week’s column, we talk to costume designer Tom Broecker. The four-time Emmy award-winner has costumed Saturday Night Live for 25 years, House of Cards, (for which he won a Costume Designers Guild Award), and for over 60 plays and musicals over his storied career. At his most meta, Broecker was the costume designer for NBC’s 30 Rock, while also playing the recurring role of Lee—the Costume Designer on the show-within-a-show. Here, he talks to us about his legendary 23 seasons at SNL and that Kamala White Suit Moment with Maya Rudolph.
NAME: Tom Broecker
CITY: New York City
COMPANY: Saturday Night Live
How long have you had the gig for?
I have been doing this work for about 25 years.
How did you get into this line of work?
A long time ago, I was a dancer, performer type person. I knew I was not ever really going to “make it” in that business, but I wanted to explore that for a few years after college. While I was in college I began helping in the costume shop of the theater and taking art history classes, and I started to think about the possibility of costumes as maybe a profession. Eventually, I moved to New York City, and after a few years I started getting calls to assist costume designers and stylists on jobs, so I took that as a sign that I was supposed to move into that career and not be a performer. I eventually went back to graduate school at the Yale School of Drama, so I could really study and learn the craft.
My grandmother use to quilt, and I would watch her quilt for hours and hours during the day. I would help her organize her fabrics. When I was in sixth grade, we went to the fabric store to get fabric for a Halloween costume she was going to make for me. After picking out the fabric, we came home, and I sat there while she made the costume and taught me how to sew. I always say, she was the first person who introduced me to the world of fabric and how to create things.
What kind of skill set does it take to break into this line of work?
I would say people skills and the ability to work with little sleep. If you get into this line of work, you can develop the skill sets you need. Every job in this field requires a few different kinds of specific skills, but for the most part, I would say: you must know how to engage and work with people—psychology plays a huge role in this job; have critical thinking; and the ability to be open.
What does your workday look like from the time you wake up?
My day-to-day is crazy. I’m usually working on multiple projects, so the overlapping can be very intense. I am currently working on Saturday Night Live, designing a film, and remounting an Off-Broadway musical, so my days are pretty crazy. I work six days a week. I wake up at 5:15 a.m. and end the day around 10:30 p.m. Sometimes there’s breakfast, sometimes lunch, but there’s always coffee: iced cold brew.
The day includes: Zoom meetings, shopping in department stores, thrift stores, fabric stores, going to costume shops to pull vintage clothing, searching the internet on Etsy and eBay for vintage things, and fittings with actors. I have assistants who are helping me with each project, so I’m not doing this alone. You must develop a good team to help; a good team is the key to success.
How many months out of the year do you work?
At Saturday Night Live, the schedule is September through May, and we shoot 21 weeks during that time. But because I love what I do, I tend to work 11 out of 12 months.
Favorite part of the job?
Having that moment in the fitting when the actor says, “Yes… I see, this is the character.”
Least favorite part of the job?
Budget talks… ugh.
Please tell us about a moment that made you love your job even more?
This happened recently: I will call it the Kamala White Suit Moment. It happened last season, the day that Biden accepted the nomination. We had a show, and Dave Chappelle was hosting; the cold opening had been written based on a speech from the previous night. We decided to update Kamala’s look after the speech she gave at 8 PM on Saturday night. My crew went into overdrive to do this, and the team was amazing. And Maya as Kamala went on the live show in a new look which matched the 8 PM live speech. This made me love my job again because it showed the world what we do on SNL. This is a live show. We have the luxury of making changes up until the very end, and we have an incredible team who can allow us to pull off things like this. Nowhere else in the world can something like this happen.
Are there aspects of the job that ever make you think—this is crazy, why am I doing this?
Yes, the time element of my job is crazy—the last-minute changes, the dealings, putting together a show in two days. It’s thrilling and crazy. Every minute of the day, I think, ‘Why am I doing this? This is crazy.’
What does the job require you to wear?
I can wear whatever I want; there is no dress code. I have developed a uniform overtime—mostly because at 5:30 AM I don’t want to have to think about what I want or need to wear, so I have uniformed myself. I usually wear navy or military green chinos; I have three brands I’m liking right now: Hope, Mason Brand, and Nudie Jeans. Shirt is usually a button-down—Officine Générale, FRAME, A.P.C or J. Crew—in the colors Oxford cloth blue, white, pink, or light grey. On Saturdays my uniform is black or dark navy, and I add a lightweight jacket like a Rag & Bone or Acne because it’s show night. I will be on the floor, and I need to blend into the scenery.
What essentials does the job require?
A mask must be worn at all times; we no longer need a face shield, but for a while, we needed to wear a plastic face covering when we did fittings. I always have my mask, hand sanitizer, and try my best to always have my manners, be polite, and have a sense of humor.