by Kathleen Qiu

When I was trying to decide which college to go to, my parents and I sat down and made a pros and cons list. Pro for UCLA: it was close to home, and my parents could visit me at any time. Pro for University of Chicago: it was a private school, which meant smaller class sizes and a much more individualized education. Con for UCLA: it was too close to home, and I kind of wanted to get away. Con for University of Chicago: it’s really really really cold there, and the San Diegan in me thrived on sunlight.

What very much did not make the pros/cons list: where and how I could receive an arts education. This may be surprising considering that today, I work full time in Hollywood as a costumer. But back then, teenage me didn’t know what she wanted to pursue: would it be law, or business, or medicine? Whatever it was, it was definitely not going to be in the arts. That option didn’t even seem to exist in the realm of possibility. So I ended up at the University of Chicago with a double major in chemistry (aka “the useful degree”) paired with psychology (aka “the fun degree”).

Even with these seemingly unrelated majors, it was at the University of Chicago that I made my first substantial steps towards a career in the arts. Although I had a vague interest in sewing and crafting while growing up, this amounted to nothing more than a hobby I dabbled in once a year or two. When I was a child, I won an award for a collage I made in art class. In elementary school, I was sent to theater camp because my parents wanted me to be less shy (spoiler alert, it didn’t work). By the time high school rolled around, I barely knew what “art” was, or could be, and yet the interest gnawed at me. Finally, at UChicago, I joined the school circus. And it was there that I first began working in costumes. It was there that my heart was captured right away. From helping to create a character from scratch, to figuring out what worked and didn’t work for aerialists versus acrobats, costuming allowed me to explore a creative part of myself that I didn’t know existed. Looking back, I realize these hobbies were actually seeds of interest waiting to be watered. 

However, when  I graduated in 2013, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. I no longer wanted to practice law, and honestly, blood freaked me out, so medicine was an obvious no. I thought about doing business or getting into the world of startups, but I hated sales, and I didn’t have any programming skills. Through all of this, the one thing that did stick with me was my  fascination with clothes… so perhaps I could go into fashion, I thought. I managed to find some internships at local fashion boutiques by walking straight through the door and asking for them; fashion is an industry in which a formal education perhaps matters less than, say, in nursing. At the same time, I landed a wardrobe internship at the Lookingglass Theatre, one of the largest theaters in Chicago. That internship led to my first paid job in costume design, and so on and so forth.

During all of this, however, I still needed to make money. As we have all heard before, artistic professions don’t always guarantee living wages. Amidst my parents’ rising panic that their child wouldn’t survive the industry, and my chemistry degree suddenly proving useful, I was recruited for an engineering job doing lithium ion research, first in Florida, and then in California. Throughout this time, I continued to work theater costume design jobs at nights and on weekends, doing what I could in the time I had. There was a part of me that could no longer let go of my creative needs, and I found that I thought about clothes all the time. I thought about colors when I woke up. I thought about patterns as I worked in the glove box. I thought about silhouettes when I was driving home from work. I dreamed about fabrics as I slept.

In truth, there was also a part of me that knew I would never make it as an engineer, no matter how good I may have been. Even as I created new formulations and watched the cycle life data come through, I lived and breathed costumes. Even as I studied for and took the GRE in preparation for a master’s in engineering, I simultaneously turned to pages about historical clothing. Even as I carefully created electrodes, built lithium ion capacitors, and compiled the data that would eventually lead to multiple patents, I thought about other lives and other people who all needed to get dressed. 

I eventually left that engineering job, halfway through pursuit of an MFA in costume design. I left a straightforward career and a life of stability and chose the instability and uncertainty of an artistic career. There wasn’t a single part of me that necessarily wanted to do this, but every fiber of my being desperately needed to.

Yes, I was scared. Yes, it’s true, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. No matter how much my very methodical and known-for-planning-ahead parents wanted me to have at least a five-year if not a ten-year plan, I could only give them a tentative outline to try to ease their worries. Because let’s face it, can you truly plan out a career in the arts? When it came down to it, I had nothing but my dream and a desire to chase happiness. Today, I am working full time as a costumer. Not all my goals have been achieved, but one day, after taking a very circuitous path that has yet to be fully mapped out, they will be. And, who knows, maybe that chemistry degree helped me get to where I am today.