The Secret Life of Broadway Costumes

Some of the stage’s most recognizable outfits get an eco-friendly encore in Queens


To my left: A psychedelic feathered tunic from Hairspray. To my right: A pair of leather boots that look to have been worn by Thomas Jefferson (the stage character, not the politician). No, I’m not backstage at the Neil Simon Theatre circa 2002, nor did I just pay a pretty penny to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. In fact, I’m not even in Manhattan—I’m a borough away, in Queens, at the TDF Costume Collection.

If you are a lover of the theater, or just enjoy the wardrobes, this collection is equivalent to heaven—but instead of rosy-cheeked cherubs backed by angelic harp music, you’ll find bedazzled suits and brocade opera gowns. Oh, the drama.

The 40-plus-year-old collection is the brainchild of the Theatre Development Fund (TDF), the not-for-profit organization that has been devoted to making the performing arts more accessible since 1968. (You are likely familiar with their iconic red “TKTS” booth in Times Square, offering discounted Broadway tickets.) The collection came about when the Met Opera donated costumes from 22 productions during their Lincoln Center move. After a short storage-space stint upstate, in Saratoga Springs, TDF took the reins and jump-started a rental program for theater nonprofits to borrow from. The collection spent its earlier years near Columbia University before making its way over to the West 20s, where it lived from the 1970s through 2011. Currently, it is housed on the lower level of the historic Kaufman Astoria Studios, and boasts an extensive inventory of costumes, accessories, shoes, and more. Though “extensive” may be an understatement—they now have somewhere around 85,000 items on hand.

“The collection of things available for rent only comes in via donations,” explains Stephen Cabral, the director of the TDF Costume Collection. “No money is spent on purchasing or altering.” Even with this vast array of material, Cabral, who has been involved with the collection for nearly 30 years, says that they do not consider themselves a “one-stop-shop.” For instance, you most likely will not find much contemporary clothing here. What you will find is many aisles, each three- or four-tiers high, full of showgirl outfits, Renaissance dresses, men’s 19th-century suits, medieval headpieces, and 18th-century bustle drapes, to name just a few genres covered. To illustrate just how specific we’re getting—there is a section designated for tabards and surcotes, garments that were commonly worn in the Middle Ages. There is also a wall dedicated solely to shoes, organized by color and style. (During my visit, I came across an understudy’s pair of bright-pink heels from the Mean Girls musical.) Items are split into two rooms, labeled “regular stock” and “special stock,” with “special stock” holding unique, historically significant, or pristine-condition pieces. Think, flashy sequined blazers worn by famous stars and puff-sleeved dresses the Bridgerton sisters would be jealous of. As items age over time, they may eventually end up in the “distressed” section. “Distressed stock works well for something like Les Mis or A Christmas Carol,” Cabral points out.

Donations sometimes come in from Broadway when a show ends, if a show is a limited run, or when musical numbers are cut during previews. A large number of contributions also stream in from touring companies, theaters, film productions, and more. In 2016, the inimitable Bob Mackie donated 35 wardrobe boxes full of his designs, including glittery pieces that were featured on The Carol Burnett Show and in Bette Midler’s Gypsy. Because of its convenient location, the collection will sometimes get pieces from Kaufman Astoria Studios productions that have wrapped. To this day, they still receive donations from the Metropolitan Opera, the company that helped spark it all. “There are still some Met Opera pieces [in the collection] from that 1960s donation,” Cabral adds.

The rental program, which was once upon a time only open to nonprofits, now services a wide range of clientele. Whether people need to get their hands on historically accurate costumes or just want to add some razzle-dazzle to a project, they come here. The collection has done weekly rentals for Saturday Night Live and has supplied costumes for photo shoots, and pieces have also appeared in award-winning films such as Birdman and 12 Years a Slave. Of course there are also countless smaller productions, such as a New Jersey high school’s recent rendition of Beauty and the Beast, that utilize the collection’s stock. In 2019 alone, it lent costumes to more than 1,000 productions throughout 35 states, saving an innumerable amount of costumes from the landfill along the way. “For a lot of our customers, we are also helping them save money,” Cabral tells the Voice. Rental prices are affordable and depend on the costume, rental times, and production size, with nonprofits receiving a discount. The collection even has a mail-order program in place for those who may not be located near enough to visit and pick up themselves. The staff is constantly making magic happen, whether the customer lives in Manhattan or Minnesota.

Running through the collection is a thread of emotion and an air of mystery; sometimes items come unlabeled, making it hard for the collection’s staff to know the exact origins of a piece. “I always wish the costumes could speak,” says Cabral, “because I would like to know their lives.” And oh, the stories they would tell.

The Intricate World of Costumes

The world of costumes may look all glitz and glamor, but it has come a long way since its bleak beginnings. As explained by Marlis Schweitzer, professor of theater and performance studies at York University and the author of When Broadway Was the Runway: Theater, Fashion, and American Culture, for most of the 19th century, many Broadway stage actors paid for their own costumes—for example, chorus girls were left to shell out for their shoes and tights. “While managers of elaborate Shakespearean productions would occasionally pay for some costumes, this privilege was often restricted to leading ladies, leaving supporting players to pay for their own gowns and accessories,” Schweitzer tells the Voice by email. Although some performers were reimbursed, many were not. “It wasn’t until the successful actors’ strike of 1919 that managers were financially obligated to provide costumes for all performers,” she adds.

Starting in the 1890s, Broadway shows were not just entertainment spectacles but also conduits for consumerism. It was then, Schweitzer explains, that commercially focused theater managers began to realize the significance of outfitting their leading women in impressive couture. “Women of all ages and social backgrounds flocked to the theater—as did designers and buyers for department stores,” she says. A century before livestreaming and the Internet, this was a way for fashion lovers to discover new trends.

Nowadays, we might see celebrities partnering with unexpected industries (heard about the recent seasonal Mariah Carey McDonald’s menu?), but these quirky collabs aren’t anything new. Decades ago, department stores would often join forces with theaters during Broadway show openings. “For example, in 1910, show windows along Fifth Avenue and 34th Street celebrated the opening of the new play Chantecler, starring box-office favorite Maude Adams, with elaborate windows swathed in red fabric and chanticleer lace,” Schweitzer relates.  “In this way, the stage and show window merged into one—merging theatrical spectatorship with a consumer gaze.” The re-imagining of theater design and costume, the deaths of the biggest commercially focused theater managers, and the rise of the Hollywood celebrity eventually caused the curtain to come down on this cooperative method.

Triffin Morris, director of the costume production graduate program at UNC Chapel Hill and author of A History of the Theatre Costume Business, points out that there have been costume makers in New York City for centuries. “The earliest shop I could document was Dazian, established in 1842, which is now a business specializing in theatrical fabrics,” Morris says, going on to explain that at the turn of the 20th century, small costume shops and a handful of larger operations that created, rented, and sold the costumes began popping up, and by the 1920s there were mid-size businesses credited in playbills. 

The grandfather of the modern costume shop, however, is Ray Diffen, an Englishman who made his way to America because of Sir Tyrone Guthrie, an influential theatrical director. “Ray, in turn, employed well-known people in the industry, such as Jane Greenwood, Barbara Matera, Sally Ann Parsons, and Martin Pakledinaz,” says Morris. “Barbara and Sally Ann both went on to form their own shops.” You may be familiar with Parsons’s brilliant creations for the Rockettes, or Matera’s extravagant pieces for one of Broadway’s longest-running shows, The Lion King. A number of significant changes have also occurred in the industry over the years. “The biggest is probably the specialization,” Morris states. “It is now unusual for a person to both design and create the costumes.” Another is the quality of the costumes—older costumes were frequently heavier, and fabrics, such as cotton and wool, would often break down more quickly. “The invention of stretch fabrics has meant that garments can fit tighter and be more comfortable,” she says. “All of these factors mean that modern garments hold up better over time and are more comfortable for the performer.”

The Show Must Go On

Today, New York City’s costume industry is one that is deeply collaborative and has a close relationship with the Garment District. Many different people from varied backgrounds come together to help bring a costume, whether for the stage or screen, to life. Timelines can vary, with film-costume schedules often being tighter. Those for Broadway are often built to spec, and require exact measurements of performers. “I keep saying there’s no 13th floor at Macy’s, where you can buy all your costumes for Broadway,” Brian Blythe, founding member of the Costume Industry Coalition, says, laughing. “It is a cottage industry in New York City.” It has also faced its fair share of struggles because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the costume industry is not only iconic, it is also a vital part of the city. Whether you’re getting a custom costume made or renting through TDF, the city’s costumers have proven that they can not only transform the stage but they can also transform lives.

“When people leave the theater, in particular, they are usually talking about the performers and ‘Weren’t those costumes beautiful?’” Blythe says. “There is a human connection between creating a character through costume, and that human connection is what people latch onto when they are moved by a performance or they see themselves in a performance. It is definitely something that needs to continue to be celebrated.”    ❖

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