In a vast, subterranean space in New York City, three flights down from the largest sound stage east of Hollywood, 80,000 costumes await their return to the limelight.
This is the TDF Costume Collection, run by the not-for-profit Theater Development Fund. The clothing and accessories have been donated from Broadway, Off Broadway, opera, film, and regional productions. And they are all available for rent, but not to anyone, says collection director Stephen Cabral.
“We're not renting for Halloween, and we're not renting for parties with food or liquids where something could happen to the costume. But if you're doing something that seems of an artistic nature in some way, we're going to be able to rent to you.” And, he notes, there's a little bit of everything in the collection - from medieval suits of armor to outfits from the 1920's to modern ball gowns.
He says TDF got into the costume business in the mid-1960s, when the Metropolitan Opera was about to move into a new home in Lincoln Center. “They had [costumes for] 22 full operas that they knew that they would not be taking with them, but they didn't want to just toss away. So TDF took on all of these old productions from the Met, and began to, at a very, very, very inexpensive rate, rent out these costumes.”
High school, college and community theater groups, movie production companies and TV shows have all taken advantage of the incredible variety of costumes in the collection. Opera companies can find whatever they need here.
Cabral points out a gown from a Met production of Lucia di Lammermoor, which was once shipped to an opera company in the Midwest. Cabral recalls a phone call he got later from the company director, who told him, 'You had one of my singers in tears last night.'
"The person being fitted for this costume was a young opera singer," he says, "and when she saw the costume, and saw that it had the Metropolitan Opera label, and it said wedding scene, and it said Beverly Sills. The young woman broke down because she couldn't believe that she was so fortunate to not only wear Metropolitan Opera, but to wear something owned by Beverly Sills.”
Costumes from the Met are built to last, so when they arrive, they go into a small room of "special stock." After these costumes have seen their share of use, they're moved into "regular stock." And once they start looking shabby, they might go into the "distressed" section. Or they could go straight to the semi-annual bag sale, where Cabral says there's a set price for everything you can stuff into one bag.
“And the rule is, we just don't ever want to see the costume again.”
Because there's always a new crop of donations waiting for space on the TDF racks.