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Costume Paradise on West 26th Street: The TDF Costume Collection

July 1, 2009 - Tucked away on the third floor of an industrial building on West 26th Street between 11th Ave and the West Side Highway is costume paradise. It’s where costumes of every shape and size, every decade and style find a new lease on life in the theatre at the TDF Costume Collection.

What started as a donation of gowns and suits by the Metropolitan Opera in the late 1960s has become a vast collection of more than 75,000 costumes and accessories. At the time, the Metropolitan Opera contacted the New York State Council of Arts saying they had a plethora of costumes and wanted to know what they could do with them. The Council contacted TDF and the Collection was born.

Today, performing arts companies, colleges and universities, middle and high schools, and community and charitable groups are among those eligible to rent costumes from the Collection. They can submit mail orders or come in person to 26th Street and peruse the thirteen rows of double-tiered racks that contain everything from Joseph’s technicolor dreamcoat to a Marilyn Monroe-esque pink dress designed by a drag queen.

“Everything here is donated,” said Stephen Cabral, the director of the Collection. “The whole point of the Collection is to serve the not-for-profit community here in New York and across the country.”

The range of customers who do come to take advantage of the Collection is vast. According to Cabral, it can be anything from a Tony Award winner designer working on an off Broadway production who knows exactly what he’s looking for to a mom who volunteered to do the costumes for a high school production of Grease because her daughter is playing Sandy.

“People can spend weeks and weeks pulling costumes,” noted Cabral. They’re given a floor map with an alphabetical listing of everything in the collection. Like items are grouped together by period. Designers then go through the stacks pulling the costume together. They find a jacket and then have to find pants, vest, and shirt to match. “Experts who know the ropes can take a few hours. Everyone needs to know what they’re looking for and the sizes.”

The prices to rent the costumes are presented on a sliding scale, depending on the number of weeks the show is in production and the size of its theatre. A costume rented for a one week production with less than 149 seats in the theatre can cost $45 and that will include every item a character could wear on stage at one time – a 1930s evening gown, for example, complete with fur, gloves, and handbag - if the Collection has it in the right size and color.

Our Town has been a popular choice to perform over the last two years. Recently, Little Women, The Importance of Being Earnest, and Romeo and Juliet have also seen multiple productions that the Collection has helped outfit. In 2007-2008, 848 productions were mounted with rental costumes from the Collection, utilizing approximately 6,962 costumes.

Among the dizzying array of costume choices in the Show Stock – many of which are professionally made by local artisans – are a number of high caliber selections: a jacket, skirt, and blouse worn by Patti LuPone during the recent City Centre run of Gypsy; a shiny pink bathrobe with puffy cuffs worn by Nessarose, Elphaba’s sister in Wicked, during a song that was cut before the show moved to Broadway; pieces worn by Lena Horne during her concerts, including a brightly colored rainbow komono; the Beast’s hairy chest from Beauty and the Beast; and a delicately embroidered Little Red Riding Hood cape worn by Hoda Kotb during The Today Show's annual Halloween episode.

And the Met continues to donate costumes, just recently dropping off a set of tartan gowns from the chorus of Macbeth, among other items. Donations are vitally important and always needed. “It constantly replenishes the stock,” said Cabral. Because of space limitations, the Collection usually can’t accept contemporary costumes. Instead, the focus is on the 1950s and earlier, covering everything from Greco-Roman tunics to Elizabethan brocade gowns.

“A lot of the pieces have so much history,” said Cabral. He described the pleasure he feels knowing a high school student could be somewhere on stage wearing a dress Beverly Sills once wore at the Met.

“[The Collection] is really doing the mission of TDF, furthering theatre at the not-for-profit level, for people who otherwise would not have costumes. It’s very rewarding.”

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