Inside an unassuming commercial building on East Hennepin is an enormous repository of theatrical history. The 17,000-sq.-ft. warehouse contains more than 70,000 costume pieces and is one of the largest collections in the U.S. It’s overseen by Alicia Wold, the director of Costume Rentals, a division of the Guthrie Theater. The operation is a combined project of the Guthrie Theater and The Children’s Theatre Company, and was established in 2002.
The costumes come from productions of the Guthrie and the Children’s theaters and are available for rental to theaters and the public. They were created by nationally-renowned designers and made locally in the Guthrie Theater and Children’s Theatre Company costume shops. Both theaters regularly pull costumes from the warehouse stock for upcoming productions. Schools, theaters and nonprofit organizations get reduced rates.
A recent visit pulled some of the curtain back to reveal the expanse and diversity of the stock. Wold, a costume designer herself, began with a discourse on the function of costumes in the theater.
“The job of any costume designer is to direct the characters for the action they have before them in the play. Working with the director, the designer is going to research all the character’s specifics: their economic class, the times they lived in, what the fashions the time were and how that particular character fits in with that time period. Then they’re going to create drawings, called renderings, from which the costume shop creates the full-size costume.”
She held a rendering of a dress next to the finished product, designed by Paul Tazewell for the 2004 production of “Pirates of Penzance.” She noted that Tazewell has designed many things over the years for the Guthrie. “He won the Tony for the Hamilton costume design, one of five he’s won. We’re really fortunate to have a lot of his work here in the warehouse.”
Costumes are built to withstand runs of about 10 weeks (60-80 performances), and intended to last beyond the production. Once a show closes, all of the costumes come to the warehouse, which is gearing up for its annual three-day sale, September 20-22. Wold said, “We clear out the front warehouse area and reset it with what we are going to sell; It’s kind of like a garage sale. It’s not intended to be a big moneymaker, and we’re not selling the really fabulous pieces.”
In the early years of the Guthrie, the costumes were stored in the basement, as is done in most theaters, but eventually there was no more space, and the costume shop could no longer keep track of what they had. In the early 1990s the stored costumes were moved to a third-floor warehouse space on North Washington Avenue. To cover the cost, local theaters were offered limited access to the rental stock. Another move, this time to Northeast California Street, presented its own challenges, and the Guthrie costume director Maribeth Hite began talking to the costume director for the Children’s Theatre Company (CTC). She wondered, “What if we put all our stuff together in one big warehouse?” In 2002, Costume Rentals began, and moved to its present East Hennepin location.
Wold said, “The combined stock really broadened what was available to the public, and the theaters are able to make use of each other’s stock, which then helps both organizations.”
Wold said that the business is less a revenue generator and more a service to the public. Costume Rentals’ main clientele is the theater community. She noted one of the unique things about the operation compared to some others around the country is that it’s open to all levels of renters. “You could rent things to go to a party, if you were an artist or model, if you’re a theater organization, a business, a high school or college theater. That does make it a little challenging sometimes to organize things in a way that makes sense to all the different kinds of clients. We often rent to TV shows.” She pointed out two costumes used in a January episode of “NCIS: New Orleans,” where the crime scene was a comic convention. “They needed to have actors walking around in the background as sci-fi characters.”
Most of the items are organized by time period, gender and size. With a few exceptions, once the costumes are removed from the theater and shipped to the warehouse, they’re not kept together by show, but by pieces and parts so they can be combined for future shows.
When a show ends, the costumes are laundered at the theater, or sent out for dry-cleaning, and then delivered to the warehouse. Both theaters have a reserved section that is not available for rental, for example, a suit built for an actor who plays regularly at the Guthrie will be put on hold, so it doesn’t get wear and tear from rental. Most of the rest of the expired pieces go into stock and rental circulation.
The woman who designed the costumes for “West Side Story,” Jen Caprio, is designing another production of the musical for the Maltz Jupiter Theater in Florida next spring. She’s inquired about renting many of the same pieces that she had designed. Those items won’t go into stock until after her production.
The theaters do sometimes mount the same productions years apart, in different styles. The Guthrie did Macbeth three times, in three different ways: traditional Celtic style in 1980; Elizabethan style in 1995; and a modern interpretation with police riot gear in 2010.
One of Costume Rentals’ clients is Bethany House, a local publisher of romance novels which uses period costumes for their cover art.
The warehouse gets a lot of donations such as vintage clothing, military uniforms, and work uniforms. The theater costume shops typically build costumes for the principal characters, but sometimes they will shop for vintage wear, and occasionally donations provide the perfect item.
Some regulars are individuals, like a couple who are big “Game of Thrones” fans; “they throw a season-opening viewing party every year, and they rent regularly from us. We work with the Minnesota Lottery and Vikings football commercials. We do barbarians really well!”
Asked about Halloween rentals, Wold said, “A favorite Halloween costume is a Roman gladiator. We have several from the 2002 Guthrie production of ‘Antony and Cleopatra’” and rent four or five every Halloween. Apart from Halloween, they also go out during Easter for church pageants, liturgical dramas, Stations of the Cross, and anywhere else you might need Roman soldiers.”
Wold said she likes to highlight the broad array of materials with which the designers at both theaters make costumes, from Naugahyde to real and faux metallic knitted cloth that looks like chain mail but doesn’t make noise.
How well and how long a costume will last is a combination of the materials it’s made of. Some materials are inherently sturdier than others. Something made of fine silk that looks gorgeous on stage will eventually break down, even if it’s not used afterward.
Wold feels that one of the great things about the stock being available to the public is that it comes with a little extra inspiration for young actors. One example she gave was of Summer Hagen, a Guthrie actor, who’s been in several productions of “A Christmas Carol” and “The Birds.” Hager recalled that when she was at Burnsville high school, the school rented costumes from Costume Rental. Hagen looked inside her character’s cape and saw that it had been worn by Jessica Tandy. Hagen said, “Maybe someday I can be on the Guthrie Stage!” and sure enough, she was.
Wold pointed to a waistcoat worn by actor and “Grey’s Anatomy” star T.R. Knight in the production of “Amadeus” and a pink dress worn by Kristin Chenoweth in “Babes in Arms” in 1996. She said that occasionally an actor will ask for the costume he or she wore in a production. That request is typically not granted, because the cost of manufacture is often so high. If an actor wanted a simple piece, the designer might say, “sure, twenty bucks and it’s yours,” but the designer might also say two thousand dollars.
Wold noted a red, yellow, and blue dress worn by Sally Wingert in “The Government Inspector” that has 227 yellow tassels sewn on by hand, as well as nine different fabrics and five types of trim. She said that each theater has a craft and dye department to do custom dye work on fabrics.
Asked about requests they can’t fill, Wold said, “We don’t have any licensed characters, like Superman or Elmo, and certain items like police uniforms can only be rented for stage or film presentation. As for preservation, she said that Costume Rentals tries to keep the costume pieces well cared for, but it is a working stock rather than a historical conservation-type operation. She added, “Moths are my nightmare!”
Costume Rentals walk-In hours are Thursday: 10 a.m. – 7 p.m. and first and third Saturdays: 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. Open Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. by appointment. Closed to the public Mondays and Wednesdays. Tours at 11:30 a.m. on the first Saturday of the month.
The address is 855 E. Hennepin Ave.
Below: Alicia Wold, costume rentals director, with a rendering and the finished costume. Zoot suits, shoes and hats, Macbeth costumes, and gladiator costumes. Children’s Theatre Company costumes used in an NCIS New Orleans episode. (Photos by Mark Peterson)