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A wardrobe mistress repairing the tutu of American actress Gloria Grahame (Gloria Hallward) in The Greatest Show on Earth.
Photo: Mondadori Portfolio by Getty Images

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The Afterlife of Movie Wardrobes

When a film or TV show wraps, the costumes need to go somewhere.

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I’ve worked in film and television costume departments for about 25 years. One of the most common questions people ask me is, “Where do all the costumes end up? Do you get to keep them?”

The answers aren’t as exciting as people want them to be, mainly because television shows and movies are businesses. They have accounting departments and detailed asset tracking. Costume departments don’t really have any say on what happens to the clothes; it’s ultimately up to the producers and the studio (HBO, Sony, etc.).

Still, producer Michael Flannigan tells me that sometimes, costumes are gifted to cast members. “Several actors have it in their contracts that they get the pick of their wardrobe,” he says. “Other than that, we have a fire sale, typically only for the crew, at the end to sell as much as we can, same as we do with props and set dressing.”

Most studios have the policy that no asset can be sold, promised, or given by anyone but the executive producers. Everything is held until all edits are complete and the time for reshoots is past. Some of the big studios, like Disney and Warner Brothers, have their own rental house businesses, so everything gets filtered into those. Studios will also occasionally roll over stock from one show to another. When HBO’s Vinyl wasn’t renewed for another season, a lot of the clothes went to The Deuce. Television shows rarely get rid off anything until the show is cancelled. Everything is catalogued and recorded from season to season. Principal actor clothing is kept in their permanent “closets.” Even if an item is never worn again on the show, it stays, because you never know when a random flashback scene might appear in a script.

Tables of shoes during a post-movie prop sale.
Photo: Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The thing most people don’t realize is that everything that is bought in every department is recorded. Shows are typically set up as limited liability companies that are specific to that show only. They often have a parent company, such as HBO, Sony, or ABC, but each show operates within its own budget, and so each show is responsible for each individual piece of clothing. Accounting departments keep track and mark things above a certain value (usually $100) as an asset, which means they need to know where it is at the end of a shoot.

These departments usually implement their own tagging systems so that during wrap it’s easier to find all the assets (accounting generates a list which needs to be checked off, with the location of every piece notated).

“An extraordinary amount of time is spent tracking down and ID’ing things,” Liz Shelton, another experienced ACD in New York, tells me. “Unless you’re doing an incredibly low-budget job where they cannot afford storage, most studios want everything featured back and sometimes have auditors on the case. I try to get production to donate the unestablished (pieces not seen on camera) and non-asset items to places where the clothing can go to people in need. Sometimes that works and sometimes not.”

I ask Shelton if she could explain the extensive item tracking that is done in pretty much every wardrobe department.

She tells me that one of the “trickiest things” is that so many items are purchased, then returned if not used. The initial asset list the studio sends out often has a large number of items listed that were later returned. But, more often than not, they are not marked as such on the list.

Shelton explains that it’s not unusual for the design team to remember something that was a “contender” for a look, but was later sent back.

“But,” she says, “It gets tricky when you have say, five black skirts by Theory: which of the black skirts was it, and did you get into those details? Probably not!.” It’s also possible to have items purchased for one character and then nabbed for another character when there is last-minute casting or something that would work in the right size for the other character. Shelton calls this “Shopping from the return rack.”

Sometimes studios will sell things through auction houses and companies that specialize in selling old movie clothes and props, such as It’s a Wrap or Prop Store, both in Los Angeles.

A woman in the wardrobe department at Mosfilm Studios in Russia.
Photo: Artyom Korotayev\TASS via Getty Images

These online auction forums are really the only opportunity for people who don’t work in the business to purchase costumes and props. Occasionally, crew members who ended up with items from a show will decide to resell them on eBay, but that’s pretty rare.

Studios or producers hold onto the costumes that might be a big deal later on. Most of the larger studios have pretty extensive archives and storage. Robert Rodriguez, for one, keeps a huge amount of stuff from his films in storage in Texas. When I worked in the wardrobe departments on his movies, we’d always spend a lot of time carefully packing things into those wedding dress storage boxes for his “archives.” Memorabilia that becomes available for purchase or auction is usually the result of either a producer, designer, or big-name actor or actress deciding to liquidate some of their personal collection (or is a result of an estate sale after their death).

Independent films (those not backed by a large studio) tend to have looser guidelines when it comes to what happens to the costumes after a shoot. Barbara Pressar, an experienced ACD, remembers being surprised on one of her first independent films when the producers told her that they “couldn’t wait to go through the wardrobe boxes” and take what they wanted.

Susanna Puisto, a Los Angeles-based costume designer, remembers her days of working on independent films fondly. “Back in the days of indie films I did get to keep a lot of stuff,” she says. “Specifically glorious was MTV’s first scripted series, Dead at 21, where we got a ton of promo. I mean, everybody was sending stuff; dozens of Tony Lama boots for a show that was not a Western and every athletic brand you could imagine. Those days are over, though.”

“I also remember,” Puisto says, “this one movie called Norma Jean, about the early life of Marilyn Monroe, that went from the teens to the ’50s. They pulled the plug six weeks into pre-production and let me keep what I had bought. I think they were just sad. I stored those costumes for a long time until I had some rocking garage sales. Literally, boxes of period shoes never worn. That was probably the best, but I wish the movie had been made.”

I ask Pressar if she’d ever gotten an especially memorable wardrobe item from any of the shows she’s worked on.

“I still remember the first film I ever worked on,” she says, “There was this pair of amazing, non-returnable John Fluevog purple suede pumps with a triangle-shaped black heel. I was so excited to end up with them.” I ask her if she still has them.

She laughs. “No, ironically, they were just a little too small. I sold them on eBay.”

A general view of atmosphere at Cocktails with Brooklyn Costume Designer and Producer at Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising on February 24th, 2016, in Los Angeles, California.
Photo: Angela Weiss/Getty Images

Ben Philipp, an ACD in New York City, was the costume coordinator for HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. As the coordinator, he was one of the people who remained on payroll through the entire series wrap. Being a period television show, Boardwalk had an entire warehouse filled with clothing, accessories, and fabrics, all of which needed a new home (or, in the case of rentals, were returned to their original homes).

After the rentals had been returned, they first offered the remaining stock for sale to their vendors: places like Western Costume Company, Motion Picture Costume Company, and Daybreak Vintage Rentals, all large costume-rental houses. The next step was the crew sale, open to the Boardwalk Empire crew as well as crew from other shows. The clothing that remained after the crew sale was donated to places like Material for the Arts (Long island City, New York), The Children’s Theatre, and the University of Georgia’s theatre department. On Too Big Too Fail, a show Philipp was also the coordinator on, the costumes were predominantly business wear, so they made donations to Career Gear and Dress for Success.

All of these donations are, of course, documented and recorded, just like you would on any tax return.

Sometimes getting rid of a large costume stock can be a time-consuming matter.

“In the old days,” Shelton says, “you’d have at least one member of the design team on until the bitter end of wrap, but productions have gone in the direction of laying the creative team off ASAP, so the people who complete the wrap these days tend to be the wardrobe supervisor and their crew. The phone calls coming from LA with issues on how things were wrapped or items that are missing tend to go to the ACDs, who are further out of the loop due to this cost cutting. It’s why I always try to have updated versions of the asset list in my computer. I’ll have the coordinator or accounting department send me updates after I’ve been personally wrapped.”

Phillip recalls a show he worked on where the production manager wanted the costume department staff off payroll but there were still racks of clothes hanging about.

“She told us, and I quote,” says Phillip, “Roll it into the street on a rack and light it on fire. I don’t care. Get rid of it.” They didn’t do that.

“Instead,” Phillip continues, “We found a local charity that would do pick-ups, and they came every Friday with a van for three weeks until wrap was up. We didn’t have the budget or approval to use a production truck to take the clothes anywhere, nor were we allowed to ship it to anyone, so finding someone who could benefit from the clothes and pick them up was crucial. We did it, though.”

The Mindy Project: 6 Seasons Of Style at The Paley Center for Media.
Photo: Paul Archuleta/Getty Images

I ask Phillip if there were any costume pieces he’d acquired from a show that he particularly loves.

“It’s always stuff I never would have bought in real life,” he says. “One thing I love is a simple olive khaki denim jacket that was a stock piece on Delivery Man. The jacket never fit anyone (and we tried to put it on multiple cast members) but me, so I ended up with it. I wear it all the time. Two of my other favorite things, which I purchased from Boardwalk, are a straw boater and a vintage knit swimsuit.”

I also ask both Puisto and Shelton if there was anything they’d kept from shows that was especially memorable.

“I rarely take anything for myself,” Shelton says. “I have purchased jewelry from the occasional wrap sale, but find the more interesting stuff for me is from set decoration sales. I have a couple of tiny chairs purchased in Chicago from a job with a set decorator with a brilliant eye. There are items that got away — there was a lamp whose base was a ceramic pug that I coveted on one job, but another crew member got to it first!”

Puisto doesn’t ever really keep anything either. “Everything is accounted for by the studio, and I really don’t need much,” she says. “It’s kinda like methadone for a fashion addict: Once I buy the items and try them on the actress and establish the look, I’m done.”

Over the years, I personally have seen an increase in costume departments and productions making concerted efforts to recycle, reuse, and donate as much as possible. I’m the head tailor on a show where lots of people end up being killed, often by bullets. Clothing worn by these characters ends up on a “Dead Character” rack. Many of the pieces have holes in them from where a squib (a small electric charge to simulate a gunshot/bullet hole) was placed. One year at Christmas, the wardrobe supervisor asked me to repair a bunch of bullet holes in winter coats so we could donate them to the annual New York Cares Coat Drive.

A favorite game that us costume and wardrobe geeks like to play is “spot the recycled garment,” wherein we find pieces we know from a previous show we worked on on a new show. That doesn’t sound quite as fun when put into words, but we all do it.

Emily O’Conner, an assistant costume designer (ACD) who was in charge of all the rentals on Boardwalk Empire, tagged all of the costumes from the show with her own secret code.

“A lot of the tags still remain in the clothes, so sometimes on a vintage show I will find a piece and be able to identify it from past seasons of Boardwalk. That’s my own personal chuckle, be it ever so geeky!” O’Conner says.

One of my personal, and geeky, recycled wardrobe stories is from when I used to work as set costumer for Robert Rodriguez. The movie was Grindhouse, which had zombies getting killed all over the place. Sometimes we’d “kill” one, put them in some new wardrobe, and send them out to be killed again. I kept a rack of clothes with me on set for impromptu “zombie dressing” (Robert liked to ask crew members to be zombies when we ran out of extras). The zombies on Grindhouse wear a lot of hoodies, but, if you look closely, you’ll notice that one particular hoodie shows up on a wide range of zombies. I actually had two of the same one. And I put it on everyone I could. The night Greg Nicotero, Walking Dead producer and head of KNB, one of the premiere makeup special effects studios, did a cameo as a zombie, I put it on him. The same for the Quentin Tarantino zombie appearance — and a whole slew of stunt men. We (in the wardrobe department) even gave the hoodie its own section in the Continuity Book, where all the costumes and how they were worn for each scene is recorded.

I have no idea where that hoodie ended up, though — hopefully in some thrift store in Austin where it was purchased to live another day out on the street, finally zombie free.


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