Astoria’s Hidden Costume Paradise: The TDF Costume Collection
Buried beneath Kaufman Astoria Film Studios and hidden from the public eye are some of the most incredible and famous costume pieces in the world. The clothes are packed onto metal racks that reach three stories high, and they’re all part of the TDF Costume Collection. And this isn’t just any costume house; because NYC is the best city in the world where the best productions and films are created, the TDF Costume Collection has accumulated priceless treasures in the form of more than 90,000 costumes from opera, theater, and film. And here’s the best part: while you won’t be renting any of them for a costume party, these extraordinary outfits are available for anyone to rent for artistic purposes, including student film and theater productions.
Stephen Cabral, director of the TDF Costume Collection, is upfront and wants it made clear: these costumes are definitely not for the rockin’ Halloween bash that you’re throwing in your studio apartment. “Halloween is a trigger word around here,” Cabral said. He explained that dilettantes are quickly overwhelmed by the huge selection available. And if a rare partygoer does somehow make it into the costume house, they’re quickly disappointed. “Nothing is sized. Even if [the clothes] are sized, they may have been altered. So you must come in with a tape measure and a mannequin.”
Even for a professional costume designer, the process of selecting costumes is a massive undertaking. For this reason, Cabral and his staff offer to find the right outfits for your production for a small fee. This means that the costume house’s dedicated staff is deeply engaged in the artistic process in addition to having the tremendous job of organizing and maintaining the collection. “Our very small staff has had to read plays,” Cabral said, “If you send us a breakdown of the plot, sizes, and any research, it’s like hiring us to be your designers.” And it’s not a problem if your production isn’t in New York. The TDF Costume Collection sends whole wardrobes across the country and back.
The history of the collection’s arrival into Astoria is almost as interesting as the costumes themselves. The costume house buildings in Astoria were once home to silent era film sets. That all changed in World War II when the U.S. government used the studio buildings as army bases for producing and screening war films and propaganda for American soldiers. After the war, the buildings were empty until the legendary real estate developer George Kaufman bought them for a dollar. Now a thriving studio sits there once again, and TDF moved its collection into two airplane hangar sized rooms under the studio in November 2011.
The costumes are enough to leave you speechless. Almost every style is represented. Many of them are meticulously hand-made. “When we originally opened our doors in 1974 and our stock consisted of costumes donated by the Metropolitan Opera, we were only able to do dark and serious productions. Thanks to many donations since, now we can do razzle dazzle too,” says Cabral.
Famous outfits from recognizable shows hang in every direction: the tap shoes from Elf: The Musical, Jane Lynch’s Miss Hannigan dress from the revival of Annie, a giant hot dog costume seen in And Just Like That, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s shoes from the original off-Broadway production of Hamilton, and robes that Saturday Night Live uses for its Game of Thrones sketches. And famous designers? How about over 1000 pieces from the prolific and esteemed Bob Mackie? “I took three days and spent time with [Mackie]. It was the first time we ever traveled across the country to get things,” Cabral said, smiling as he relived the memory.
Have something that the Costume Collection might be interested in? “We don’t buy anything. We don’t repair anything. We try to never turn down donations,” Cabral said. Want to rent something for a production? Be prepared that TDF takes the privilege of renting from their inventory very seriously. “No gluing, dying, cutting, painting, or stage blood. When someone calls about Sweeney Todd, the first thing we have to say is no stage blood.”
And while the costume house is full of treasures, the outfits themselves don’t exactly turn a profit. In fact, the costume house rarely makes money. But fortunately, TDF acknowledges the artistic value of preserving these priceless garments for use in productions across the country. “There were so many costume houses in New York, and they all folded,” Cabral said, “And the only reason we exist is TDF.”
For the uninitiated, TDF is an organization that’s been dedicated to supporting Broadway since 1968. Its mission is to support theater in any form. “So much of what TDF does is about getting people to the theater,” Cabral said, “It’s about getting affordable tickets. But it’s more than that.” Most theater patrons know about the TKTS booth run by TDF in Times Square. But not everyone knows that TDF has a membership program that often gives even better deals on tickets, and, chances are, you can join. The list of those eligible for membership features too many possibilities to list here, but some of the more common prerequisites include people under 30, artists, educators, freelancers, service members, or full-time hourly workers. Members can save up to 70% on their tickets, including those for Broadway and off-Broadway shows.
As for Cabral, he refuses to single out a piece as his personal favorite and points out that even the most beautiful costume has an ephemeral quality, “I don’t have [a favorite]. The key is to not become too attached because they have a lifespan. We allow people to take these things, use them, and bring them back. After a time, they start to not look great. But then they’re good for Les Mis.”
If you’re interested in discount theater tickets or if you’d like to use a costume for a production, visit the TDF website.
34-12 36th St., Lower Level, Suite 1 / 212.989.5855 / tdf.org / @tdfcostumecollection