It’s like walking into a library.
Each piece, each garment, each stitch tells a different story, reflects a different era. Each has a different author and purpose.
Twenty-thousand outfits fill the UNCG costume warehouse, taking over the front room of what used to be Addam’s Bookstore on Tate Street.
Flapper-style dresses from the 1920s line the 10-foot high wardrobe racks next to rows of medieval chainmail and ’60s peasant dresses.
“We have everything from monsters to animals to fairies to religious robes and military uniforms,” says Amy Holroyd, the costume supervisor for UNCG’s theater department. “There’s pretty much everything.”
Holroyd has been the keeper of the outfits for close to a decade and oversaw the moving and cataloguing of the pieces when the collection moved from its previous home on campus to its new location on Tate Street last summer. She says she’s probably handled each individual item in the collection, which ranges from accessories like socks and hats to larger pieces like dresses and jackets.
Three levels and nine rows of clothes tower in the 1,800 square-foot room that houses all the garments that the university has made, bought or collected over the years. According to Holroyd, 30-40 percent of the garments were made by students for the school’s productions.
She says having the students make the garments themselves gives them the necessary tools to take their craft into the real world after graduation. But the biggest challenge for her lately is that many students coming into the program don’t seem to know how to sew.
“They don’t have home ec anymore like they used to,” she says. “They come in completely, really unable to use their hands like past generations have been able to do. We are teaching them from the roots.”
She says that some of the students come into the program after watching shows like “Project Runway” or through cosplay. But Holroyd says that making pieces for theater is different than regular fashion.
“It’s not just crafty sewing,” she says. “We’re making garments that we hope get used in another production later. We’re not making pieces that just go down the runway.”
Jacquelyn Whiteside, a rising senior at UNCG, understands the difficulties that come with making garments for actors who will perform on stage.
“You’re designing for people with all body types,” Whiteside says. “And you have to understand that the pieces will move on stage.”
Whitehead, who is working on a bachelor’s degree in drama, is the lead costume designer for an upcoming production of Pippin, which opens in late September.
Sketches of Whiteside’s designs hang from a bulletin strip in one of the sewing rooms in the same building as the costume storage room.
Bright-red leotards with stringy fringe for the women and dark trench coat outfits for the men give the characters color and life on paper.
“I love seeing student designers really pleased when a show is exactly how they imagined it,” Holroyd says. “Or even watching an actor all of a sudden find their character after putting on their costume. Sometimes they can’t fully become the character until they get their costume on.”
After the shows, Holroyd says some of the pieces get reused for other productions or are lent to other theaters in the area. They don’t rent or sell them to the public, however.
“If people want to see the pieces, they have to come see the shows,” she says.
Sydney de Briel, who graduated with an MFA from UNCG in 2016, now works as the resident costume designer for Barter Players, a program within the Barter Theater in Abingdon, Va.
“I like telling stories through colors and shapes and I didn’t know it could be a job until I got to college,” says de Briel, who started out as an actor. “What I was missing as an actor was the control over how the story was told. I think of costume design as a need to create an accurate first impression. Unlike a movie, people don’t really watch theater shows more than once so you have one shot to be as engaging as possible. Costume design does that in such a wonderful and tangible way.”
One of de Briel’s creations from her time at UNCG hangs on a mannequin at the front of the costume storage building. Bright-red fabric clings to the form, starting at the top with a bedazzled mock turtleneck and cascading all the way down to the floor where it pools like a puddle of lava. De Briel created the piece for the character of Sally Bowles in the school’s production of Cabaret a few years ago.
At any moment, the skin-tight dress looks like it might slip off the mannequin and begin dancing, strutting across the storage room floor, taking on the life and personality of Bowles — sensual, strange and self-willed.
And that’s what de Briel intended.
“While everyone knows clothes, costumes can be so much more,” she says.