Trawling the props and costume depths

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There’s a whole new world behind the wardrobe. There are no lions and witches and talking beasts, but rather the canvas fish, vampire coffins and wind machine of the Yale School of Drama’s costume and props collection.

The YSD’s costume collection, located in an unassuming basement at 149 York St., is distinct from the props warehouse. Both collections are mainly at the disposal of YSD productions — while undergraduate productions and the general public can rent from the YSD, they must pay a rental fee of at least $85 and a deposit of at least $170. The only undergraduate productions exempt from the rental fee are those run by the Yale Dramat, which has a special arrangement with the YSD.

To set foot in the costume collection is to be lost among rows and rows of shelves filled with a plethora of clothing, ranging from the shabby to the dramatically ornate. The labels on the shelves are enough to tell a story all by themselves: “Women’s clothing, 1920s-Present,” divided into checked, striped and solid-colored sections; “Ecclesiastical — Cardinals — Popes — Priests,” neatly categorized by proper clerical rank; and another shelf labeled simply “Richard III,” perhaps signifying the play’s enduring popularity among Yale performers.

Not all costumes in the warehouse are available for lending. A section of the warehouse, labeled “antiques,” is locked away at the back. These are vintage and historic clothes that are too fragile to be lent out, but which are used for reference when making new costumes. According to Linda Wingerter of the Yale Costumes Collection, Yale does not actively acquire these antique clothes. Most of them are donations, and because the warehouse does not keep an inventory, nobody really knows how many of them there are.

“They have eight people employed full-time up at the University Theater making costumes for the Drama School,” says Wingerter. Drama students design costumes for their shows, and if there is nothing that matches the concept, or if there is a particular antique costume that they would like to replicate, the theater workshop creates the costumes from scratch.

The props collection takes up much more space than the costume collection and is located much further from campus. It is situated about a mile away from campus, at 105 Hamilton St. near Wooster Square. The warehouse lurks in the back parking lot of a Tile America store, and there is no sign to announce its presence, nor any obvious indication that it is Yale property.

Once inside, however, the number and diversity of the collection is stunning. “There’s pretty much anything and everything in here,” says Bill Batschelet of the Yale Props Warehouse, adding that the collection numbers in the hundreds of thousands. Along with more usual items like chairs, cabinets and chandeliers, there are three 1800s-style cash registers, an antique radio, a respectable black coffin and a hand-turned wind machine used to imitate the sound of wind before the era of digitized sound effects.

In some ways, exploring Yale’s costumes and props collection is like stumbling on a cave full of hidden treasure — beautiful, eccentric and unexpectedly dazzling. However, those who would like to embark on treasure hunts of their own should be warned: both collections are by appointment only, and visits must be set up a week in advance. Otherwise, the collection is open to the Yale community.

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