A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What happens to old movie costumes?

October 2, 2008

Dear Straight Dope:

While watching Joel Schumacher's film adaptation of Phantom of the Opera, an inane question occurred to me: What do they do with all the costumes from period films once production has ended? I know for some films (e.g., Titanic) the main costumes are exhibited or sold at auction, but what about the extras' costumes? I'm particularly interested to know what they do with the clothes from large-scale productions such as Phantom of the Opera or the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Is there a huge costume warehouse somewhere on the various studios' backlots that they poach from for subsequent productions?

MsRobyn replies:

This one took a bit of digging, since I couldn’t find contact information on any of the studios’ websites. However, with a bit of luck, I found the website for Sony Pictures in Culver City, California that hints at the fate of costumes once the movie for which they were made completes production. As it turns out, you’re not that far off the mark. Most costumes are recycled for future use in other movies and television productions. Sony Pictures maintains a fairly good selection of costumes that are available for rent by other production companies. They’re stored in two locations in Los Angeles, one at its main Culver City lot and the other in the Mar Vista section of west Los Angeles, not far from Culver City.

Several things can happen to a costume besides being reused. Occasionally, studios have what are basically yard sales to clear out unneeded costumes. In his 1974 book about the Charles Manson case, Helter Skelter, prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi wrote that defense attorney Ronald Hughes purchased his suits from MGM — they’d originally been worn by actor Walter Slezak. Some costumes are resold through companies that specialize in this sort of thing; occasionally, they buy their inventory from other collectors or from retired movie personnel or their estates. Costumes from historically significant movies or movies featuring a particular actor may find their way to museums or the Smithsonian Institution. For example, the National Museum of American History houses the ruby slippers Judy Garland wore in The Wizard of Oz, and in 2005 had a major exhibit of singer Celia Cruz’s costumes and shoes. Here is the FAQ from the Smithsonian, which describes the process by which they acquire items.

If the movie is especially popular, costumes and props may be sold at auction, the proceeds of which may or may not go to charity. Movie memorabilia tends to fetch high prices at auction. Paramount Pictures unloaded pretty much its entire inventory of Star Trek costumes and props through auctions at Christie's and other sales; many items went for as much as ten times their estimated value. At another auction in London, the brown cloak that Alec Guinness wore as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars sold for $104,000. You can make all the parents’-basement jokes you want, but anyone who can afford to part with 100 large for a costume can probably afford more luxurious surroundings. Many of these costumes end up in private collections or are donated to museums, but it’s safe to say that some of it also ends up on eBay.

Not all productions have custom-made costumes, nor do they rent costumes from the studios. Depending on the movie and the budget, it may be better to buy retail or have the actors wear their own clothes. I worked with a woman who was a bit of a clotheshorse and had a couple friends in Hollywood. She could get work as an extra in just about any movie because she had such an extensive wardrobe. She also had access to stuff from other movies and had a great time at Halloween.

Sources

http://www.sonypicturesstudios.com/s...ostumeInfo.pdf is a copy of the rental agreement. The original site seems to be missing.

http://www.propstore.com/ is an English store specializing in movie memorabilia, including costumes.

http://www.hollywoodmoviecostumes.com/ and http://itsawraphollywood.com/ are two other such stores.

http://www.cnn.com/2006/SHOWBIZ/TV/10/07/startrek.auction/index.html is an article about the Star Trek auction.

http://www.bonhams.com/cgi-bin/public.sh/pubweb/publicSite.r?sContinent=eur&screen=HeadlineDetails&iHeadlineNo=2533 is the auction house that sold the Obi-Wan Kenobi costume; http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/wireStory?id=2929139 is a news story about the final selling price.

Bugliosi, V., and Curt Gentry, Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1974

Star Trek auctions Memory Alpha

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