By Gabrielle Redcay ‘18
Take one step into Millersville University’s Costume Shop and you’ll feel like you’ve entered a new world. First, you’ll be greeted by Priscilla Kaufhold’s cheerful smile. A slight shift of gaze from the shop manager’s face will leave you nearly overwhelmed by an infinite number of colors and textures of all different shapes and sizes.
As you look around in an effort to come to terms with your surroundings, the hum of a sewing machine and the laughter of a customer offer a calming backdrop. If you dare to take another step, Kaufhold will lead you through a labyrinth of clothing racks, boxes and dressers struggling to contain thousands of garments, shoes and accessories. And this is only one of the five rooms which comprise MU’s nonprofit costume workshop and rental business.
“We’re very lucky that the University thinks it’s worthwhile enough to give up this much space for this collection,” Kaufhold recognizes. The Costume Shop opened in 1982 when MU’s Department of Communication and Theater decided to make its costume collection available not only for campus productions, but also for rental. As the only Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education school with such a business, the venture soon took off. A donation of approximately 10,000 costumes from local costumer Jean Loeb propelled the collection in 1984, as it took the shape of a couple thousand costumes crammed in the basement of Hobbs Hall.
Thirty-five years later and the shop now houses over 30,000 costumes. Despite the increased square footage granted by a transition from Hobbs to Jefferson Hall in August of 2013, the diverse collection of garments only continues to grow as a result of collection buyouts and donations from alumni, retired costumers and local shops. While Kaufhold appreciates the space provided by Millersville University and is thrilled by each addition to the collection, she has returned to a hauntingly familiar conclusion.
“We need more space,” says the store manager, who began working at the Costume Shop after graduating from the performing arts dance program at American University. While pursuing her master’s degree in design and dance from George Washington University, she commuted from Lancaster to Washington, D.C. in order to continue working at the shop. “We have more space but I still want more.”
The energetic store manager and her team, which now includes six student and four non-student workers, spent years meticulously organizing the extensive collection.
“About six years ago when we were in Hobbs, I had a student count all the hangers. So that didn’t count any walls of dressers or any bins of shoes or hats or anything like that,” remembers Kaufhold. “It was over 25,000. We have since bought out another collection, plus we keep building for shows and we figure we can start adding some of the dressers and bins.”
After moving to Jefferson Hall, the virtually immeasurable number of costumes were divided into five rooms: historian, fantasy, holiday, show and fabric.
The historian and fantasy rooms contain the bulk of the items, with hefty period gowns and authentic military uniforms in the one and animals and story book characters in the other. Several of Kaufhold’s own pieces, masterfully created from only the most authentic fabrics, now hang among the long rows of two-story clothing racks.
The holiday room lives up to its name in the form of Easter bunnies and Mrs. Clause costumes. The show room pairs wide-brimmed hats and wigs organized by color, length and curl with completed costume collections in waiting to go out to their respective shows. This spring, the shop assembled costumes for the Little Mermaid, Shrek, Wizard of Oz and Sound of Music, with its Beauty and the Beast collection being requested by nine different groups.
Last but not least, bolts and rolls of fabric of every color and size cover every inch of the fabric room, from the tables to the floors to the floor-to-ceiling shelves.
However, the magic of the MU Costume Shop does not lie in the number of costumes it contains or even in its many colors. Any member of the Millersville community or general public can walk into the shop and be magically transformed into the character of their dreams. Whether that character be a 1920s gangster or Snow White, Kaufhold and her team help customers find, build and alter the perfect costume. This transformative experience costs only $40.
Halloween and theatrical productions consume a large portion of Kaufhold’s team’s time and effort. In the fall around Halloween, the number of individual customers outweigh larger groups looking for costumes. Costumers headed to Halloween festivities often opt for the shop’s gangster and flapper costumes, and Kaufhold is sure to complete the look with hats, jewelry and shoes.
That trend reverses in the spring during musical season, when the shop creates the wardrobes for both University and external shows, with clients from Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Jersey and New York. In all her years in the industry, Kaufhold’s closest call came when she was costuming the Ware Center’s opening production of Pirates of Penzance in the fall of 2013. She finished sewing the last of the costumes by intermission.
The shop manager explains that the total number of the Costume Shop’s rentals remains fairly consistent throughout the year, but the service offered varies slightly. “Halloween is really crazy in the way of keeping things flowing and looking presentable, and in the spring it’s sewing and altering for people,” she says.
But the gem of the Costume Shop tucked into Jefferson Hall caters to more than just the needs of theatrical productions and Halloween. A young man once rented a suit of armor from the shop to wear when he proposed to his girlfriend as a knight in shining armor. “We helped him with the armor, we helped him with the other stuff and of course we wanted to hear all about how it went,” Kaufhold remembers.
High school students looking for prom attire, vocalists needing a stunning dress for an aria, young students transforming into their heroes for a school project and bridal parties dreaming of a themed wedding have also taken advantage of the collection at Millersville.
With most alterations covered in the base fee, Kaufhold revels in the economy of renting for these often expensive occasions. “Over the years I have had people, who are in my opinion smart, come and get a dress for $40 to go to their prom. Now it might not be what is in right now,” she admits, “but you can make it your own, you didn’t have to pay $200 and you get something different the next year.”
These unique services offered by the Costume Shop have allowed the once fledging brain child of MU’s communication and theater department to maintain popularity over its 35 years of existence. That popularity leaves Kaufhold’s work table cluttered with material and her pile of projects untouched, but she feeds off the energy of her clients and the excitement of her work. “I like interacting with people and creating with them,” she says. “Whoever comes in is always in a good mood, because they’re going to be in a play or they’re going to go to a party. It’s nice to meet people that are happy and excited.”
The shop manager credits the Costume Shop’s ability to thrive on not only its affordability, but also the interactive and experiential nature of its services. “You can touch it. You can feel it,” she says. “Here you get the basic costume and then we help you. You can look phenomenal.”
Through her role as manager, Kaufhold has come to realize that costuming is not wallowing behind a sewing machine all day. Costuming is very similar to the actual garments that line the walls, floors and ceilings of the Costume Shop. It’s crazy. It’s fun. It’s something different every day.
As the Millersville community and beyond discover the exciting possibilities of costume rental, they ensure that Millersville University’s Costume Shop will be bursting at its seams for another 35 years to come.