An unassuming black door on Market Street opens to a long hallway. Beaten up mailboxes line the wall on the left, and a creaky old elevator — the kind that takes several seconds for its door to open — is on the right, transporting office workers to the floors above.
But follow the hallway toward the back and you will reach another door, behind which is the largest collection of theater costumes in the entire city. The two-floor storage space holds tens of thousands of outfits, ranging from fat suits to Elizabethan gowns. This is the costume shop at the American Conservatory Theater, and unbeknownst to many San Franciscans, its stock is available to rent.
Jef Valentine, an A.C.T. alum and part-time drag queen with the moniker Valentine, has 12 years under his belt as inventory manager of this vast collection. It falls on him to ensure that size medium seersucker shirts are neatly ordered in one section, and Hairspray-era glittery gowns are in another. On the first floor, huge industrial shelves reach to the ceiling, sagging with large plastic containers neatly labeled with tags like “gloves, size M.”
There’s even a rack full of donations that need to be processed.
“Everyone’s grandma dies at some point, and they don’t know what to do with her fur,” Valentine explains.
But downstairs is where the real awe-inducing rows of costumes live. The enormous basement — which used to be home to an artificial limb factory and a speakeasy — stretches the full width of the block, from Market Street to Stevenson Street. The dozens of impeccably organized racks are overloaded (it takes effort to extract a dress) and hats hang in tidy lines from the ceiling.
Aside from gifts, every costume in the space has, at one time, been in an A.C.T. production.
“We created costume rentals in the late ’80s, right after the Loma Prieta earthquake damaged our theater,” Valentine says. “The whole proscenium fell down; the place was not retrofitted. A.C.T.’s future was looking dire. We were desperately looking for ways to bring in revenue. We took stock of our assets, and costumes was one of them.”
The costume-rental program has since taken off, and Valentine is one of two full-time employees who run the program. Other theater companies with small budgets often rent the show’s outfits. The theater’s rigorous MFA program keeps the costume staff busy, with 10 to 12 shows to dress each year. And individuals who want to dress up for Halloween, a themed wedding, or a Game of Thrones viewing party can also rent costumes, at $175 a pop.
The price might seem steep, but it’s actually something of a bargain. Costumes are tailored to fit the customer, and the outfits include the whole shebang, from shoes to hats. Clients can have the outfit for a full week, and there’s no fear of accidentally wearing the same thing as someone else.
“What we do here is really unique — coming here you’ve got access to 50 years’ worth of regional costuming,” Valentine says. “Nothing here comes out of a crinkly cellophane bag. We don’t have commercial characters, we don’t have a Darth Vader. But if you want to be a character in period clothing from just about any time period that you can think of, in any country, that’s what we have.”
With this vast and historically accurate inventory, hardcore fans of certain TV shows or time periods often pop in to scour the racks. Mad Men and Downton Abbey brought in clientele, as has Game of Thrones. Which George R. R. Martin character is the most lusted after?
“The blond girl with the dragons,” Valentine says, “and Jon Snow.”
While pop culture influences costumes — steampunk had a revival after Mad Max, for example — some trends don’t seem to fade.
“Gatsby. That is the most consistent theme that’s remained popular the whole time I’ve been here,” Valentine says. “There’s a Speakeasy nightclub in town that’s an interactive experience people dress for. The Leonardo DiCaprio film gave it a whole new shot in the arm. It’s a theme that people just never seem to get tired of — they’ll throw Gatsby-themed holiday parties and weddings.
“But we don’t have the little fringy dress and the sequined headband,” he clarifies. “We have elegant, 1920s day and evening wear that people would really wear.”
Halloween is, of course, a popular time for the costume rental shop — but there are other big events that draw crowds. Held every January, the Edwardian Ball brings hundreds from around the country to dress up in what organizers describe as a “Neo-Victorian gothic and steampunk-tinged distant past.”
And the post-earthquake business plan seems to be working. All proceeds from costume rentals support the theater, and the staff keeps busy.
“With all the changes San Francisco’s been through — and with the demographic who lives here, and all of the building and the construction and the new people — one thing that does remain consistent is that San Francisco is a dress-up city,” Valentine says. “We always have been, and I love that about San Francisco.”
While clothes definitely fly off the racks the closer it gets to big events, “We’re never going to run out of costumes,” Valentine says. “Thinking ahead is great, because we get more picked over — of course — the closer it gets to Halloween. But we’ve got a lot of stuff here. I don’t think we’ve ever turned a pirate away. We can always get one more pirate out of stock.”
A.C.T.’s Costume Rental Shop is open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday by appointment only. 415-439-2379 or actcostumerentals.org
Check out more stories in our feature on costumes here:
New SoMa Extremity: Stereo Argento at The Stud
Halloween gets especially ghoulish at a drag-and-movie night with plenty of Italo disco.
Costumes Beyond Halloween
Increasingly rare stores like Costumes on Haight pride themselves on being open year-round.