Campus & community, Arts & culture, Performing arts

UC Berkeley’s 30,000-piece costume collection offers a ‘variety of weirdness’

By Kara Manke

Wendy Sparks is devoted to the art of creative reuse.

As costume director for UC Berkeley’s Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies, Sparks oversees a stunning collection of more than 30,000 costume pieces, nearly all of them donated, bought for cheap, or made from scratch using reclaimed materials.

Housed in two meticulously organized storage rooms in the basement of Zellerbach Hall, the costume shop holds nearly any item a designer could dream up, be it a vintage Pucci dress, a crown made of puzzle pieces or more women’s hats than a British royal wedding.

A photo shows a thin, flowy dress mounted on a mannequin.

One of the many unique pieces in the collection is this dress created by UC Berkeley costume director for a production of the play “Metamorphoses,” which was designed to be worn underwater while on stage. (UC Berkeley photo my Marissa Gutierrez)

I inherited this. I’ve been working here for many years, and the people that worked here before me and started this whole thing — it was coming from a place of having nothing, and then getting donations from faculty and friends and staff that have helped build up what we have,” Sparks says. “We are now able to actually costume many a show with no money, but that means we have to get really creative, and I have to take things apart and rebuild them. We do things that aren’t permanent so that we can reuse them again.”

The collection was started by the department’s first costume director, Shan Otey, in the 1950s. Working with a limited budget and very few supplies, Otey started collecting donations from the military, including uniforms, blankets and silk parachutes, and using the materials as the basis for costumes.

“We had a lot of silk parachute costumes for a long time,” Sparks says.

Otey also started solicited clothing donations from Berkeley colleagues and keeping each costume item that was created for future reuse.

Nearly 70 years later, the collection includes clothing in nearly every style imaginable. However, Sparks still revels in creating new and captivating costumes out of unexpected materials, be they curtains or inexpensive clothing pieces purchased on Amazon.

“For me, it’s a game of How Cheap Can I Go and Still Have it Look Rich and Beautiful and Amazing?” Sparks said. “One of the costumes I made was from an old curtain from the forties. And it’s beautiful. Nobody will know it’s a curtain, but I know it’s a curtain.”

Sparks recently gave several members of UC Berkeley’s Office of Communications and Public Affairs a rare glimpse into what she calls the “variety of weirdness” lurking in the department’s collection.