Purchasing costumes can be the most enjoyable part of costuming a show. Even though most purchased costume pieces will need some type of change or alteration, you will need to begin by selecting the base costume pieces you will start. I have had good luck with several online and local sources. Here are my tips on using those vendors.
Amazon has ended up being my go-to source purchasing costumes. I use Amazon for all types of purchased costume pieces. I use (the heck out of) my Prime membership to take full advantage of all that Amazon has to offer.
There are very few costume pieces that you cannot find somewhere on Amazon. And Amazon can ship any items that are Prime-eligible to you in as little as two days at no cost. Amazon also allows returns or exchanges for free if needed. With Prime-eligible items, there is little risk if the piece is the wrong color, look different than the picture, or be the wrong size. If there is an issue, you just return the item, and order the replacement that will arrive in another two(-ish) days. Alternatively, if you’re short on time and are uncertain about the size needed (for example), you can just order the piece in two sizes and return the one that doesn’t work.
Amazon makes it very easy to return items. Most shipments from Amazon arrive in packaging that, if opened according to the directions printed on the package, can be re-used for the return shipment. Under the “Orders” section in Amazon, each item you’ve ordered is listed, and each includes a “Return items” button that takes you to all of the information needed to make the return, including a return label that you can print and attach to the return shipment. Then, just drop the return package at any UPS store. Once the package is scanned in the UPS store, Amazon sends you an email acknowledging that the return was received, and usually provides a refund at that time, before the package even ships back to them.
I do have one warning about using Amazon for costuming. Use caution when ordering items that aren’t Prime-eligible. Returns are still easy, because vendors use the Amazon fulfillment system that usually provides the same return process as Prime orders. However, shipment times can be ridiculously long. If you don’t have several weeks until showtime, you may not receive the costume pieces in time (especially if you need time for alterations).
If you order an item that isn’t Prime-eligible, after you have added the item to your cart make sure to notice the “Estimated Delivery” date. This is often several weeks into the future, especially for clothing items that are being shipped from China.
Usually ornate dresses, etc., that are priced far below the usual US price will be shipped directly from factories in China. These dresses are usually very good quality, and a great bargain, if you have the time to wait for them.
Be sure to closely monitor your email for several days after ordering from one of these manufacturers. They sometimes email to confirm sizing or other information. These vendors will often hold your order until you respond.
On rare occasions, I have ordered pieces this way that I never received. I was suspicious about the risk. The seller gave me an arrive-by date, and then re-stated the date several times as deadlines were missed. If you order non-Prime items from Amazon, just be sure to have a back-up plan – especially if you’re working with a tight deadline.
How to Find What You Need on Amazon
Start with searching Amazon with the specs of the costume you need – era, color, length, gender, etc. For example, searching for “Pink 1920’s women’s dress’ lead to this dress, which we used for the opening number ensemble for our production of Chicago. Sometimes you may need to scroll through several pages to find the perfect item. But the selection on Amazon is almost limitless. If you’re patient and keep looking, you will probably find what you need.
I also always start my Amazon search with the “Refine by Prime” box checked. Even if you don’t need the piece within two days, I’ve found that sellers that participate in Prime shipping (including Amazon as a direct seller) tend to be more reliable, and returns are usually much easier.
Successfully buying costume pieces and accessories on Ebay can be a bit hit-or-miss. But sometimes (although less and less, it seems) items are available on Ebay that aren’t sold through Amazon. You should be cautious when purchasing on Ebay, especially from non-US sellers. Examine each picture and description very carefully. More than once I have mistakenly ordered a costume piece through Ebay from a seller in China, only to receive a piece that was not what I was looking for and that wasn’t easily returnable. The return shipping costs to China are often more expensive than the actual cost of the item, making a return pointless.
The key to purchasing costume pieces at Goodwill and other thrift stores is patience. First, make a list of the costume pieces you are searching for, with the sizes needed for each piece. Keep this list with you, and be prepared to stop whenever you see good thrift shop.
You will probably find that each visit will yield a few pieces. For a major production, it will probably take a couple of months to find all of the pieces that you need. For the last production I costumed, we needed 35 white 1920s dress shirts. So I kept my size list with me, and every couple of weeks, I stopped by the three Goodwill stores that I pass on my way home from work. At each stop, I would buy most of the white dress shirts I could find that didn’t have button-down collars (Button-down collars weren’t used on dress shirts until the 1950s, so when working on a period show button-downs are out).
Always be aware of any weekly discount offered at each shop. Most thrift shops have some kind of system for discounting merchandise that has been in the store for a longer period of time. For instance, the Goodwill stores in the Atlanta area (and most other places I’ve been) attach a color tag to each garment, based on the week the garment was received. The store designates a tag color that will be discounted each week and places a sign near the entrance to tell shoppers which tag color will be discounted. This sign also usually includes the amount of the discount (usually this is 50%, but it can vary).
Another discount scheme that some thrift shops use is to designate a discount day each week. Park Avenue Thrift in Duluth, Georgia (one of my favorite thrift shops) gives you a coupon on any day you spend at least $25, and the coupon can be redeemed on the following Sunday for ½ off your entire purchase.
If you see a unique piece that is perfect, don’t hold out for a discount because the piece will probably be gone before it has been in the store long enough to be discounted. But for generic items (like white dress shirts), you can save a substantial amount on your costuming budget by keeping an eye on the discounts and trying to buy the items at a discount.
Depending on the sizes that you need, search in the women’s, men’s, and children’s departments. Many times I have found the perfect costume piece for a smaller man in the women’s department, or for a larger woman in the men’s department. Remember that no one can tell from the audience whether the piece was originally intended for a man or a woman.