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The Costume Detective

Date: Sep 04, 2012


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She almost sounds like a theatrical superhero. Without leaving New York, Jennifer Hurlbert contributes to the costume designs of shows across the country.

But that doesn't mean she can jump tall mannequins in a single bound. As the resident designer of TDF's Costume Collection, Hurlbert is a liaison to artists nationwide, working to provide them with costumes their productions need.

TDF's Costume Collection boasts over 75,000 pieces from Broadway, Off-Broadway, regional theatre, and opera productions, and it rents those pieces at low rates to theatres and schools. If, say, a high school needs 20 chorus outfits for Bye Bye Birdie or a small company needs elegant fairy dresses for A Midsummer Night's Dream, the Collection will have options.

For designers in the New York area, exploring the Collection is easy: Anyone can drop by the Astoria warehouse and dig around. But if you're working on a show in Seattle or Shreveport, hunting the racks is impossible.

That's where Hurlbert comes in. A trained designer, she can be the eyes for an out-of-town production, roaming the Collection to find what they need. "They'll send me all of their information," she says. "The measurements of the actors; the costume plot, which is essentially a list of all the pieces that they need; and they'll send me any research or renderings that they have. And then I go into the racks, and I pull what they need. Then I'll put the costumes on a mannequin and take photos to email to the designer to get their approval."

Hurlbert works with everyone from established pros to rising directors who don't have the budget for a costume designer. She needs a remarkable amount of trust, since it can be scary to rely on a stranger to find the clothes for your show.

Designer Susan Cox says Hurlbert quickly settled her nerves. A professor at the University of Dallas who has worked with theatres, operas, and even Jim Henson's Creature Shop, she has used the Collection several times, starting with a 2011 production of Twelfth Night. "I sent sketches, and three days later, Jennifer sent me photographs of [clothes that looked like] my sketches," Cox says. "I was so startled. She's so sensible and particular with detail, and when they arrived, the clothes were ten times better."

She adds that Hurlbert never complains when Cox asks for adjustments or changes, which is another reason she comes back to the Collection. "Jennifer is just looking to make the experience fruitful," she says.

For her part, Hurlbert enjoys tackling complicated assignments. "It's always fun when I don't have exactly what they're looking for," she says. "Then the problem solving kicks in. Okay, so I don't have the particular gown that you're looking for, but I might be able to dig through our racks and find a skirt and a separate bodice that might be able to capture the flavor of what you're looking for. And when I can hit it, it's very satisfying."


Mark Blankenship is TDF's Online Content Editor

pictured above:

(1)   A costume sketch for Twelfth Night that Susan Cox sent to Jennifer Hurlbert

(2)   Jennifer Hurlbert pulled these pieces from the Collection after looking at the sketch

(3)   This is the final costume that appeared in the production of Twelfth Night