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Fashion and drama at SF Opera's Costume Sale

David Boyer

People in San Francisco like to dress up. Whether it be for theme parties, street fairs, Halloween, Dia de los Muertos, Pride, or, of course, Burning Man (a.k.a. the Playa). San Francisco seems to jump at any excuse to throw off daily wear in favor of something more theatrical. 

That explains why around 2500 people showed up for a San Francisco Opera Costume Shop Sale. The two-day event was a chance for the company to sell costumes that they no longer need and to raise money for future productions.

The good news is that more than 125,000 extraordinary outfits just entered the creative bloodstream of San Francisco and the Bay Area at large. The bad news is that, for those who missed it this time around, the sale probably won’t happen again for at least four years, maybe longer.

I heard about the sale from some of my Burning Man friends. Around noon on the first day of the sale, people started posting photos: One friend in a Marie Antoinette dress (wig, included), another in a gold lame Russian monk’s robe with matching gold hat. Clearly this is a sale not to be missed.

By the time I get there, the line outside the San Francisco Opera Warehouse in Dogpatch is four hours long. I think about hopping back in my car and catching up with friends post-brunch. But then I meet Joseph Turian as he is emerging from the bowels of what looks like an airplane hanger. He's wearing a turban and I decide not to give up so easily. 

“When I was inside,” Turian says, “I saw this one piece and I was like ‘I don’t know if that’s going to fit me.’ And this fellow, he came up and started helping me. And he’s like, ‘No, it’s gonna fit you.’ So it turns out his name is Christopher and he’s the head of wardrobe or costuming. And he was telling me that I got the last Bob Mackie piece." It sounds to me like this Christopher person knows a thing or two. I need to find him because he just may be my ticket in.

And just then, a man approaches me. There’s no puff of smoke, but he makes a dramatic entrance nevertheless, with his secret-service-style earpiece and his no-nonsense, by-the-rules attitude. This man is the very Christopher I was hoping to talk to.

His full name is Christopher Verdosi and he's the assistant costume director for the San Francisco Opera. He grabs me by the hand and leads me through a crush of costumed shoppers, narrating along the way. He’s like my opera-sale fairy godmother. He’s wise and sassy—and he moves pretty fast, too.

Explains Verdosi, “This is my favorite part: walking across the room and walking past a 19th-century maid, a gladiator, a vulton, and a crazy, dirty monk.”

We enter a roped-off area where the more expensive costumes are located. From here, I can survey the scene. The room is massive. There are nearly 1000 people buzzing around, trying things on, trying to catch a glimpse in one of the few mirrors in the room, and, of course, riffling through nearly a hundred racks of clothing of every color, period and fabric. You name it--furs, laces, feathers, brocades, beads, velvets--it’s all here.

“We started this morning with over 125,000 costumes,” Verdosi tells me, “I'd say we're probably down to about 75,000 now.”

These costumes were originally made for operas and productions that the company knows they will not repeat. For the lucky people in the room, it’s a rare chance to own pieces that were once worn by opera royalty and created and constructed by master costumers, as well as a few famous fashion designers. And for Verdosi, it’s a chance to share his encyclopedic knowledge of the costumes and productions, as well as his passion and reverence for the art form.

“I think that costumes are infused with energy from the artist that wears it, from the artist that builds it,” explains Verdosi. “And it's more sad for costumes like this to sit on a rack unused for 20 years than to release them to people that will love them, cherish them and—because we're so lucky to live in San Francisco—wear them.”

This story originally aired on July 8, 2014.