How to Organize a Costume Shop

How to Organize a Costume Shop


Organizing costumes in storage can be a lot of work for organizations like schools, community theatres or colleges. It’s a rewarding project if you’re willing to put the time into it.

In this article, we’ll go through the three main steps of organizing a costume stock: cleaning out, organizing and putting systems in place.

Many organizations choose to keep a stock of costumes because it is less expensive to keep a stock of items that can be used and repurposed in future shows. Some organizations choose to use their costumes as rental pieces to raise money for their theatre or school. No matter the reason you have a storage for costumes, you can benefit from organizing those items.

About Me

I worked for ten years as a costume shop manager for a non-profit community theatre. They had a costume stock of 30,000 costumes that they rented out to 500 individuals and 300 productions each year. We spent all of the time in the slow seasons to organize and re-organize and it improved our efficiency imensely! Now I’ll share my tips with you on organizing your costume area.

First, Clean it Out!

That’s right, the first step to organizing your theatre stock is to clean it out. Get out the garbage bags and the donation tubs and roll up your sleeves and get started. Here are some questions to ask yourself about each item to determine if you should keep or toss.

  • Is it something hard to find? I had a “no jeans” rule. This philosophy extends to all kinds of items though. If you can find this item very easilly and reasonably priced, don’t store it. Each item you store takes up space and takes time to organize clean and manage. Toss it. Plus, if you do need it and can find it easilly, you can get the color and size that you need at that moment.
  • Does it fit your audience? If you’re a community theatre in a rural area or a religiously-affiliated high school, you may not need a risque version of a cabaret outfit, even if it’s really cool. Is your theatre top-notch known for high quality and you have something that is poorly constructed and faded? You can probably toss it.
  • Is it damaged? Be reasonable about how many repairs you’re going to make. If it’s a hard to come by item and it needs a minor repair, fine. Be cautious though of setting aside a mountain of repair work for items you may not use again.
  • Is this a size you could possibly use? For this first initial go-through, you probably won’t get rid of too much just because of size. However, if you see something that stands out as being rediculously small don’t be afraid to weed it out. Chances are if you did have someone who could fit in it, it wouldn’t be right for the show or their character.

Shoe Storage

You’ll want these if you have any shelf space at all. Clear bins are great, you can see the contents. I use a 2″ x 4″ label to identify all the contents. Great for glasses, earrings, bowties–anything small.

Take this slow. You can always come back and throw out some more later. In fact, I recommend it. Go through your first round of tossing, organize the areas you have left then continue to sort to make the costumes fit the space you have for them.

True story. Once a costume shop manager went through the stock and tossed many, many overcoats because they were worn and damaged. Not long after, a customer called and wanted worn, damaged coats to rent for Annie’s Hooverville scene.

If you personally don’t have a lot of knowledge of the different plays and what is used on a regular basis, have someone who does come help you. Or maybe sort out some toss items and have a person you can consult before the final trip out to the dumpster. I’ve been known a couple of times to box something up and put it out of the way for a year, just in case I realize a good use for those items later.

The Best Organizing Book to Get You Started

This is the one and only book you’ll need to get started on organizing ANY space. I highly recommend it. My tips just get you started, Julie Morgenstern can teach you how to think critically about organizing for each specific project in its own way. This is the way “naturally” organized people organize. She can teach you how to do it too.
By organize, I mean make sense of your space. This is a process. If you have a small closet to organize, this is fairly easy since the use of your stock is fairly limited. If you have a larger space that lots of people use for a lot of reasons, this is complicated and will take some trial and error. Here are some main points to consider before choosing a place for each of your things. If you already have a basic place for things and you’re organizing because it’s still a mess, then learn what you can from your messes. Your messes can hold valuable clues to the patterns of those who use your space!
  1. Where are your messes at, inside or outside spaces? If your messes are all on tables and shevles, maybe your inside storage (drawers and tubs) are too full to use. If your messes are all in tubs then maybe your classification needs to be rethought.
  2. Look for like items. Start with the things laying around in your messes. I’ll bet those items don’t have a “place”. If you find all your canes and parasols are laying in a corner, you probably need a box to store those and label it clearly.
  3. Do some items have a “home” but that home doesn’t make sense? Do you store gloves unmatched in a box up on a top shelf so you usually just don’t use gloves in a show? Do you store suit jackets all the way across the shop from dress pants?
  4. Are you leaving ample room on the racks for selecting costumes? If not, sort again. You need to have each section in an area that it fits in. You need space on the rack to flip through the items and also room for others to hang costumes back up. If you don’t leave any room, you can expect they’ll throw things on the floor or on a table instead of putting them where they go.

Know Your Audience

Remember to take into account WHO uses your costume stock. Keep this in mind while you organize. Just because the placement of items makes sense to you, doesn’t mean its going to make sense to others.

First-can they find their way around? Label everything. Use generic terms those people will understand. If volunteers with no theatre experience help out, don’t label something “wiggle dresses”, label it “aisle 4”. If others need to be able to work independantly, use a system anyone can understand like organizing by color or by length.

Secondly, is it safe? Why wouldn’t it be? I’ve seen many shops that aren’t. Whether it’s from a lack of space or funds, don’t allow your costume area to be a hazardous place for people to volunteer their time. Be sure there’s open area for people to see where they’re going, and costumes and accessories as well as props are stored in a way that they won’t topple over on someone.

Hangers and Hanger Storage

Having consistant hangers will make things a lot neater in your shop. Not only on the rack (things hang more uniformly) but also in your hanger storage areas. When costumes are in use you need to store your hangers, and if they’re all similar, that will help you keep organized. The plastic hanger holders work for wire hangers as well.


Systems will help you help those who use your storage area to keep things neat. Keep some fresh eyes or ask guests to come in and see if they can find certain things and give you feedback on what’s working and what’s not. Here are some ideas for systems you can put in place.

This list isn’t all-inclusive, it’s just a starting point for thinking about ways you can help keep the work you did in place.

  1. Decide who has access to the storage area. The more control you have over the space, the more work you’re putting on your own shoulders. However, if you have valuable items it may be best to limit who has access or if they need to be supervised.
  2. Consider labeling your costumes. If your shop is very small or very large, this may not make sense. Labeling can make it really easy to mark costumes with a size to help you find costumes later on more easily. It’s also easier to put things away in the right place.
  3. Consider a system for tracking what you use and what you don’t. You could put a little dot on the inside everytime you use something to help you decide when to toss things a few years down the road. Or you could keep some lists of items that are used for every show. If you allow actors to take things home you’ll want a sign in or sign out method.
  4. Come up with systems for where dirty clothes go as opposed to clean clothes. Where mending jobs are placed, and where alterations go to be top priority.

Systems are great, but don’t add systems where they aren’t needed. If you only use your storage area once a year for one show, you don’t need to spend two years labeling costumes with barcodes and making a database to store information about them. If your costumes weren’t terribly expensive or difficult to make, you probably don’t need an extensive check-in and check-out system. Remember your audience, and make your systems user friendly.

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