At the front of the queue, roped off by brass bollards and braided red velvet rope, Liam Benson waits with his friend. To their left and right are shipping containers. Behind them is a chain link fence and weeds slouching against an industrial building. In front of them is a goldmine.
Benson, in an Akubra hat, dark blue work shirt and Blundstone boots, is in line for Opera Australia’s costume and prop sale in Sydney’s Alexandria. Behind the velvet rope, in the opera company’s storage warehouse, stand racks of black chiffon kimonos, boxes of masks and antlers, 19th-century French military coats, elaborate hand-embroidered hats, beaded jackets and bundles of bodices. Each piece is handmade, tailored for specific performers in specific productions. Price tags range from $2 to $500.
Opera Australia infrequently holds sales of props and costumes from old productions. The last one was a few years ago, but this year, having audited their archives during Covid-19 closures, the company has held two three-day sales in November.
It’s 8.30am on a Friday, and the queue is well-mannered, quiet and Covid-safe. These are not stampeders, but there is a barely bridled urgency among the crowd as they wait for the high-vis vested staff to determine it is time to open. Hands are sanitised. Masks donned. Attendances registered. And then, it’s on.
Benson and his friend, Susan, are first in – but those behind them are not wasting time. As though by direction, each early comer paces to a different section of the warehouse, divided between props and costumes. It appears that friends have game-planned the sale. Eyes are darting. Heads twitching. All are trying to scope the lie of the land, and they’re all on the move. To pause is to lose out.
Within two minutes, shoppers’ arms – or suitcases – are filling. It’s serious, delightful and, overwhelmingly, fabulous.
Benson quickly collects a pair of chainmail pants with suspenders, one of many snapped up fast. An artist who plays with costume, he can see the artistry, the time and effort in the piece. Each metal ring is linked by a rubber one, making the chain mail stretchy. “I don’t exactly know what I’m going to do with it, but I just know that having access to this level of chainmail is rare,” he says. “We just knew this was going to be a treasure trove.”
I’m grateful that the item limit keeps us capped – Jay Marshall
I’ve got this fabulous three-piece 1980s leather suit. It’s stunning. It weighs a tonne, so I had to throw it straight in the bag – Linda Connell
Many shoppers have some link to the arts or fashion worlds. Small theatre groups and filmmakers send envoys to source exceptional quality materials, things they’d never be able to afford or make. Costume design students Jay Marshall and Anthony Aitch have brought laundry bags to fill with clothes to wear, or deconstruct and analyse.
Laura Scandizzo, a casual choral singer for Opera Australia, has bought principal costumes from her two favourite Verdi operas. She might put them on dressmaker busts to display in her house. Or she may wear them if she has an occasion. “But at the moment,” she says, “I just really want them.”
If I ever have the opportunity to wear them, certainly [I will]. But at the moment I just really want them – Laura Scandizzo
And there are others, like Jill Hodges, an executive assistant for a government department, who is buying for “me”. Her budget for today was gone before 9:45am. There’s a prestige in being associated with the opera, she says. But the art she’s buying into is not the song. “You know that it’s so well made,” she says with reverence. “Amazing craftsmanship.”
I could wear that to work! – Jill Hodges
A number of men wander the broad aisles in floor-length, gold brocade military coats, the tails floating behind them as they pace. A coat like this might take the Opera Australia costume department three weeks to construct, from start to finish. Many pieces still have brown paper tags pinned on them, recording the artist and production they were made for. They’re going for about $100. Full period women’s outfits are around $120. Chiffon black kimonos are $2 to $5, depending on condition.
It’s pretty much in case I have a fancy dress party, but it also gives a lot of power walking around in the streets. I noticed with the jacket I bought two weeks ago, everyone’s like ‘Where’d you get that!?’ – Andrew Chambers
After a while, the shoppers are cleared out. Their allocated time is up and new customers are waiting at the warehouse gates. Opera Australia requires bookings and time slots for the shop, and they are fully booked (although are still encouraging walk-ins for this weekend).
I wanted something big and flashy. This is pretty flashy. – Kevin Kaila
A woman from the costume department, wearing a high-vis vest adorned with sequins and embroidery, watches the first cohort reluctantly scurry to the checkouts with their arms laden, dragging laundry bags or suitcases behind them. It’s hard to see some of their work go, she says, but it is better that it be loved by someone new than moulder in a crate.
Among those walking out is Kevin Kaila, in a long blue coat. There is nowhere specific he is planning to wear the piece, he says, but it doesn’t matter. “Any occasion is a reason to dress up.”