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Dress Cents

A theater auctions off its weird, wonderful and irredeemably worn costumes

Author Aidan Ryan Illustration Luci Gutiérrez

dispatches4GERMANY – In a courtyard outside the opera house in downtown Dortmund, a man in a plaid suit and blue Adidas sneakers flips his glossy copper hair and twirls with a dress in his hands. The dress is exhaust fume–gray and shedding feathers, creating the impression that it is made from dead pigeons. “My Fair Lady,” the man says with a wink, and the assembled crowd starts bidding.

Rainer Kleinespel has been performing on German stages since the 1980s, but his role today is to preside over an auction for Theater Dortmund, an annual fundraiser in which the company puts its decommissioned costumes on the block. Having sold the pigeon dress for a relatively modest $32, Kleinespel produces a Munchkin suit that appeared in “The Wizard of Oz,” followed by a pair of knee-high leopard latex stiletto boots, a priest’s cassock and a spiked Kaiser helmet.

Audience members, attuned to irony and appreciative of the performing arts, bid enthusiastically, but it’s the kids who drive the prices up, urging their parents to bid on lacy lingerie, bandit capes and jesters’ caps. One eye-rolling woman gets a red dress with a plunging neckline and a black boa. Another takes possession of a frayed blouse. “I’ll wear it on casual Friday,” she says.

Shortly afterward, the actor Julia Schubert takes the stage. Dressed in green pants and gold coattails, she holds up a flimsy white Henley, informing the crowd that the shirt was worn by the lead in last season’s “Jesus Christ Superstar.” As the bidding gets underway, Schubert flashes a stage smile. “Nie gewaschen,” she says. “Never washed.”

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