Wizard: The tech behind a costume treasure trove

By | December 13, 2023
A red, sleeveless dress with sequin detailing around the neckline and waist.
Charity’s dance-hall dress from 2018’s Sweet Charity. The costume designer was Suzanne Young. (Theresa Hartman, University Productions)

Costumes are powerful–they transport and immerse us into different eras. Behind the scenes at the School of Music, Theater and Dance (SMTD), Theresa Hartman works magic while managing University Productions’ (UProd) colossal wardrobe of more than 34,000 items. As costume stock manager since 2017, Theresa wields a secret weapon–and isn’t a magic wand. It’s a sophisticated database known as “Wizard.”

Wizard is a time travel gateway for the extensive collection. Developed using FileMaker Pro, the commercial program has been an essential tool for UProd since the early 1990s. Theresa guesses that some of the earliest barcodes are from the early 2000s. “I recently put the hats worn by showgirls in our 2023 production of Guys and Dolls into the same box that the hats from our 2003 production of the same show were in.”

Over the decades, the program evolved, adapting to the changing needs of the costume stock team and preserving pictures and information. “I’ve worked at places without a database, and everything relied on people’s individual memory, which can be a problem when staff changes,” Theresa reflects.

The heart of Wizard lies in the barcodes that Theresa meticulously assigns and irons on each piece. The codes not only streamline the process–they act like silent storytellers. Each one holds a wealth of information about the garment–from fabric and size to color and era. The database is a virtual costume diary, recording who wore what in each performance, the entry becoming the item’s narrative.

“Most of our costume stock is in a large warehouse on the south side of Ann Arbor. It’s organized by type and time period.” The database seamlessly organizes and categorizes each garment, from flapper dresses to Victorian gowns, and facilitates easy retrieval when needed. It also keeps track of the wardrobe that is rented out.

Once in the system, pieces can be searched for by specific criteria. For example: “All green dresses from the 1920s.” The program will then generate inventory lists that fit the prompts. The scanners also play a crucial role during the preparation of individual SMTD shows. “We can quickly enter things like descriptions, and laundry instructions by scanning the barcode.”

Theresa also oversees the careful arrangement of costumes within the warehouse. Maintaining order in the vast wardrobe is crucial, which is why another part of Theresa’s role is putting things away in the correct locations so they can be found again.

A detailed description of each uniform including garment color, fabric weave, size, and laundry wash notes.
Girl Scout uniform record from the Costume Shop’s inventory. (Screenshot courtesy of Theresa Hartman.)

“My favorite part of the job is finding things that tell me a little bit of the history of the wearer and society in general.” Theresa shares a record from a Girl Scout uniform in the collection, dating back to a time between 1928 and 1934, that was donated to their collection of historical costumes.

As technology continues to advance, Wizard remains an invaluable tool, ensuring that the magic of costumes transcends the stage. Theresa manages this rich digital history and helps bring the past to life by preserving the story of each garment.