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First, you see the loose linen dress of ancient Egypt. Then the togas of Rome. Then Grecian robes blend into kimonos followed by the chain-mail vests of the Middle Ages.
ďEdwardian, Victorian, the Age of Enlightenment ...Ē
Rip Claassen, director of costume rentals for Backstage Inc., runs his hands down another row of clothes, listing in a rapid-fire manner each era of costumes that the shop offers to rent.
The largest section is the collection of costumes from the 1920s ó jewel-colored zoot suits and tasseled flapper dresses abound ó but the 1970s and 1980s are making a comeback, so Claassen offers velvet psychedelic pants and grungy flannel, too.
At the front of the room is a selection of animal costumes: a dog, a bear, what looks like an acid-green frog.
Claassen came down to this basement rental room in what is now the last costume shop in the District to find the perfect accessories for two customers waiting upstairs. His fingers play over a dizzying array of drawers tucked away in a corner, each marked with its contents: beads, sequined headbands, eye patches, gold doubloons.
Claassen finds the drawer that heís looking for and plucks from it a purple feather, placing it in his hair for safekeeping. From another drawer, he selects two lace and satin garters, which he winds around his wrist. In a box stacked on a shelf in the back, he finds three cowboy hats, and he carries this array of accessories up to his customers.
Itís this personalized attention thatís kept the shop going for years, long past the closure of Backstageís competitors in the area. But for Claassen and the rest of the staff at Backstage, itís not about making a profit. Itís about offering folks their expertise to help them find a costume that works.
Because, really, so few people come in knowing what works, Claassen explains. ďItís amazing how many people donít have any taste,Ē he says.
Last of Its Kind
The cowboy and flapper couple isnít unusual for Backstage, as itís the last surviving shop in the area offering everything from scripts and makeup to more than 2,000 rentals and wigs.
Open since 1981, Backstage has outlasted the seven other costume shops that once existed in the D.C. area, according to shop owner Sandra Smoker.
The shopís survival is due in part to Smokerís efforts to change with the times.