Edwin Brown stocks shelves at Backstage Inc. on Eighth Street Southeast, the only remaining costume shop in the District. Backstage has been open since 1981 and outlasted seven other costume shops that once existed in the D.C. area. Owner Sandra Smoker says adapting with the changing times helped the shop stay in business.
“The Internet has certainly changed the way people shop,” she says. Though Backstage started off with a focus on selling scripts, that’s now a small part of the business because people can get those online. To make up for the losses, Smoker expanded into dancewear and beefed up the store’s costume offerings.
“The economy hasn’t helped — costumes are a luxury item,” she says. “But people need to let off steam, so they’re throwing less expensive parties but still holding masquerades.”
But a costume shop, once it has a monopoly on the market, is one of those businesses that’s recession-proof, especially in D.C., Smoker notes.
“This city has a lot of themed parties, and there’s always masquerade parties. There’s ’70s parties, wigged parties and children’s parties all summer,” she says.
Like most costume shops, however, Backstage does most of its business during the Halloween season. Come October, there’s often a line down the block of people looking to rent costumes from the shop. And around Halloween, the shop offers full-service makeup artists, so folks can come by and get dressed up before heading out to their party.
Smoker remembers an incident with a woman hired to perform as Marie Antoinette at Brasserie Les Halles who came to Backstage to get ready. They did her makeup and put on her wig, and running late, she ran outside in full regalia.
“She flagged down a cab, jumped inside and slammed the door, decapitating her wig,” Smoker recalls. “She was rehearsing, alright.”
Smoker says she and her staff do their best to stay abreast of trends and stock up on what’s likely to be popular that year, but sometimes they miss the mark.
One year, Backstage overstocked on bald caps, which would have to be thrown out because the delicate latex becomes old and brittle quickly. But that was the year Sinead O’Connor shaved her head, and the shop completely sold out.
“You just don’t know what’s going to happen, what’s going to be popular that year,” Smoker says. Currently, mullets are making a comeback and Lady Gaga has not yet gotten old.
And there’s a psychology to the costumes some people choose, especially couples, Smoker says.
“New couples tend to dress alike — they want the same costume, the fabrics to match. Later, when they’re secure in their relationship, they let each other do what they want,” she adds.
Claassen says one of his favorite couples costumes is a pairing he occasionally sees gay men sport.
“I love to see the gay couple that goes as Gen. [Robert E.] Lee and Gen. [Ulysses S.] Grant,” he says.
More Sophisticated Costumes Smoker says she’s noticed a trend in the way costumes have changed over the past 25 years. Costumes have become more sophisticated but at the same time less creative, she says.
“Patrons are much more demanding, and the costumes are more on the skimpy side,” she explains. “They’re more about blending in, as opposed to being unique.”
But there are still those that aim for originality. People come to Backstage not just for its overwhelming selection of rentals and packaged costumes for sale, but also to ask Smoker for her services as a costume designer. She works part of the week with the Shakespeare Theatre on Ninth Street and has a background in creating costumes for the stage.
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