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.
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.
“My favorite is to do period weddings, and of course, we get those people that come in that are doing Miss Adams Morgan,” she says, referring to the drag queen competition that takes place every fall in Dupont Circle. Smoker has also been asked by government and political organizations, ranging from lobbying firms to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to the Environmental Protection Agency, to make costumes for their events.
“I’ve made broccoli and pig outfits for PETA, and for the EPA, we did a smokestack costume and a tree trunk costume,” she says.
Problems arise, however, when people come in looking for costumes that they don’t realize won’t work for them. Smoker says that’s where the expertise of her and her staff comes in handy.
“Sometimes [customers are] not thinking, so we help people out in that way,” she explains. “You might love wings, but are wings appropriate?”
Claassen adds that most patrons have an idealized image of a time period in their head, and the historically accurate costume is not quite what they imagined. The shop will rent accurate costumes to other professionals, but when average partygoers come in looking for something for an upcoming 1980s-themed party, Claassen and the rest of the staff offer a modified version of what they’re looking for.
“I ask, ‘Tell me what you’re looking for,’ and usually they want prettier. But that didn’t exist yet,” he says. So when someone’s really looking for prettier, that’s what Claassen gives them. This has been a particular issue with the increasingly popular ’80s theme.
“We didn’t all look like Madonna,” Smoker notes. “We weren’t allowed to run around in a bustier and underwear then. We have the real thing.”
Smoker says she’ll help anyone put together whatever outfit they want, as long as it’s appropriate. She recalled one request from an underage girl looking for a prom dress that she had to turn down.
“It looked like something J. Lo would wear, with a G-string showing,” she remembers. “I just said, ‘I’m not gonna do it.’”
But if an older woman had asked, Smoker says she’d have done it. In fact, as she spoke, she worked on a costume for a woman attending Burning Man, a weeklong event in the deserts of Nevada, that was a modified strappy bondage suit. Smoker doesn’t judge when people come in with a vision; in fact, that’s part of the fun of her job.
“If you’re comfortable in it, baby, go for it!” she says.