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.
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.
“Edwardian, Victorian, the Age of Enlightenment ...”
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 — jewel-colored zoot suits and tasseled flapper dresses abound — 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 he’s 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.
It’s this personalized attention that’s kept the shop going for years, long past the closure of Backstage’s competitors in the area. But for Claassen and the rest of the staff at Backstage, it’s not about making a profit. It’s 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. “It’s amazing how many people don’t have any taste,” he says.
Last of Its Kind The cowboy and flapper couple isn’t unusual for Backstage, as it’s 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 shop’s survival is due in part to Smoker’s efforts to change with the times.
“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.
“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.
Visitors get their first look at the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, which opened to the public on Monday, Oct. 6, 2014. The new memorial is located off Independence Ave. SW between the Rayburn House Office Building and HHS. Buy photo here.