Ginger Ager stands amid crowded racks of costumes, masks and novelty props in her shop, Gene’s Costumes in Kensington. It’s two days after Halloween—a holiday for costume shops that’s like Christmas, Easter and the Fourth of July all rolled into one—and you can barely see any trace of the store’s floor. Garment and prop returns fill 11 gigantic plaid bags sitting under ceiling displays of Mardi Gras masks, devils’ pitchforks and barrister wigs.
“And I’ve just picked up all The Cherry Orchard costumes from St. Andrew’s Episcopal School,” Ager says, gesturing to two of the bags. “There’s a lot of theatrical items to clean and sort, too.”
Gene’s Costumes doesn’t have a lot of competition these days, at least not from similarly old-school shops, so the demand for Elvis suits, Bridgerton-style breeches and Marvel superhero capes has been intense. In addition, Ager and her small staff pull, measure and deliver costumes year-round for theatrical productions at local schools and theaters. Things were so busy this past fall that Ager’s parents drove from Fredericksburg, Virginia, and moved into her Silver Spring home for a week to help customers find just the right fantasy looks from the thousands of costumes stored on three levels.
Pointing to the neat bags of returns, Ager says, “We’ll just get this all put away, and then it’s Santa suits, elves costumes, Victorian carolers and the Grinch nonstop ’til Christmas.”
Ager, 59, a 1981 Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School grad, had sensible training for her career in masquerade. She worked at her family’s dry-cleaning business in Laurel and later at a Chevy Chase dry cleaner. She knows not to choose velvet or brocade costumes for high schoolers in drama productions, as those fabrics are easily damaged by water or snags, and has turned away customers she senses will not take care of a costume.
“I take any of the damage personally,” she says. “These costumes are all of my children.”
This converted house in Kensington is the place to find Andy Warhol wigs, dragon masks with light-up eyes, and plush spiders the size of suitcases. Costumes celebrating steampunk and Day of the Dead, and outfits for superheroes, flappers and Colonial soldiers fill its racks. There are mascot rentals, so oversize heads of both realistic and comic versions of animals line several shelves. Stage makeup, tiaras, wigs and shoes also are on offer. A not-too-elaborate costume can cost $35 to rent. A full getup, including hat and accessories, typically rents for $65 to $70.
The shop was created by Genevieve Showalter in the basement of her Wheaton home in the early 1960s, hence the name “Gene’s Costumes.” The enterprise moved to its current location in the mid-1980s, when Ager began helping out part time. After Showalter died in 1986, an assistant and Showalter’s husband, Chuck, kept the shop going. In 1989, Ager was asked to buy it, and she took the leap.
At that time, the metro Washington area had around a dozen costume shops, some dating to the 1920s, when downtown hotels held costume nights and formal costume parties were part of the social scene.
In recent decades, pop-up Halloween stores, Amazon’s inventory and packaged costumes in big-box stores have shuttered many of the costume shops nationwide, according to Ed Avis, executive director of the National Costumers Association, based in Chicago. “The numbers have been going down steadily in the last 20 years,” he says, noting the group’s mailing list has dwindled to 1,000, of which 100 are brick-and-mortar shops. “But drag, cosplay, comic-con and new theaters are breathing new life into the costume world,” he says. “They’re an enthusiastic bunch—the fun of dressing up is just too vivid.”
At Gene’s, customers can still try on beautifully made costumes of wools and cottons, rather than buying a one-size-fits-all synthetic outfit in a bag. With enough time, alterations are possible. A couple from Laurel recently spent an hour trying on purple velour suits and cheetah print capes for an upcoming 1970s party. The initially reluctant husband ended up renting two costumes in order to change halfway through the party. His wife rented three, Ager says. She often gets invited to customers’ parties, but only attends the theatrical productions she costumes.
Artistic Director Darnell Patrick Morris uses Gene’s Costumes for the full schedule of six to 20 yearly productions at his Ovations Theatre in Gaithersburg. “I can say the most random item, and Ginger will have it,” he says. “Her collection is so extensive. We’ve pulled for four to five shows in one day.”
Customers can still try on beautifully made costumes of wools and cottons, rather than buying a one-size-fits-all synthetic outfit in a bag.
Ager has bought out the stock of several shops that have closed, is connected to national costume vendors and keeps abreast of European sources for new outfits. At times, she walks two storefronts up the street to Urban Thrift for items. “We did a Mary Poppins play and needed multiple pairs of black pants,” she recalls. “A couple of thrift visits did it.”
America’s resumption of social events is helping the fortunes of costume shops, according to a survey of the National Costumers Association’s members, Avis said. “People still want fantasy, magic and dress-up in their lives,” he says. “Costumes allow people to be something other than their everyday selves.”