Swept Up in a Character

by Amy Groh

It's about getting swept up in a character. It's about living in a different time for an evening. It's about stepping out of your life and enjoying the people you can become. All of this can happen by simply exchanging a pair of jeans for a Victorian gown, or a business suit for a Canadian Mountie uniform. You can become almost anyone-and Steve Spain, owner of The Costume Trunk in Peoria, can make it happen.


Every day, people are transformed at this quaint, little shop on Peoria's Main Street, where it has made its home for over 28 years. But don't be fooled by its small size-The Costume Trunk has about 800 costumes on hand. "There are shops that have a lot more costumes than that," noted Spain, "but they're 800 nice, tailor-made costumes." Because of the store's space constraints, an additional four to five hundred costumes are stored in a warehouse north of town.

Yet there are often times when a customer requests a costume that just doesn't exist. "If it's something we can't find anywhere else," said Spain, "that's what we make." Most of the historical period costumes are made by Ben Morelli of Philadelphia, one of Spain's go-to guys for specialty costumes like men's period suits and uniforms. "He's the best," extolled Spain. "I've looked all over the place, and he's the master theatrical tailor." He noted that when Phantom of the Opera came to Broadway from London, Morelli did all of the men's costumes, including the Phantom's magnificent tailcoat.

Completing the Ensemble
If you're going to wear a period costume, chances are you'll need a hat to complete the ensemble. While many of these specialty accessories are production hats made for Broadway, just one place in the world still makes unique ones like boaters and straw skimmer hats-Venice, Italy. Because period hats are such a specialized business, most are made to order. "The [costume] business is kind of small when you get to the higher end," said Spain. "The Halloween business, the mass market stuff, that's a big business; but the theatrical quality stuff is different because it's a lot of one-of-a-kind pieces."

Speaking of one-of-a-kind, many of the ladies' costumes carried by The Costume Trunk are quite unique. One can't walk in, point to a blue, embroidered dress on display and ask for a different size-that's just not how it works. "Onstage, you don't want everybody wearing the same dress," explained Spain. "Men's frock suits are a little different, because guys wore the same thing from 1820 to 1910," but that's not the case with ladies' apparel. "We have a few that are pretty similar, but usually we try to make each one a little different. Same period, same basic style, but a little bit different."

While Spain does his best to find costumes that fit each customer, it's inevitable that some will need basic alterations. Small fixes, like hemming, are done right in the shop on Main Street, while bigger jobs-relining costumes, for example-are taken to a professional tailor in town. Spain knows he can't do everything!

One benefit of having been in the business for so long is that Spain has developed friendships and partnerships with other costume makers and dealers throughout the country. If, for some reason, The Costume Trunk does not have a requested costume or size, he can nearly always get it from one of his colleagues. Spain's stumbling into the business 28 years ago has served the Peoria area well, especially with its large arts community that regularly needs costumes.

From Tricks to Transformations
While it was never his intention to go into the costume business, when it did happen, Spain went with it. In the mid-1970s, he and a friend, Kevin Carter, opened a magic and novelty shop in the old Rialto Theatre building, where the Peoria Civic Center now stands. Several years later, it moved to the Varsity Theatre, which was located at the corner of Main and University in what is now Campustown. Spain's background in theatre from his days at Illinois State University gave him the knowledge he would need to run a costume shop-the application of stage makeup, stage lighting and craft, and other such things.

In the early ‘80s, adult Halloween costumes were becoming quite popular. A friend of Spain's, the owner of a costume store in Rockford, mentioned that he was selling a lot of them and suggested Spain give it a try.

"Things were pretty basic then-Halloween masks, makeup, not too much costume, [but more] capes and robes and all-one-fit kind of things," said Spain. After some deliberation, he gave it a go, and the new venture was successful.

"The business kind of grew in the same way the market was growing at the time. It started with Halloween, then went to things like Santa Claus suits and Easter bunnies, and finally, period costumes and theatrical-type things and mascots." Carter was more interested in the magic and novelty side of the business, and as the costume side heated up, his partnership with Spain dissolved. 

A Costume of Fur
Besides making costumes, The Costume Trunk also makes, rents and sells mascots, including those for State Farm Insurance. About 10 years ago, a woman from the company's Bloomington headquarters walked into The Costume Trunk with a sketch of the "Good Neigh Bear" and asked if Spain could make their new mascot. Thinking that one would be the end of it, Spain said he thought they could handle what she was asking for. "Since then," he reported, "we've made literally hundreds of them. [State Farm] ships them out to all of their corporate offices, and some agents are even buying them now. Just in the last few months, we've made about 20."

When presented with a request to make a new mascot, Spain first looks at a customer's sketch to see if it's possible. "A lot of things that work in two dimensions don't work in three dimensions; you have to have a place for an actual person to wear it--things like that," he explained. After doing this for so long, Spain is able to know right away if the idea will work.

Creating headpieces is the most difficult part of making mascots. If The Costume Trunk doesn't already have a headpiece that comes close to working with a design, a new one must be sculpted. It is far more complicated than sewing up the main suit. The whole process typically takes six weeks, if everything goes according to plan and Spain is able to get the fabrics on time. "There's only one place in the country that makes this acrylic fur plush anymore," Spain said, "and when they're out of a particular fabric, we just have to wait because there's no alternative source."

Mascot work makes up about 10 percent of The Costume Trunk's business, and as Spain said, "In this business you kind of have to do everything."

then went to things like Santa Claus suits and Easter bunnies, and finally, period costumes and theatrical-type things and mascots." Carter was more interested in the magic and novelty side of the business, and as the costume side heated up, his partnership with Spain dissolved.
The magic side of the business mostly came to an end when the shop moved to its present location in 1981 and became The Costume Trunk. Spain initially carried a few magic supplies after moving, but that part of the business continued to shrink until it eventually died out. "It's only been in the last three or four years that we've brought magic back," he added. When his friend, Alan Adcock, closed his magic shop, Spain decided to begin carrying a few items for the local magicians again. "We had an advantage...in that we didn't have to make our whole living selling magic tricks," he explained.

The Usual Suspects
Peoria's strong theatre community helps to make The Costume Trunk a perfect fit for the area. Peoria Players, Corn Stock Theatre and Eastlight Theatre are all regular customers. While the Players and Corn Stock have built up their own costume inventories over the years, when they do plays or musicals that require specialty costumes for their principal actors, they turn to Spain.

"I've got connections from being around so long. If something's available, I can usually get it," he said. For example, Peoria Players already had many of the costumes for last May's performance of Man of La Mancha, but not the very specialized one needed for the Knight of the Mirrors. After putting in a call to Spain, they were able to find it in time for the show.

But community theaters and actors are not Spain's only clients. A good part of his business comes from corporations, schools, churches and other organizations that put on skits, presentations and social events.
As the only shop of its kind between Chicago and St. Louis, The Costume Trunk serves customers within a 100-mile radius of Peoria. Numerous customers are so pleased with Spain's work that they get their costumes for events exclusively from him. The Masquerade Foundation in Springfield, which holds an annual event at the Lincoln Library, is one such customer.

Spain estimates that The Costume Trunk rents out about five or six hundred costumes each year. Last year's Santa suit rentals alone numbered 120. Halloween has always been a busy time of year, but with the advent of seasonal Halloween stores that pop up each fall, the shop's Halloween business has leveled off, even as it grows the other 11 months of the year. Spain attributes this to the fact that the average person who dons a costume on October 31st isn't looking for a high-quality costume, just something fun-which can usually be obtained more cheaply at those seasonal stores. "If you were working on a show or presentation or something like that, those are really our customers," he said.

Opening the Trunk Even Wider
"This business does really well 11 months out of the year when people call or come in and say, ‘Hey, I need a colonial uniform'-something very specific," Spain explained. "Because it's not like a regular shop at the mall, we don't do well when people come in and say, ‘I want to dress up. What do you have?'" If you want to shop around for a costume, The Costume Trunk isn't the place to do it. Racks of costumes are kept in the back, and customers can't just browse until they find something that strikes their fancy, as that tends to add wear and tear to the expensive, one-of-a-kind costumes on which The Costume Trunk prides itself.

But Spain plans to open a small boutique next door that would offer just that shop-around experience by the early fall. Among other things, Halloween costumes would be available, but they'll be nicer lines than what you can find at the seasonal stores. The new venture would add 1,000 square feet to The Costume Trunk's space and feature high-quality masquerade costumes at affordable rates.

So if you're looking to be swept up in a character or spend an evening as someone else, head to The Costume Trunk. No matter what the occasion, if it's a costume you need, that's the place to go. "I've tried to bring in the very best," said Spain. "I'd put our costumes up against any in the country, including [those on the East Coast]." a&s 

Source URL: http://ww2.peoriamagazines.com/as/2009/sep-oct/swept-character