The Back Room
Pierre’s Costumes

So you’ve decided to dress up as a pirate for Halloween. But have you given any thought as to whether you’d like to be a bloody pirate, a pirate captain, a captain’s mate, a cutthroat pirate, a Caribbean pirate maid, a pirate man, a pirate mistress, a pirate maiden, Lady Hook the Pirate Wench, a sea dog, a sea scoundrel, or Will Blackthorn? If you live in Philadelphia, and you’re plagued by these sorts of questions, you’re probably already a customer of Pierre’s Costumes in Old City, which has been in its current location near the Wexler Gallery for more than a decade and in the costuming business since 1943, when the Philadelphia Mummers came ringing at this former medical and restaurant uniform-supply shop.

But for the uninitiated — like Sight Unseen’s editors were when we stumbled into the store quite by accident midway between Halloween and Christmas last year — Pierre’s is something of a revelation: a labyrinthine, two-floor facility housing thousands of rentals, professional mascot costumes, Santa suits, make-up kits, wigs, and accessories, with a workshop in back where seamstresses and tailors work furiously on repairs and custom designs for everyone from Fruit of the Loom to Bam Margera to Toys ‘R’ Us, for whom they’d just completed a rush job of 750 Santa suits at the time of our visit. It’s the type of old-guard costume shop that hardly exists anymore, catering to the pros but welcoming to the public — in other words, the perfect place to inaugurate our new Back Room column, which goes behind-the-scenes at art galleries, museum archives, and other spaces that are typically off-limits to the average person.

Our tour guide that afternoon was Rich Williamson, who bought Pierre’s in 1994 and hired all of its current staff, including head tailor Maria — who learned to sew in Italy at age 14 — and head designer Bobby. All three are some breed of costume savant: “Everybody who works here has degrees in theater or fashion design,” Williamson says. “If you work here, and you have to go to the library to research a character, you’re in the wrong business. People come in and ask if we have any Cher costumes. We just say, ‘Which year?’ It’s that thorough.”

It’s also that fun. As you might expect from a place that carries six sets of Tevye costumes and a whole row of furry plushie suits, it’s an awfully joyful place to work. “We do e-commerce as well,” says Williamson, “and on Cyber Monday, we put on elf hats, drink beer, and sit in shipping until it’s over. I get up every morning, and I love what I do. We just get to play for a living. You’re lucky if you can do that.”

windowmannequin

This is the scene that greets customers when they enter Pierre's Costumes from Philadelphia's North 3rd Street. There are mannequins all over the store, exhibiting the vast array of costumes for rent or sale: Jersey devils, bull mascots, Easter bunnies, soldier bears, period couples, and this woman, who appears to be some sort of high-class Santa’s helper. “At Halloween, we do the plastic-bag costumes, but we try not to do the really low-rent ones,” says Williamson. “Honestly, it only costs between $50 and $100 to rent something where you walk in off the street, tell us what you want, and we pull for you. It’s cheaper than buying a new dress for a party.”

lacegloves

In the front of the shop are also gloves, props, and other accoutrements — including a sign reading: “Ask us about our risqué jewelry (under the counter)."

teeth

There is also a wide variety of prosthetic teeth.

baseballharem2

“The question we’re often asked by people is what comes with the costume,” says Williamson. “The answer is really simple: whatever you want.”

upstairsrentals2

Up the stairs are rows and rows of example racks. “If a customer doesn’t know what they want to be, we’ll show them an idea sheet, then idea racks,” says Williamson. “We never pull from the rack because it won’t necessarily fit, but we’ll measure them and go into the back to pull. A typical meeting is 15-45 minutes, and the alterations can often be done while you’re checking out.”

freakycostumecouple

“But we don’t do all the novelty things, like if a new Scooby-Doo movie is coming out. We’re more about period costumes: the medieval, the Victorian, the colonial. You want to look like Gone With the Wind? I have the curtains dress upstairs. It’s all movie-quality stuff you can rent at a reasonable price.”

evil_fredbird

Much of Pierre’s business, however, is corporate, and companies and universities who retire their Pierre’s-designed mascots frequently send the costumes back to be rented or sold. This one, originally created for the St. Joseph’s University Hawks, was returned when the team reverted to an old costume design. With its hand-dyed feathers, it’s now something of a collector’s item.

pizzaandcellphone

With these mascots — on the left for what used to be Cellular One, and on the right, for Papa John’s — the logos are simply removed and the costumes used for generic rental.

saltandpickle

These foam-and-poly-knit lime wedge and salt-shaker mascots were on their way out to a client when we visited. “It was for a brand of tequila that claimed it was so smooth it didn’t need either,” laughs Williamson.

santasuits

When we visited, Pierre’s big business was Santa suits, complete with Naugahyde-bound belts, nylon gloves, pom-pom hats, zippered coats, boots, and pants. “The majority of our guys are regulars,” says Williamson. “They’ll spend two grand with us to get a custom Santa suit, and people say, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of money.’ But the reality is, it’s an investment. It’s like a carpenter buying his tools. These guys will make about $40,000 in six weeks being Santa Claus.”

mrsclauswigs

“They’ll come back and say, ‘I need beard white, or ten pairs of gloves for the season, or new hand bells,” says Williamson. The hardcore ones, however, have their own beards, and no need for Pierre’s array of Santa wigs.

impaled2

“Theater is also a big percentage of what we do,” says Williamson. The store carries a whole wall of theatrical make-up (demonstrated above) and piles of what are known as costume plots, which explain what the characters might have looked like in the original production. “For a theater production, we’ll usually make the leads from scratch and pull the rest from stock,” he says.

studio

Through a set of doors is the workshop, where costumes are made, repairs are carried out, and garments are cycled in and out to the laundry and dry cleaner. On the far wall are patterns used to create their most popular costumes. “On a very rare occasion, we’ll source things from thrift stores,” says Williamson. “Like right now, we’re out of white shirts and we need 25. But that’s not how we normally do it. Costumes are supposed to be built so they last and so they have a certain look.”

reindeerhead

On top of the dryer is the head from the Susquehanna Bank mascot, Buck, back for repairs.

posters

And on the wall, posters showing “not even 10 percent of what we’ve made,” says Williamson. Pierre’s makes mascots for high schools, universities, professional sports teams, amusement parks, and corporations, including Maalox, Ikea, the University of North Carolina, the San Jose Sharks, Smuckers, and Build-a-Bear.

FOL_purple

Pierre’s most famous work might be the grapes, apple, and autumn leaf from the Fruit of the Loom commercials, which were also back for cleaning and about to be shipped back out.

FOL_checklist

boning

We liked the boxes and bins all over the studio and warehouse bearing labels like “Medieval sword holders, sword slings. No belts.” or “Mascot hands (no mates)” or “Pimp/Fruit hats.”

morecrap

This one was self-explanatory.

donkeyandbeak

Turkey and donkey heads undergoing repairs, plus buttons, rhinestones, and other embellishments.

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In the very back is the climate-controlled warehouse, where aisles upon aisles of costumes are stored. “Not everything is brand new,” says Williamson. “Not everybody needs to look like they just came from the tailor yesterday. Some of these things were made 20 or 30 years ago; some were made last week.” The more recent military costumes tend to be real deadstock, but as Williamson points out, “Let’s face it, nobody could fit into an official redcoat these days even if we had it.”

medieval

A row of French and American colonial dresses. “We do a lot of costuming for PBS and the History Channel,” says Williamson. “When you’re making costumes the way we do, we’re not always being 100 percent accurate to the time period. We err towards the iconic, but we also want to go for comfort. So there isn’t as much boning as they would have worn, and there are hidden eyehooks and zippers, comfortable fabrics — that sort of thing.”

storage

Over the years, Pierre’s has bought out several other companies, which has made its costume selection swell. “At this point, we don’t have enough room,” says Williamson. “Look down these aisles, we have men’s square aprons, colored aprons, neck aprons, patterned shawls, lace and fancy shawls, chiffon shawls. Everything is here on site.”

funnylooking2

Of this googly-eyed Christmas soldier bear, he says, “We have so much stuff in here, I didn’t even know he existed!”

googlyspoon

“This would be used for Beauty and the Beast, or maybe in a school production for that nursery rhyme about the cat running away with the spoon,” says Williamson. “We have a plate, a spoon, a cup, and a saucer for exactly that purpose.”

heads2

A variety of heads, including a Super Mario and a Storm Trooper. To the left are boxes full of seasonal items like Santa suits and Easter bunnies, and on the right is the beginning of the extensive hat aisle.

plushies2

The aforementioned plush aisle. “These would be for birthday parties, ad campaigns, small business — things like that,” Williamson says.

label

The costume labels reveal Pierre’s history at a number of locations throughout the Philly area. “In the country, there are probably 50 shops that do what we do,” says Williamson. “Of course there’s Western Costume in Los Angeles, but there’s nobody left in New York. All of the people who make stuff for Broadway are freelancers or they work for the theater. We’re probably in the top 10 percent in terms of quality and size.”

backwardsbear

The smarter customers, Williamson reveals, come into the shop a month or so before Halloween and lay their costume away. "It just makes sense," he says. "You walk into a party with our stuff, it's altered, it's pressed, you look really good. You feel comfortable and special in it. People come in here the day after Halloween and we ask how it was. They always say it was a blast."