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.”