Every Halloween, a misguided party-goer looking for a good deal Ton a horse costume or a suit of armor picks up the telephone and calls the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
"It would be like loaning out a Rembrandt," laughed Jean Druesedow, an associate curator at the museum, which maintains an irreplaceable collection of period outfits from around the world. "Besides, we display . . . the very high fashion of the different periods. Our costumes are not for dress-up, play or pretend."
But it's dress-up, play and pretend that drive the U.S. costume industry, especially during the hectic weeks before Halloween, when the industry generates more than 50% of its annual sales.
Although revenues at costume shops have been growing at a 15% to 40% clip during recent years, this season's sales are not expected to show such dramatic growth, according to Leslie C. Bliss, president of the 500-member National Costume Assn. in Los Alamitos.
Big Business for Grown-Ups
The slowdown at traditional costume shops results in part from new competition at department stores, which a couple of years ago opened seasonal costume boutiques.
The ghoulish season's sales are no longer fueled simply by child's play: Halloween has become a big business for grown-ups as well. These days the older brothers and sisters--and even moms and dads--are getting into the act of pretending.
Although the National Costume Assn. does not gather sales figures, Bliss said the membership has been growing as more costume rental and sale shops open.
Consumers also buy costumes, makeup, masks and accessories in stylish boutiques in upscale department stores across the country.
"There really (is) a demand from young adults and young professional people to dress up at parties and at work," said Paul Thomas, president of San Diego-based National Theme Productions, which supplies
costumes and accessories to upscale department stores including the Broadway, Woodward & Lothrop, Abraham & Straus, Jordan Marsh, the Bon and Sears.
In keeping with their quest for the best, these upwardly mobile trick-or-treaters often turn to "very elegant costumes," Thomas said. That's not a new twist, however. For centuries, adults have been turning to fancy dress balls and masquerades as cures for boredom, according to the Metropolitan Museum's Druesedow.
"It was a diversion because people were bored to death," Druesedow said. "Of course, there might have been an occasion such as a birthday or (a party hosted for) a dignitary or a foreign ambassador."
At Queen Victoria's "first big party," guests wore medieval dress, said Druesedow, who added that "many of the men simply took the armor out of their hallway and wore it, while others had it made specifically."
Queen Victoria likely would blush if she saw some modern costumes. Even perennial dress-up favorites such as Little Red Riding Hood and Scarlett O'Hara feature plunging necklines and higher hemlines.
"Every year it seems like there are more and more (costume sales) but less and less costume involved," said Bliss, who said that the "hooker, harem girl and Western saloon girl" are the costumes of choice for women this year at his Hudson Costume Rentals store in Los Alamitos.
That follows a trend toward more seductive and suggestive costumes that began appearing several years ago at Frederick's of Hollywood. However, it took rock idols Madonna and Cyndi Lauper to bring lingerie out of the bedroom and into the spotlight.
The revolution spawned by their music videos is helping Los Angeles-based Frederick's charge between $40 and $100 for a line of costumes that is built around "bustiers, camisoles and black undies."
Lace and frills are not for every woman, however, Bliss said.
Consider those who are intent upon imitating the distinctive look of Elvira, a Los Angeles television personality known for her plunging V-neck and her slinky appearances as a weekend horror show hostess.
'My Husband Would Kill Me'
"Unfortunately, you've got to have more than just the desire to dress like Elvira," Bliss said.
Women "try (these revealing costumes) on and say, 'Oh, my husband would kill me,' " Bliss said. "Then they switch to a Renaissance outfit."
Females aren't the only trick-or-treaters who are buying costumes that won't wear too well on a chilly Halloween evening. Frederick's has expanded its 3-year-old "Tricky Treats" line to include male costumes that are characteristically brief. Bolder males can outfit themselves in costumes that include a flowing cape, a mask, a hat--and very little else.
Throughout most of the country, weather plays a factor in costume sales. In the Midwest, the trend toward "a lot of sexier, briefer things" has been spurred on by mild weather, said Ward Scott, a past president of the National Costume Assn. who owns Scott Costume Co. in Canton, Ohio.