The world of cosplay is as misty and obscure as it is distinct. A massive subculture, its boundaries are limitless and its realm is densely populated with characters such as monsters, superheroes, mangas and more. For some, getting into character is reserved for once a year, Halloween, but for others, it’s a way of life. A lifestyle. A vocation such as this might seem to strain credulity – it is so nuanced and specific to the world of appearance that it seems like something dreamed up by a Zoolander character. But just think about it. When we dress up, for just one moment, we get to be someone else. That’s equally powerful and enchanting. For both subsets, there is a costume shop tucked below The Ben Franklin Bridge in Philadelphia that is the doyen of the costume kingdom. One of the few of its kind left in the U.S., Pierre’s Costumes houses well over 1,000,000 different characters. A block away from my house, I walk passed every night, and its wonted façade gave the impression that it’s nothing special. But my kibitzing personality told me to pry; I sensed there was more behind its chiseled, concrete exterior. My feeling was correct. Behind the showroom and the sewing studio, which would make any seamstress drool, was a floor to ceiling “closet” that housed all the costumes. You thought your wardrobe was overflowing?
As interesting as Pierre’s history is Jennifer Valosen’s, General Manager of the store. She was the sewer who said she would never touch a machine after she made her first garment. But as she says it below, sewing found her and she did not have a choice in the matter. She not only discovered herself through sewing, but she thrived. Costumes are what she was meant to do.
Pierre’s Costumes, originally named Pierre’s Uniforms, began as a manufacturing company that made mostly uniforms for hospitals and restaurants. It didn’t become a costume shop until 1961 when it purchased a tremendous inventory from Miller Costumier of Philadelphia, which had been active since 1876. With this acquisition, we became the leading costume company in the U.S. and since then, it has made, sold and rented almost every costume imaginable. We have provided costumes for theatrical productions, national theater tours, school and college theaters, movies, advertising, parties, production companies, professional sports teams, print and commercial TV, major corporations, televised parades, theme parks and more. We continue to acquire costumes and stock from other costume shops that are retiring and we still maintain a full service professional costume house that designs and manufactures here in the store.
In 1993, we moved our facilities to New Jersey to a larger, more modern space, but the stay was short lived. In 2000, we moved back to Philly, taking residence in Old City and re-opening right before Halloween. The new space was even larger than the last and included a brand new, state-of-the-art costume studio.
As for me, I started sewing when I was 8-years-old. As a child living in the Midwest, I was a member of 4-H, which taught kids everything from canning to cooking and sewing. Basically, it was home economics. What we made throughout the year was brought to the state fair, and my project that year was a sundress. This was no basic sundress. Made with a peachy-pink fabric with white seashells printed on it – I remember it vividly – it had a button front, drop waist and side patch pockets. Being a seamstress, my mom had me construct the dress correctly, using a serger to finish the seams so that the inside was nice and clean. At the end of the project, I told my mom I would never sew again! Looking back, I see why I felt that way. Whose first project involves a serger!? That machine is scary to a well-trained sewer! Why couldn’t I sew an apron?
I toed in cross stitching, quilting and other piece work for many years after, but it wasn’t until high school that I dived back into garment sewing. I was part of a military family and by the time I was 18-years-old, I had moved 32 times. Because of this, I didn’t fit in with my classmates and thus, I was forced to find out who I was at a young age, and it was through sewing that I achieved this. Sewing is the only thing that makes me feel comfortable. Whatever the current fashion trend is, I know I can’t wear it well. I’m oddly proportioned – at 5’6”, I have the torso of someone who is 6 ft and the legs of someone who is 5’4”. So I’ve always had to work hard at making myself look proportionate and be comfortable in my own skin.
I got into making costumes when I was in college. In order for me to afford it, I had to get a work study job. The only skill I had to fall back on was sewing, so I ended up working in the costume shop as a paid employee my freshman year. I remember the first project I was given – to hem a ball gown. Thankfully, my mom was visiting for the weekend and finished it for me (thanks mom!). I hate handwork, especially on that level. And don’t think I sat back all weekend while my mom sewed. While she hemmed the gown, I finished period garments for The Cherry Orchard.
Because I was the only full time employee (the costume designer was a part time and worked 2-3 days a week), I learned a lot about the construction of costumes. A lot of it was by trial and error; I would be given a plastic bag with a project inside and if there was a pattern, instructions would be left on what the next steps were.
It took me 4 years to realize that I should be taking theater classes to go along with my costume sewing, but I didn’t make the connection until I graduated with a degree in communications and public relations. At that point, I said to myself, “Well, I went to college for the wrong thing.”
Then, I moved to Philadelphia. I was not new to the city; I had an internship during college as an editor. My boyfriend at the time worked at The Wilma Theater and he suggested that I try to get a job at a local theater company. I applied for a fellowship in production where he worked (The Wilma Theatre) and I hadn’t arrived home when they offered the position. As part of my role, I toggled between lighting, scenery and costumes, which was a great experience because I touched all aspects of the theater. Within a month, I was hired full time and given the responsibility to run the wardrobe department. It became clear to me at that point that I didn’t choose my profession, it chose me and I didn’t have a say in the matter. And I’m the kid who said I would never sew!
I stayed at the Wilma for 2 years until I was stolen away by a local costume designer. With him, I designed costumes as well as ran his costume shop. From there, I worked for Haverford College doing the same thing, and then Drexel University.
But I got tired of the work life I was living – I wanted a Monday through Friday and weekends off – so I applied for a job at Irving Stern, another local costume shop. It was a new avenue for me as I didn’t know the business of a rental costumes. I never rented a costume in my life! I ended up Pierre’s when they bought Irving Stern in 2005, and I’ve been here for the past 8 years.
The process starts with a customer or a company calling or emailing us with a request. The first step is to figure out their budget, how many costumes they’re looking for and the type of venue (school, community theater, semi pro production). With this information, we create and send what is called a costume plot, which shows stylistically all the costumes a character will wear throughout play. The client reviews it and after, sends us their notes, changes and most importantly, measurements. When working with a theater, we only deal with measurements. There are no live fittings like with a normal customer. Then, we go into the back and start pulling costumes. Most times, our costumes don’t live as a full costume, so we alter each dramatically. All costumes are made to be between 1 and 2 inches of the actor’s measurements to allow for breathing. The next step is to ship it to them. When the show is over, they send it back to us and we alter it back to what it originally was and then wash/dry clean it. Last, we put it back into the archives.
For us, a show is 10 costumes or more. It’s an arbitrary number that we defined a long time ago. A full show costs about $52 per costume for 11 days, which works out to $4 per costume per day. It’s pretty reasonable and makes shows for companies with smaller budgets possible without compromising quality.
We require at least 8 days to turn around a set of costumes. If we receive less than 8 days notice, we can do it, but there will be a charge a rush fee because we have to change our schedule.
One costume that I am extremely proud of is a Santa Claus worn by the WWE wrestler, Mick Foley. His signature is a red and black, buffalo plaid shirt and we used this in the design to create a burgundy velvet suit with a wrestling-inspired belt featuring gold, metal trim with an intricate overlay. He wore it for several occasions, one in a documentary about becoming Santa Claus and another to the WWE Christmas Eve Special. To make someone have that iconic look so that they can bring joy to other people is what made this project special. In a sense, I’m Santa’s tailor.
A worst case scenario costume was for a church in Virginia. They contacted us asking if we could remake an incredibly ornate robe worn by their high priest. The one they had was easily 40-years-old and falling apart. When they contacted us, we had plenty of time to complete it – 9 months. They requested that it be hand embroidered, which is something we couldn’t do. So, we outsourced. Unfortunately, the person hired was not good at communicating and a week before we were to deliver the costume, she informed us it hadn’t been cut. When she gave me the box full of raw materials, it was do or die. I asked the owner to buy me a brand new machine with a zig-zag stitch – my machine is an old lady and I didn’t want to put her through the stress of the project – and for that next week, I worked night and day to finished it. By the skin of my teeth, I somehow completed the $8,000 costume. Not only did they get it on time, but they loved it and have inquired about making another one. I’m not so sure I want to undertake that project again!