Costumes driven by desire, not trends, New Orleans shop owners say

New Orleans — Trend spotting in the usual fashion sense is something the sales staff at local costume shops is hard-pressed to pin down.

Inspiration for costumes can come from a movie, an event, even a reality-TV star. Thanks to the box-office success of “Lincoln,” quite a few stovepipe hats are flying off the shelves at costume shops, and Hobbit-like characters are forecast to materialize among the Fat Tuesday crowds.

“But it’s more about using one’s imagination than trying to look like someone or something else. I had a customer come in and say he wanted to look like the end of the world,” said Alasdair Burks, as she checked out a line of shoppers purchasing tuxedos in Mardi Gras colors and tutus with LED lights at Miss Claudia’s Vintage Clothing and Costume on Magazine Street.

She noticed, however, that this year women are gravitating more toward beaded and sequined bras than the previously popular corset, and that fringed belts (a la belly-dancer-style) just might have an edge over bustles of tulle.

At Fifi Mahony’s wig shop in the French Quarter, customers are embracing exaggeration of the hair kind.

“The bigger the better,” Jamie Gandry said.

A best-seller is an in-house design — a fluorescent wig topped with a headdress of black roses.

Downtown, however, those browsing the rental possibilities at Southern Costume Co. are looking for the traditional.

“They want a continuation of Mardi Gras tradition — more royal renaissance than Ghostbusters or ladybugs,’’ said proprietor Wingate Jones, whose father ran the legendary Western Costume Co. in Hollywood for 40 years. Ninety percent of those who browse Jones’ 10,000 square feet of costumes are locals seeking the high-end, camera-ready reproductions geared toward the South Hollywood film industry.

“They want rich brocade over krewe satins,” said Jones, whose costumes have the look of authenticity.

Uptown, where the Vieux Carre Hair Shop is located, clients are duplicating Mexican Day of the Dead skulls with makeup.

“People want to paint their own faces, rather than wear a mask,” Lynn Highstreet said.

The look is customized with the addition of press-on rhinestones, appliqu├ęs and flowers. And if Fat Tuesday is a wet Tuesday, the maskers simply add waterproof fixative.

Super Bowl XLVII played in New Orleans may also inspire another waterproof costume.

“Look for Blackout Bowl costumes. Easy to make with black garbage bags,” said Cree McCree, local costume designer and vendor organizer for the Piety Street Market, referring to the 34-minute blackout during the championship game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

And then there’s the Chinese New Year.

“It is the year of the snake, so there could be a lot of serpent costumes out there,” McCree said.

When it comes to costume assembly, a line of demarcation between locals and tourists is often detected.

“Visitors to the city want the whole Mardi Gras experience — a complete costume in Carnival colors. The locals are looking for something specific because they already have a costume closet, and they are just adding to it each year,” Burks said.

Burks stands by her original comment that costume-shopping isn’t about trends, but more about desire.

“It’s more like shopping in a candy store.”