Costume store lets adults ‘be someone else’

Nathalie Tadena

Chicago’s largest costume store has opened up a temporary location in Evanston, catering to students and residents who are looking for a unique Halloween get-up.

The Chicago Costume Company opened its Evanston branch earlier this month at 1612 Sherman Ave., in the 10,000-square-foot space formerly occupied by Pier 1 Imports.

“Halloween is often thought of as a children’s holiday, ” said Mary Hickey Panayotou, the company’s owner. “It’s not just for kids. You can find people over the age of 28 that have always had a Halloween costume. They can’t imagine not being something.”

Chicago Costume offers an array of top-quality adults’ costumes, with outfits inspired by popular movie characters, politicians, ethnic garb and specific time eras. The Evanston location also features accessories to add finishing touches to costumes, like wigs in various colors, plastic weapons and masks. Chicago Costume’s main location on 1120 W. Fullerton Ave. in Chicago is open year-round and works with many corporate clients who host different costumed events.

“First and foremost I want to be able to offer my customer selection,” Panayotou said. “I don’t just narrow it to the top 20 popular ones, I find weird, odd things. Not everyone could be Bruno if they wanted to be.”

This year, Michael Jackson, ’80s glam rock, flapper, gangster and animal mascot outfits have been popular among customers, she said.

“Historical (costumes), generally, are consistently popular because people like to think of themselves in another time,” Panayotou said.

Though her clientele are mostly adults, Panayotou said she also offers kids costumes that are “fantasy dress-up quality” – better than costumes bought in discount stores. Much of the store’s merchandise can be “too tantalizing” for young children, she said, and she does not allow large groups of children to enter the store without adult supervision.

Panayotou said she decided to open her business, now in its 38th year, shortly after studying costume design at the Goodman Theatre school.

“Theater is really for that select group of people, actors who want to pretend to be something else,” she said. “As costume designer you enable them to live that out to the benefit of others. At some point it became clear to me that that was not just restricted to actors – everyone wants to be someone else at least for one time.”

Panayotou’s company continues to design and make costumes for theater, including shows in Europe. She also custom-makes many of the company’s rental costumes, which include elaborate Victorian dresses and knight’s outfits.

A rental costume typically costs between $65 and $75 for three days and are alternatives for customers who want a realistic costume they’ll only wear once, said Kostas Panayotou, Mary’s husband, who also works with the company.

The Evanston location will be open through the end of the month – customers can return rental costumes through Nov. 1. This year, the company is operating eight seasonal stores around the city to accommodate Halloween shoppers. The number of seasonal locations varies from year to year, depending upon what spaces are available.

Business has also been good because Halloween falls on a Saturday this year, making it more likely for people to throw and attend costume parties, she said.

But despite hard times for families, many people are still willing to spend money on a Halloween costume.

“You might not make big ticket purchases, but you’re not going to tell your kids you can’t have a Halloween costume,” she said. “Maybe you won’t go all out and spend $100, but you’re going to spend $25 or $30.”

Communication and Weinberg senior Gabriella Frate, who looked at costumes at the store, said she usually dresses up for Halloween.

“It’s a change for a night,” Frate said, adding the store’s wig selection was her favorite part. “People will notice if you’re not dressed up.”

No matter what age, Halloween costumes help recreate “that same intensity of being 7 or 8 years old and getting to dress up,” Panayotou said.

“Halloween is to relive that experience in all of us,” she said. “If you’re going to be a pretty kitty, you can pretend to be things you’d never be on a normal basis with people you’d never treat like that.”

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