Every day is Halloween in San Francisco. Between the period parties, street fairs, themed races, gatherings, and club nights, we have enough reasons to don festive getups year-round. Maybe that’s why finding that perfect Halloween costume hasn’t been a high priority for me. The holiday feels like just another excuse to dress up in this city.
But then on each October 31, I find myself entirely unprepared, cobbling together a last-minute outfit from my closet or waiting in line outside a costume shop praying that there’ll be something left to scrounge for that night’s party.
So this year my resolution was to put an end to the procrastination. I would do my shopping early, and best of all, I would do something others merely dream of: I would enlist the help of a stylist. This fashion expert would help me construct 10 fabulous costumes from three special shops for All Hallows’ Eve.
My stylist of choice was Robert Horek, a silver-haired wardrobe assistant from the SF Opera.
We met at our first destination, the American Conservatory Theater Costume Shop, which is a by-appointment-only warehouse off 7thand Market. Seeing Robert in his vintage fedora and tropical-patterned shirt, I could tell his playful aesthetic would work for me. He’s also a regular at A.C.T.’s Costume Shop, so we had free reign to try things on.
We walked into A.C.T.’s enormous supply room – filled with rows of custom-built costumes and accessories – and Robert asked me what I had in mind. The packed space reminded me of a movie studio costume department, and my choices seemed limitless. I told him that since we were at A.C.T., I wanted to explore more theatrical period pieces. I suggested 18th century, wizard, and Greco-Roman demigod-inspired looks.
Robert went to work locating outfits that matched my requests and size, which he guessed accurately. I waited, curious to see what he would present.
The first costume involved an intricately detailed, 18th century blue and gold brocade waistcoat with a turquoise frock coat and breeches. Putting it all on, I loved the look.
Then we moved on to a wine-colored marching band jacket and black trousers. Robert looked me over and said, “Wait, I have an idea,” before disappearing. He was back in a flash with a matching wizard’s hat. All of a sudden, I was a Harry Potter extra. I felt the excitement of my five-year-old self return, back when I was dressing up as an action hero for playtime with friends.
“Would you like to try on a dress?” Robert inquired, transporting me back to the current day. “Well, I’ve never worn a dress,” I responded. “But I will if you can find one that will fit,” I added with a little trepidation, fearing that I would look ridiculous.
He reappeared with a pink princess dress with puffed sleeves and patterned flounces. Before I knew it, he was dressing me and I was pleading with him not to corset me in too tight. Laughing, he stuck his knee in the small of my back and pulled tightly on the laces as I held on to a nearby pillar for dear life and anticipated some major rib breakage. As he tightened the outfit, I couldn’t help but laugh through the discomfort and recall a similar scene in Gone with the Wind when Mammy dressed Scarlett O’Hara for an outdoor luncheon.
I then realized how fortunate I was to be working with Robert. When you’re being dressed by a stylist, you might have to cross your personal comfort levels, but the reward is in seeing how much better the new you looks.
We had time for only one more outfit here.
Finding a rack with vegetation costumes, we pulled a flesh-tone unitard, a leaf-covered coat, and a lilac tulle skirt covered in dry flowers. We just needed boots. While I wasn’t sure that A.C.T. stocked anything in my large shoe size, Robert surprised me with the most adorable green Chelsea boots.
I thought my outfit was finally complete until Robert disappeared again, returning with an elaborate Mardi Gras headdress with attached eye mask. While it was difficult to balance its heavy weight on my head, I was impressed with the costume. I looked like a tree creature that had crawled out of the forest.
Our next stop on the shopping tour was Costume Party in Nob Hill.
The expansive store is filled with vintage and reproduction costume sets, separates, accessories, and wigs for purchase. We were inspired to experiment with more kitschy looks here.
Robert first recommended that I try on the forest green lederhosen he’d eyed in the back of the store. After finding a white ruffle shirt and kelly green hat to complete the traditional Bavarian leisure outfit, he helped me into the costume and buttoned up the suspenders. I loved it.
For the next look, Robert handed me a black polyester jumpsuit with sequined details and attached red cape. I was suddenly a badass Evel Knievel.
For my final costume, Robert thought it would be hilarious to turn me into a pimp. Grabbing one of the store’s many pimp sets, he handed me a red velvet suit with zebra trim and matching hat. For this look I had to bring out the big gun – my Afro wig. Looking in the mirror, I realized that I was no longer Josh. I was Super Fly.
Our final destination was Decades of Fashion, which holds over 200,000 pieces in its two large rooms and back storage area.
More of a vintage store than a dress-up shop, it nonetheless remains popular among costume seekers because of its impressive stock of period clothing and accessories that range in date from the 1880s to the 1980s.
Store owner Cicely Ann Hansen and employee Jason Lyon led us to the backroom, past rows of suits, dresses, and theatrical outfits. I told them I was thinking of trying on looks from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, and they asked if I wanted Rat Pack ’50s or Zoot Suit ’50s; hippie ’60s or Mick Jagger ’60s; and glam ’70s or disco ’70s. I chose Rat Pack, Mick Jagger, and disco-glam realness.
To recreate the signature Sinatra look, Jason found a white dress shirt with cuff links, an off-white dinner jacket, a plaid bow tie, black slacks, cummerbund, fedora, and patent leather tuxedo pumps. Since I’ve never worn a bow tie, cummerbund, or cuff links, the stylists helped me into my look.
“And women think it’s hard for them to get dressed,” Jason joked. “All they have to do is slip into a dress and heels and put makeup on.” The last-minute addition of the cane made the look complete. Suddenly, I was Frank Sinatra performing onstage at a Vegas hotel.
For my Mick Jagger look, I added that I wanted something reminiscent of "Rock and Roll Circus."
Before I knew it, I was in a red marching band jacket, a white lace jabot, a black cummerbund, vintage jean bell-bottoms, red and black boots, and a red sequined top hat. I felt so era-appropriate. To add even more vérité to the scene, Jason transformed the dressing room into a psychedelic den with a vintage rug, kimono, and leopard-print stole. All that was missing was the opium pipe and guru.
For disco fashion, I stayed in the Jagger family tree. I was thinking Bianca meets Jerry Hall. After looking at several dress options, we settled on a stunning blue disco gown, gold jewelry galore, white sunglasses, and red vinyl pumps that miraculously fit my huge feet. The stylists made a last-minute executive decision that my Afro wig should come out for an encore with a mod-print silk scarf wrapped around the top.
I’ve never worn heels before, and my feet hurt like hell as I made my precarious walk over to a vintage pink divan. With a fur pelt draped over my shoulder, though, the look actually came together quite nicely. It was slinky and sexy – very disco diva on her way out to Studio 54.
"Work that fur and give us attitude, " Robert ordered as I posed for pictures – and shoppers gazed over in horror. Well, I guess it isn’t truly Halloween until someone gets scared.
My anxiety about showing up on Halloween underdressed was assuaged by the end of the four-hour styling session. I was fashion-ragged, but as evening approached, I was that much closer to choosing the perfect costume.
My final decision will remain a surprise, but I’ll offer a hint. Let’s just say that I better practice walking in heels over the next few weeks.
Do It Yourself
For a one-of-a-kind costume, head to Costume Party ($45–$75) or Decades of Fashion ($49–$200). These stores offer vintage sets and accessories as well. Decades of Fashion also offers reproductions of ’20s beaded dresses for rent ($65–$100). If you’re looking for something more theatrical, make an appointment at A.C.T. Costume Shop, which offers stage-ready costumes and accessories ($140–$200).
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