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Costume shops aren't just for Halloween anymore

A few generations ago, dressing up in costume was something you did on Halloween…until you grew out of it. But in Peter Pan fashion, an increasing number of adults don’t want to grow up. Somewhere along the line — perhaps when superhero movies started being released annually — dressing up became an adult thing, too.

When it goes beyond the annual Halloween party, it’s called "cosplay" — a combination of "costume" and "play," whereby adults wear costumes representing fictional characters like Harry Potter or Poison Ivy. It’s become a pop-culture phenomenon, with dedicated events, conventions, social networks and websites devoted to the hobby. And that means costumes are a year-round business for local shops.

"Cosplay is a great way to meet new people who share similar interests," said Mike Smilanich, manager, George & Company. "Our customers are very proud of their creations. They love to show off."

Smilanich said most cosplayers are millennials passionate about anime (Japanese-inspired animation), gaming, movies and TV shows. Cosplayers often get together to interact in costume.

"It allows people to tap into their creative side," said Smilanich. "It’s not unusual for someone to dress as an obscure character to see how many people know who they are. It’s a good feeling when somebody ‘gets’ your costume."

The growth of Halloween and cosplay mean more adults than ever are suiting up.

"I’d say 90 percent of our business is costumes for adults," said Smilanich. "With the popularity of YouTube tutorials, our team helps with a lot of costumes that involve makeup."

Smilanich reports that popular makeup-based costumes include vampires, zombies, werewolves, superheroes and characters from "Frozen." These costumes are a specialty for George & Company, which only sells theater-grade makeup (unlike most costume chain stores, where the make-up is cheap and low quality).

In the past five years, Marvel and DC have released more than a dozen live-action films, and that’s driven interest, too.

"We’ll double-stock costumes for whichever character is featured in a hit film," shared Smilanich. "Last year, there was a big demand for Harley Quinn costumes after the release of Suicide Squad."

In addition to cosplay, the store does brisk business with mascot costumes for children’s birthday parties and other events, too. "Business is steady throughout the year," said Smilanich. "It seems like there’s a disco party just about every weekend."

The week before Halloween is still George & Company’s busiest time, however, which the retailer begins planning for months in advance.

Cosplay and Halloween are also big for Buffalo’s DC Theatricks, located on Main Street downtown. According to owner Dave Dejac, most people don’t know what they want to be when they walk into the store.

"The majority of people are looking for suggestions of what to dress as," said Dejac. "Our team will talk with them about the ideas they have and try to steer them toward something that fits."

With about a quarter of American adults dressing up for Halloween, costume parties are increasingly common. Dejac said his store gets a lot of business leading up to the holiday, especially when it falls on a weekend. He also says the appeal of dressing up runs deep.

"It allows people to transform," said Dejac. "For someone who is shy, putting on a costume allows them to act differently than they normally would."

Year after year, Dejac can count on certain costumes to be popular.

"Superheroes are big, along with classic movie monsters and Victorian- era characters," said Dejac. "There’s a lot of demand for steampunk, Civil War and pirate costumes."

Dejac theorizes that Baby Boomers enjoyed dressing up as kids and have been reluctant to let that go. And he’s certain the mainstreaming of cosplay is another factor.

"Cosplay gives you the opportunity to become a character for more than one night," said Dejac. "You can be in character at comic conventions several times a year."

The personal service at locally-owned shops can also help customers with the finer points…helpful when young people who weren’t around in the ‘70s are dressing up for a disco party.

"We try to keep them authentic," said Dejac. "It’s little touches — like knowing a disco shirt should be tucked in."

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