All Dressed Up and Only One Place to Go: Why Halloween in San Francisco Reigns Supreme

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Laura Reilly
Contributing Writer 

From the city that brings you Bay to Breakers, piles it on for Pride, and empties out for Burning Man, you can expect only the most lavish turnout for the year’s largest excuse for dressing up: Halloween. We talked to three San Francisco costume establishments about dragons, dirty presidents and what makes Halloween here like nothing else.

A week before Halloween, Costumes on Haight is already bustling in full force. The aisles are packed with focused shoppers, squeezing past one another in search of the perfect finishing accessory or inspiration for an undecided ensemble. This Lower Haight haunt has been slinging ‘stumes for 20 plus years, and none of that seasonally open business either. COH’s manager, Chuck says “we cater to adults looking for higher end costumes ­ not just for parties at Halloween, but for creative and professional projects year round.”

Their spread is impressive, offering both classic Halloween looks and more, ahem, alternative options. Chances are, you’ll find what you’re looking for here, whatever that may be. If you’re wondering how to approach this year’s outfit, Chuck has seen it all. He says, “Two types of costume customers are particular favorites of mine. One is the person who takes a classic character to perfection – a superhero, a pirate, a zombie – taken as far as it can go. The other is someone that has an idea for a costume they’ve always wanted to do and runs with it, regardless of whether or not anyone will know the character or ‘get it.’ One memorable example was the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”

If you’re looking to curb spending this year, or struggle with small closet­ syndrome, Costumes

on Haight is a good resource. Costumes can be bought or rented for as low as 25 bucks a day. If you’re looking to rent but are more concerned with being the ‘real deal,’ you’ll want to check out the American Conservatory Theater’s costume shop.

Known colloquially as the A.C.T. warehouse, this costume shop has been collecting and archiving over 40 years of theatrical costumes used by the theater group. Callie describes their style as, “not cute, sexy things but more historical.” The place is packed to the brim with military uniforms, sweeping silk ballgowns, Victorian undergarments and furs for days. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the sheer volume of fabric and trim bursting off the racks.

But for all it’s authenticity, the A.C.T still has a silly side, much like San Francisco as a whole. Callie says, “We live in a town where people don’t grow up, they want to be kids forever. Here, people take recreation more seriously and are willing to spend money on nice stuff.” Of her favorite costumes, Callie said, “We just did a couple whose kid wanted to do “How to Train Your Dragon” and they came in and wanted to dress as vikings. They’re graphic designers who come here a lot and have good eye for what they want.”

If A.C.T. is the patient, archivist Grandfather of costume shops, then Piedmont Boutique is the rebellious, ‘80s hair metal teenager. The giant stocking clad legs kicking out from above the store are an obvious first hint at the store’s cheeky character. It’s like being inside of an homage to synthetic fibers, with every catsuit and pair of leggings yelling “Spandex!” at the top of its lungs. But it doesn’t stop there. You’ve also got faux fur, sequins, feathers, wigs, masks and, blasted over everything, color!

Uti from Piedmont remembers her favorite costumes, “One was Abraham Lincoln and the other was Teddy Roosevelt wearing a black teddy,” which goes to show that naughty is definitely nice at this establishment.

Uti also guessed that this year, mermaids would be a popular go ­to look, saying “I guess they can swim away with it!” Chuck from Costumes on Haight and Callie from A.C.T. both had a different thought: Robin Williams characters are going to dominate Halloween 2014.

Costumes on Haight
735 Haight St.

A.C.T. Costume Rentals
1119 Market St.

Piedmont Boutique
1452 Haight St

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