By Jill Draper
KC Costume Co. is busier than usual around Halloween with a retail section that offers wigs, hats, masks and makeup. Not to mention an entire rack of foam buttocks, boobs, bellies (pregnant and beer) and big baby kits with giant diaper pins.
What sets this company apart from kitschy costume shops, however, is their main business in the back room that houses tens of thousands of period clothes and theatrical costumes. Wandering along the aisles is like time-traveling through every era of fashion, from Greek tunics to gangster zoot suits to 1970s prom wear.
It’s also like stumbling into the dressing rooms of every well-loved musical. There are curtain dresses for “The Sound of Music,” icy blue Elsa gowns for “Frozen,” Siamese trousers for “The King and I,” and full-skirted ball gowns for “Cinderella.” A row of Emerald City green garments hangs across from red poppy headpieces and flying monkey tails for “The Wizard of Oz.”
It’s a place of fantasy stitched with authentic detail.
“Everywhere you look are tons of history,” says Steve Short, who owns the business with his partner Carl Welander. They rent to individuals for costume parties and holiday events (soon there’ll be a run on Santa, elves and reindeer) but mainly high school plays and professional theater productions. Some shows need just a few costumes for the leading characters, while others order the full package.
People don’t realize what that entails, Short says. “Every single costume worn in an entire show goes into a package. It’s a very large amount of clothes, normally for 8 to 12 men and 8 to 12 women. When we got into the business, we didn’t realize it either.”
KC Costume dates back to the 1920s and was located downtown for years at 20th and Grand. Now it occupies a 40,000-square-foot warehouse at 5035 Raytown Rd. Short’s mother bought the business in 1971, combining it with her theatrical supply company. Short and Welander, who recently moved to a Kingswood villa in south KC, officially took over in 1986.
Before then Short worked as a dancer, partnering with the likes of Carol Channing, Debbie Reynolds, Lucille Ball, Jane Powell, Gene Kelly and Carol Burnett in New York, Las Vegas and Hollywood films—”the gamut,” he says.
Both chance and talent shaped his early career. When his older brother was sent to ballet class to correct flat feet, Short insisted on participating. He was a natural, and continued to study ballet plus acrobatics, a foundation that helped vault him to Broadway.
Short quit performing at age 27 and returned to Kansas City. “I was ready to have a home in one place,” he says. “But what an incredible chance to do all that.”
Moving from onstage to backstage, he and Welander directed KC Costume’s growth from a mom and pop shop to a supplier for professional theater, ballet and opera throughout the United States and Canada.
“There’s a lot of creativity here,” he notes. Most of the costumes are made by inhouse designers, tailors and milliners, including Vince Scassellati, who once headed the costume design program at UMKC and has designed more than 250 theatrical productions.
“He is such a master of costuming,” says Short, who also praises nationally known designer Robert Fletcher, “a dear friend,” who costumed the first four Star Trek films and worked at KC Costume several years until his death in April 2021.
Miranda Brand is a rental specialist who runs the retail section and helps individual customers. “Our rentals are much higher quality than flimsy, packaged costumes,” she says, “and we include alterations.” Prices range from $45 to $250, depending on the outfit’s extravagance. A cheerleader ensemble lists at the low end; a Civil War brocade ballgown with hoop skirt, at the high.
One regular customer is a man who dresses as a Pilgrim to deliver pies to shelters on Thanksgiving. Others are people required to come as murder mystery characters or wear wigs or don period clothes for theme parties. Brand remembers a couple who rented outfits for a funeral—the deceased wanted all attendees in costume (the woman went as a pope; the man, a nun).
Probably only six companies in North America still do this type of work, says Short, who laments the shutdown of similar businesses during the 2008 recession and the pandemic.
The pandemic also has made fitting (ahem) difficult. “People either gained weight or went to the gym and redistributed it,” Short says. Right now he’s working on some extra-large costumes for the KC Lyric Opera. Other current projects include costuming “White Christmas” for a theater in Wisconsin, shipping out a package for “The Little Mermaid” and designing a set for “Frozen”—the rights to this show are just being released to high schools. Locally he manages the wardrobe department at Starlight Theatre and works with the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival.
“Of course it’s been a very fun job. I used to bounce into work at 6 in the morning,” Short remembers. He also remembers a time “when we had the best Halloween parties and the best everything else—mainly to raise money for the symphony and the ballet.”
He’s older now, though, and hasn’t dressed up on Oct. 31 in years. Still, does he have a favorite costume or fashion era? He says no. “I find them all so interesting because it’s what was happening at a certain time period, and how people lived.”
He pauses to glance around the workroom where bolts of fabric are stacked on a cutting board waiting to be given shape. “How can you not sit back and enjoy it?”