Are Fancy Dress Shops on the Verge of Going Extinct?

It's never been harder to run a business that brings joy – and giant banana costumes – to so many.

16 March 2022, 9:00am

You can buy many things from Anna Boyle’s fancy dress shop, but you can’t buy monk costumes. Since the pandemic hit, disrupted supply chains have caused havoc for some of the fancy dress industry’s best sellers. “Last week we had six people come in and say they were going to a medieval-themed party. I said to them, honestly you aren’t going to find monk costumes anywhere these days,” she says.

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This doesn’t bother Anna, aged 55. She understands better than most that the fancy dress industry is always in flux. For nearly 30 years, she’s worked on the same street in Soho, central London, selling outlandish garments and corsets. A small stall eventually became So High Soho, now a staple of London’s dress-up scene. 

“In the 1990s, fancy dress had an awful reputation and deservedly so – it was shit,” says Anna. “I said, basically, I'm going to do this shop and I'm going to take fancy dress seriously. I want it to be something that's got, well, integrity, and passion and interest.”

Fancy dress has come a long way since the 90s. Back then you could barely find a pair of 70s disco pants – but that all changed in the late 2000s when young people started embracing festival culture and with it, quirky costumes.

“It all started picking up around then. The 2010s was probably the peak fancy dress era,” Anna remembers. “People loved going out. It’s only just starting to pick up again now.” During the week, So High Soho is relatively quiet – but it heaves with customers on Fridays and the weekend. Right now her biggest sellers are plastic banana costumes and anything Bridgerton-related. 

So High Soho. Photo: Aiyush Pachnandna.

Anna’s shop is a wonderland of masks, Hawaiian shirts and the scent of incense. Her favourite item in the shop used to be a big, sparkly octopus costume that lived outside on a mannequin during opening hours. It attracted a lot of fans; children and school trips would stop to take pictures with it.

“I made a pledge that nobody could buy the octopus costume,” she says. “I also swore an oath never to eat octopuses.” One day, the octopus mysteriously fell over inside the shop, in the middle of the night. “It looked like a poltergeist had come along. I couldn’t have it displayed after that.”

While So High is getting by on the weekends, the pandemic has taken a toll on London’s wider fancy dress scene – which was already ailing due to high rents and sites like Amazon and eBay. In 2020, after 180 years, Angels finally closed its doors. A family-run business since 1840, the loss of this iconic West End institution was a shock to fancy dress shops across the city. But Angels was just the start; according to the Local Data Company, between 2020 and 2022, 36 of London’s costume shops closed down. Today, 13 of these closed shops remain vacant buildings. 

Anna Boyle, owner of So High Soho. Photo by Aiyush Pachnanda.

“Fancy dress shops and costume folks have been in one of the worst positions on the high street,” says Michael Weedon, chair for the Federation of small businesses. “They were classified as non-essential retail, so they were forced to close longer than any other group of shops. Plus, no one needed costumes for parties in the pandemic. To be honest, they haven’t yet seen footfalls return to pre-2019 levels.”

On top of the damage done by lockdown restrictions, high street landlords are hiking up prices, while government business rates are starting to rise again (although they are still heavily discounted.) Since 2019, the price of property in Soho alone has gone up by 70 percent, according to Land Registry data. “So what we know – and this applies to fancy dress as much as any other sector around the country – is there is a huge burden of debt on small businesses,” says Weedon. 

So High Soho. Photo by Aiyush Pachnandna.

Raee Muhammed opened Fancy Dress Town in 2017, at a time when the scene was enjoying an unexpected boom. After quitting his job in accounting, he decided he wanted to be his own boss. Now aged 44, he spends 12 hours a day working in the Bermondsey-based store, with evenings spent processing online orders and updating social media. Usually, he doesn’t get to bed until the early hours.  

“My focus in the beginning was more on the website, which didn't work for me,” he says. “Unfortunately, you know, our supplier and wholesaler, they are in the market now. They’re on eBay and Amazon. It’s really tough for us to compete with them. That's who we buy from.” 

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Smiffy’s is the largest fancy dress wholesaler in the country, and Raee admits that it's a force to be reckoned with. The outlet designs and produces its own fancy dress and supplies the majority of the UK’s costume shops. Smiffy’s Amazon seller’s page has thousands of listings; the bulk of it under £30. “In the end I had to just stop focusing on the online and think more about the [physical] shop,” says Raee. 

Fancy Dress Town shop front. Photo by Aiyush Pachnanda.

Raee’s shop is small but compact. Its packed aisles range from children’s Disney costumes to crotchless adult bodysuits. Fortunately, Amazon hasn’t completely dampened demand yet. The outfit that keeps cropping up is the giant banana. “That is a frequent favourite,” Raee says. In the days before Halloween, the shop had customers queuing down the street for a costume. “People tend to pick funnier costumes now,” says Raee, “they’re not always too scary.” 

This year’s World Book Day on the 3rd of March caused a particularly hectic period for Fancy Dress Town, with over 100 customers a day coming in to buy an outfit for their child. “It’s mainly young people that come in here; usually students, max age probably in their 30s. Fancy dress is definitely more for the young people.”

Inside Fancy Dress Town. Photo by Aiyush Pachnandna

So High customer Jamie Brown, a 27-year-old solicitor, was wandering around Soho on his lunch break when he remembered he needed to get a funny costume for his skiing holiday. “My mum is Irish and it's going to be St Patrick's day, so we said we would wear something Irish during the day.” Jamie pulls out a long green cape from his paper bag: “I don’t buy fancy dress a lot, but when I do I go into a shop because otherwise you just buy a lot of stuff you’ll never use again on Amazon. This is more considered.”

Another customer inside So High is Naejin Kim, an art director. “I work in TV, so when we have last minute shoots it's good to just pop into a fancy dress shop and see what they have. It’s good for inspiration,” he says. “To buy from a wholesaler, you have to really plan ahead. But for last minute things, we don’t know what we want. These are great shops to have.”

Hat and wig in So High Soho. Photo by Aiyush Pachnanda.

Raee’s Bermondsey shop is able to keep going because rent isn’t too high currently – although he’s worried about rising costs. “If you’re in central London and paying 50 grand on rent it's hard to survive. That’s what happened to Angels. I heard their rent was maybe half a million.” 

Still, like everyone in the fancy dress business, Raee remains cheerful. “I hope I will be working in fancy dress forever. I enjoy my work. It’s better than working for someone else, you know?”

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In Lewisham, Melanie Wilson, 50, loves her work so much she spends entire summers making costumes for her fancy dress shop Prangsta. After graduating from her fashion design course at Central St Martins in 1993, Melanie spent years squatting in communes. At one point she joined a group of ravers that put on free parties around Europe. Eventually, in the late 1990s, Melanie got tired and came home to set up Prangsta. 

Inside Prangsta. Photo by Aiyush Pachnanda.

Visiting the shop is an appointment-only experience. The storefront has no sign, but if you call the buzzer you’re met by Sam, 29, the shop’s stylist. “People come in and say “my theme is Alice in Wonderland” and he designs their look for them,” Melanie explains.

One customer at Prangsta is a young woman in her 20s, due to attend a Moulin Rouge party at the weekend. Sam brings her some red-beaded bodices and sparkling jewellery as she waits in the changing room. ”We have a regular that has extravagant costume parties every other weekend. A lot of our customers go to her events,” says Sam. “I think our regular is actually hosting this Moulin Rouge party.”

Above this secretive shop is the Prangsta studio, where artists create costumes by hand. Melanie’s favourite piece in the shop is a jacket inspired by 18th century Venetian carnivals. It took her four weeks to make and is embellished with intricate beading. “The more work you put into a piece, the more popular they are,” she says.

These outfits are rental; costing about £150 for the night. “I’d say they are pretty reasonable. This one guy lost one of our crowns in a taxi, though – he was very sorry but we had to charge him £1,000. It cost me £1,500 just to get it remade.” 

Handmade garment in Prangsta. Photo by Aiyush Pachnanda.

To maintain a shop like Prangsta, you have to have passion. “I think what’s happened with old shops like Angels, you know, the people with the passion for it died off,” says Melanie. “But this shop will definitely carry on until I’m dead. Maybe I’ll pass it on to Sam,” she laughs.

Surprisingly, neither Melanie or Anna are worried about Amazon threatening the industry. “It's just a clumsy algorithm. People don't know what they want. Coming into a costume shop is more about the journey,” says Anna. 

Inside Prangsta. Photo by Aiyush Pachnanda.

That said, the thought of being one of the last costume shops makes Anna visibly anguished. “I like having other shops around. Other shops have their own characters and people having their own conversations,” she adds. “It would be very sad to no longer have that.”

In the upcoming years, Anna, Raee and Melanie will most likely need to get inventive when faced with increasing online competition and extortionate London rent. Thankfully, optimism is a characteristic that most in the community already own in abundance. 

For now, the remaining shops will persevere on in their own magical way; quietly confident in the knowledge that for as long as people want last minute giant banana costumes, they will always be needed on the high street.

@ellieapeake / @_yushy

Tagged:

Halloween, Festivals, dressing up, high street, Fancy Dress Shops

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