All dressed up
Want to be George Washington, Santa Claus or Carmen Miranda? House of Black & White Costume Company can fix you up year-round.
When 9-year-old Brittnee visits her Grandma, she enters a fantasy world filled with ballerinas, clowns, pirates and space aliens. It’s a realm of rubber faces and storybook characters.
“Grandma’s office” has been making fantasy a reality for the past 30 years because Grandma operates the House of Black & White Costume Company, Reno’s only year-round, full-service costume rental shop and makeup supply business.
Starting in downtown Reno in 1974, where Java Jungle now serves coffee, House of Black & White began as a uniform shop, providing people in the casino business with the de rigueur casino uniform of the time—black pants, white shirt and little black ties. The shop was founded and is still operated by Janice Carr and her husband, Tony. Janice spent nearly 20 years as a showgirl. In her last 12 years of show business, she worked at John Ascuaga’s Nugget in the show featuring elephants Bertha and Tina. While Janice performed, Tony was a musician and entertainer on the Reno casino scene as well.
During Reno’s casino heyday, Carr, now 68, worked with legendary stars like Pearl Bailey, Jimmy Durante, Liberace, Ella Fitzgerald and countless others. But, for a dancer who has had long-term success—and 20 years as a showgirl is a long career—what exactly does she do when it comes time to move on?
At first, Carr became a dresser and makeup artist and enjoyed success working with stars like Juliet Prowse—"She was a doll!” Carr says—and Debbie Reynolds, “a life-long friend.” Carr knew she wanted to stay in show business, but playing second fiddle to a new generation of dancers and aging stars was not her idea of a future.
Though initially her business offered just “boring” black-and-white casino uniforms, Carr was soon bombarded with requests from friends to borrow her old showgirl costumes. So, in 1976, she added 100 costumes to her inventory of uniforms.
“We wanted to offer something no one else had in Reno,” Carr says. “And because we were in show business, we wanted something that was beautiful and fun and creative. We found it in the costume business, and I am amazed we’ve been open for 30 incredible years.”
Several years later, House of Black & White moved near the University of Nevada, Reno, on North Virginia Street, then later to Sierra Street. It was in this new, much larger facility that Carr’s business boomed. This was at the time when the MGM Grand Hotel featured production shows like Hello, Hollywood, Hello!
Carr hired seamstresses and began making hundreds of costumes, showgirl headpieces and character forms to keep up with demand.
“We had a philosophy,” she says. “If someone asked for a costume once, we would consider making it … and if someone asked for a costume twice, we made it.”
When House of Black & White moved years ago to its North Virginia location, it needed a single semi-truck and trailer to move the costumes, sewing machines and inventory. When the business relocated to its present location off South Virginia at 22 Martin St., it required four semis to move the inventory of more than 10,000 costumes.
Today, the costumes run the gamut, including characters for all major holidays: Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, Santa’s helpers, elves, even Rudolph and Snowmen; the Easter Bunny; leprechauns for St. Patrick’s Day; giant hearts for Valentine’s Day. You name it, they’ve got it.
With Halloween approaching, this is the House of Black & White’s busy season. Entering the costume storeroom, a customer is enveloped by row after row of clothing racks, double tiered in several areas. All costumes are neatly pressed, wrapped in dry-cleaning bags and clearly marked. Surprisingly, there is no dust or musty smell; this costume shop is clean.
“We take pride in maintaining beautiful costumes that are kept immaculately clean and in excellent repair,” Carr proudly asserts.
The “women’s closet” is organized by theme. First, there are costumes from the 1890s. These are the most popular costumes, and Carr is quick to explain why: “Here in Reno, the Miss Kitty and Saloon Girl look is popular because so much of our history is tied to the image of gambling men in their long jackets and cowboy hats and women with their bustles and tiny umbrellas. Over the years, whether for costume balls, Halloween or weddings, this grouping of costumes has been a favorite.”
There are myriad other costumes as well: belly dancers, lady pirates, Latin dancers (think Carmen Miranda), Southern belles, showgirls, ‘50s poodle skirts. In the “men’s closet,” there are costumes for Civil War soldiers, Greek warriors, George Washington, monks, superheroes, musketeers, kilt-wearing Scotsmen, Hawaiian- and Asian-themed looks and the ever popular ‘70s disco-style costumes.
As retail stores like Wal-Mart and Spirit Halloween Superstores become more prominent for their Halloween costume supplies, the demand for costume rentals may be on the wane.
Retail chains have their place, Carr says. “We do not rent children’s costumes, so it is good they have a place to buy things.” But Carr sees reasons why people shouldn’t solicit these chain stores for their costuming. “Adult costumes at many of these places are gruesome or feature hot, rubber masks. Who wants to wear a rubber mask all night? My customers want to be seen.”
Another significant difference is that chain stores generally sell costumes made of thin, poor-quality fabric, while House of Black & White sells only professionally made costumes that are fully lined and designed to hold things in and boost busts up and are individually tailored to each renter. And, when you buy, say, a flapper dress at Wal-Mart, you get the dress and then have to purchase extra accessories like gloves and stockings—by the time your costume is fully accessorized, it’s no longer inexpensive, and in some cases, costs more than a professionally made costume would.
Several weeks before Halloween, a customer at House of Black & White mentions how she purchased a costume from a chain store last year and felt “uncomfortable all night because it looked cheap.” By the time she finished accessorizing the costume, it cost nearly $60. When the woman pulled the same costume out this year, she says, “It looked so bad I just threw it out and came over to House of Black & White.”
Settling on a “trailer trash” costume complete with zebra-print capri pants, a risqué blouse, tacky jewelry and a wig, the woman spends $40 and loves the look. “This look is complete. I look great in it because it fits right, and I think it is totally original.”
The cost of a Black & White rental is surprisingly low. Rentals begin at just $25, and the average rental costs below $60. The shop also offers more expensive costumes that are more extravagant and often stunning. In addition to rentals, Carr also sells costume supplies including wigs, mustaches, rubber noses and makeup.
“Our costumes are complete," Carr explains. "We do not rent individual outfits. You get everything you need, except shoes—all the accessories, jewelry, gloves, stockings. It is a complete look, so you end up saving money and don’t have to spend all that time running around."