Dawn Cornsilk, costume designer
Seven years ago Dawn Cornsilk’s daughter needed a period costume for a field trip to Bernhard Museum in Auburn. A state worker by day, Cornsilk saw a business opportunity to offset some financial worries by making costumes to sell to her daughter’s classmates that needed 1889 attire for the museum’s Living History program. The costumes sold themselves as parents and schools began commissioning Cornsilk to make costumes for their kids, plays and themed parties. In 2015 she partnered with her mother to open a costume rental store named Costume Junction in Roseville to support the business she was running out of her house. “I always joke with my mom when she has to open up the shop every day that this is her own fault,” Dawn says of her family trade. She’ll be 50 this year, eligible for early state retirement, and is looking to pursue costume design full-time. With that comes ideas for expansion, but still she says her bread-and-butter is period pieces for school programs.
What was the first costume?
At the time I was on furlough and a single mom. I had every Friday off and lost 15 percent of my income. I felt like if I sewed some of these I could sell them and thought that would be end of it. If you asked me 10 years ago if I wanted to own a costume shop, I’d say you’re crazy. Since there’s really no one else up here, I found a niche. I just kept on going with it.
Creatively, what has been fulfilling about costume design?
Quite often I hear the kids say, “Oh my gosh, this is the best costume I’ve ever had.” That is just really rewarding. From my adult customers I just get so many compliments when they come into the store. Up in Placer County there’s really not many resources. Or people will buy from the internet and it doesn’t fit. So it’s nice to be there “to the rescue,” if you will.
Is there an era you specialize in?
For the kids’ programs it’s really all eras. With the adults now, it’s mostly themed parties. The Roaring ’20s parties are huge. People have these murder mystery parties. With those they have various themes, mostly 1800s, Western themed.
Most difficult request?
One time I got a request for a Pumba from The Lion King. That was for a school program. I ended up hand-making a headpiece. It wasn’t necessarily difficult. It was just a rare request. It went great, though. He stole the show.
The business began with making costumes for your daughter. Has she outgrown it yet?
She is a teenager now. I think that at first it was really fun for her. Over the years I’ve asked her to try on lot and lots of costumes. Now she’s like, “Oh, Mom!” Last year, I don’t think she dressed up for Halloween. My one thing is I grew up watching my mom do costumes. My hope is that someday, once she has her own kids, she’ll want to make their costumes. Or come to me to make them.
In making these looks across many eras, what have you learned about the evolution of fashion?
I don’t know that I think of it in that way. I’m totally intrigued. American River College has a fashion design program, and I’d love to take some classes. For costumes you’re just trying to imitate a look. You can do that without it being precise. There are some people that are down to the nitty-gritty details, like I can’t have zippers. I don’t worry so much about that as long as it’s a good imitation. Certain situations, a docent at a historical venue, I can see them wanting it precise. For me, I’m not doing costumes for docents. I’m doing it for the visitor for one day.
Did your parents train you in the craft, or did you pick it up through osmosis?
I think it was more a natural thing just growing up around it. My mom also had an arts and crafts business in the 1970s. I’d tag along with her to art shows. When I was in kindergarten, I was crocheting candy canes for the holiday shows. My mom always made our costumes, and now I make my kids’ costumes. It runs in the blood.
What’s the best way to prevent constantly pricking yourself with a sewing needle?There’s a lot of good how-to videos on the internet. I didn’t have anything like that when I was a kid, but now I go to the internet all the time to learn things. Some say that sewing is a dying art. On the other hand there’s things like cosplay and steampunk that has people trying to create their own costumes.
Do you ever have folks asking you for help with cosplay?
In my shop currently I have a lot of great pieces that you could use for cosplay. I find with cosplay there’s always new characters. It’s very specific and detail oriented. Being in the rental business that’s a challenge. It’s not where my focus has been, but that’s why I want to get in the retail part of it. Being in retail I can better serve that cosplay community. It doesn’t help to have a character in my inventory that’s good for one season.