If you’re looking for a gorilla suit or a poodle skirt, Allen Smith may have it.
Allen Smith pulls a shiny, leopard-print, gold lamé suit off a rack jammed with men’s sportswear. I scan the scene, feeling as though I’ve stepped into the workroom for Project Runway. Next to a half-dozen dress forms and sewing machines are carts stacked with bolts of fabric, and an industrial dye vat.
“We have a lot of strange clothes,” he says, gesturing toward a pile of opera attire and Shakespearean tunics. There’s a black leather jacket, studded with silver spikes, that has been in several high school productions of Grease, and a grass skirt from Rhumba-tiya, a Polynesian variation on the tale of Rumpelstiltskin.
Smith, 59, is costume director of the Arlington County Costume Shop, a hidden trove in a windowless room in the basement of Gunston Middle School, where the sound of laughing tweens echoes from the other side of white cinderblock walls. He is the sole keeper of an inventory of roughly 20,000 items, all of which are tagged, labeled and bar-coded. “We have a little bit of everything,” he says. “Bears, beavers, fawns, crocodiles and even a kangaroo costume.”
Founded “at least 40 years ago” (Smith’s best guess), the shop exists to serve local schools, theaters and dance companies. Before the 2008 budget cuts took away his assistant, Smith designed and sewed many pieces himself, including the costumes for Signature Theatre’s 1996 production of the Stephen Sondheim musical Passion, some of which were later borrowed for the History Channel’s documentary, Lincoln.
“I recognized the Passion dresses in a ball scene,” says Smith, who holds an MFA in costume design from Carnegie Mellon University and a bachelor’s degree in theater arts from Birmingham-Southern College. He has worked for the Arlington County Cultural Affairs Division for 27 years and plans to retire in November.
In the back of the shop, dozens of neatly labeled boxes contain corsets, yarmulkes, straw hats and sparkly sombreros. There are rows of poufy ’50s prom dresses, wedding gowns with yellowing lace, and what Smith refers to as the “Dynasty Collection” of mega-sparkly ’80s pageant gowns.
“People’s aunts die and they clean out their closets and they call and ask if we want things,” he says. Also in the mix are donations from various Shakespeare theater companies, plus a few wardrobe items from HBO’s Baltimore-based hit series, The Wire. (Smith espouses a particular affinity for the dresses that older, African-American women wore to church on the show, with their matching big hats.)
Which costumes count among his all-time favorites? He pulls out a Pepto-Bismol-pink dress and coordinating jumpsuit—both fringed in pink ostrich feathers—that were donated by a 1960s Las Vegas showgirl.
“They’re so bizarre,” he says. “We’ve never been able to use them in a show. But I keep hoping. One day.”