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halloween '96 // masquerade madness

On Halloween, it's not who you are but what you wear.

One night a year we allow ourselves to entertain others with fashion _ garments, hats and accoutrements designed to frighten and sometimes entice.

Kids can become pirates or pumpkins by plopping into a costume. Adults can become doctors and devils by adding stethoscopes and horns.

The transforming garments can be found almost everywhere. Stores, from discount giants to independent costumers, sell campy costumes, fake fangs and molded masks for most personality types, ages and income brackets. And although new Halloween decorations, candy and novelties are offered every year, the selection of costumes basically remains the same.

Trendy costumes, those based on movies and TV shows, come and go, but the traditional witches, vampires and grim reapers are still around because we're still buying them.

When it comes to Halloween, Americans are a lot less creative than they claim to be.

"People call and say, "I'm going to ask you something really odd,' and it's a request for a pregnant nun costume," says Dwayne Ibsen, past president of the National Costumers Association and owner of the Ibsen Costume Gallery in Omaha, Neb. "Like they just came up with the idea."

Costume choices vary by age. Toddlers are attracted to almost anything they see on anyone else. Older kids get into licensed costumes based on characters from movies and TV. Teenagers usually go for gross with wicked makeup. And for some unknown reason, adults ditch their creativity and buy the same kinds of costumes year after year after year.

Go figure.

Costumes with the right stuff for kids

Because most homes have a TV and a VCR, it's easy these days to figure out what choices children will make when it comes to buying their costume.

"Following kid Halloween costume trends is like following the TV Guide or taking a walk through the aisles of a video store. TV and movies sell," says Melanie Glogg, assistant manager of Party Land of Pasco in Port Richey. Kid costumes range from $10 to $45 and usually aren't rented.

But unlike the past few years when kid costumes for Power Rangers, Batman and Pocahontas were the top choices, this year only one true leader has emerged: Esmeralda, the rebellious gypsy dancer from the Disney movie The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Disney stores throughout the country have sold most of their off-the-rack Esmeralda costumes, but stores such as Party City still have a few of the packaged Disney-licensed Esmeralda costumes. There are also knock-off Esmeralda costumes that go by the generic name "Gypsy" but use the same color scheme and styling as the Disney variety. Of course, parents can check catalogs for similar costumes or make their own Esmeralda/gypsy ensemble.

Quasimodo, the Hunchback in the movie's title and the male counterpart to the Esmeralda costume, isn't as big a seller with early buyers, but could get hotter as Halloween nears, Ibsen says.

Other kid costumes that are supposed to be big sellers but haven't been so far are characters from the Goosebumps series of books, Woody and Buzz Lightyear from Disney's Toy Story and a new line of Zeo Power Rangers. These costumes are available in most stores, even drugstores such as Walgreens, but kids aren't begging for them.

Rick Paul, owner of Fun Stuff in St. Petersburg, isn't offering Goosebumps costumes for his customers. "We learn from our own child. My kid reads the books and has the T-shirts but as far as the characters go, he may recognize one or two of them but it's not strong enough for him to want to be one," Paul said. "There are lots of Goosebumps books but only four or so costumes."

Ibsen, a 16-year veteran of the costume business, says slow sales of Goosebumps wear could mean "it hasn't taken off yet because every store has them and people tend to shy away from things they see every place."

That theory may also explain the slow sales for the Toy Story costumes but, more likely, costume sellers say, it's because girls enjoy dressing up in non-threatening costumes more than boys. When young boys choose character costumes they tend to go for Spiderman or Batman.

"We're expecting a surge on Toy Story costumes later this month when the video goes on sale," says Brian Taylor, manager of the FAO Schwarz toy store in Tampa. "They won't be huge for Halloween."

Neither will the Power Rangers.

"The industry says that the Power Ranger thing has run its course. We have not had a call for over a year about them," according to Ibsen.

Like adults, kids are also looking for traditional Halloween costumes this year. "Generic things like witches and mummies are selling much better than the fad costumes," says Doug Tyl, assistant store manager of the south Tampa Target. "I don't think there's one dominating force out there."

According to Yvonne Bernard, owner of the House of Make Believe in Clearwater and a costume seller, renter and maker for 18 years, "There's not one big outstanding thing yet. This year might be a traditional old-fashioned type of Halloween with vampires and witches."

Hoping kids will be less drawn to licensed characters and more interested in dressing as pumpkins, bunnies and pirates, catalogs such as Land's End and After the Stork offer not only costumes but foundations as well. Costume foundations such as ears, tails, leaves and sashes can be layered on sweat suits or other clothes kids already own.

For parents who are handy with needle and thread, the Sewing Fashion Council predicts patterns for M&M's, princesses, Esmeralda and Quasimodo, among others, will be popular choices.

When adults go undercover

When it comes to adults, standards in the costume industry include Batman, Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, Darth Vader, Elvira and Star Trek. Adult costumes sell from $20 to $100 and rent for $30 to $70.

Women still make sexy costumes a one-night standard.

Costume sellers say it's such a common occurence that they order French maid, harem girl, Cleopatra and flapper ensembles by the case.

"Every afternoon we get a huge crowd of women in business suits who want to be saloon or harem girls. Something very tartish. It's very common," Ibsen says. "It's fantasy time. They know they will be disguised so they try it."

Both sexes participate in the holiday, but there's a big difference in how they do it. "Women tend to force the men to dress up. Women are more willing to make fools of themselves than men. They are more willing to go all out than the guys," Glogg says.

Ibsen says national trends in women's costumes show Marilyn Monroe (sometimes coupled with a man wearing a John F. Kennedy mask) is selling well, as is anything that looks Egyptian, and "every year you can always count on Southern belles, flappers and saloon girls selling," he says.

Not much has changed with themed couple costumes. The priest and nun, caveman and cavewoman, pirate and wench, king and queen of hearts are still selling. But, within the past two years, Flo and Herb Putterman (the plastic people from the Duracell battery commercials) have been a hit. The costume consists of plastic-looking masks and shirts with batteries protruding from the backs.

Although some guys will go for the full-fledged costume get-ups required for characters such as the Gothic vampire or faux-muscled Batman, costume sellers say most men prefer masks.

"Men usually don't buy a costume but will buy accessories to go with a mask," says Vince Oliveri, owner of the Wooden Nickel in Tampa. The Crypt Keeper from HBO's Tales From the Crypt series is a popular mask-and-accessory costume with men this year.

And without fail, year after year, men like to dress up as the grim reaper. This time around there's an invisible mask, a mesh cover that allows the wearer to see out but keeps others from seeing in, to complete the costume. Add the sickle and the guy is ready to go for Halloween.