The Cost of Costumes

Why does Rubie’s rule Halloween? Bloomberg Businessweek peeks under the mask.

Photo credit: Elmer Boutin, CC BY 2.0.

If you’re looking for a Halloween longread to chew on this afternoon, Bloomberg Businessweek has licked its way to the center of the Tootsie Pop known as Rubie’s, the premier Halloween costume designer and supplier:

Rubie’s tries to anticipate Halloween trends a year in advance, but it’s constantly adjusting its plans as expected blockbusters flop (The Legend of Tarzan), beloved actors die (Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka costume will be popular this year), or millions of people get swept up in the Pokémon Go craze and Beige finds himself mass-manufacturing last-minute Pikachu costumes to fill thousands of back orders. Pokémon will break into Rubie’s 10 best-selling costumes this year, which didn’t happen when it was popular the first time around. “Thank God we already had the license and the designs for that one,” he says. “Otherwise, it would’ve been a disaster.”

Rubie’s cofounder Howard Beige may be single-handedly responsible for saving today’s children—and today’s adults—from those terrible plastic sack costumes with a licensed character printed on them. (Not that I wouldn’t love to go to a party in an adult version of a Jem and the Holograms sack costume, complete with ill-fitting Jem mask.)

In the 1970s, people stopped renting costumes in favor of cheaply produced wear-once items. The top manufacturer of these disposable outfits at the time and into the ’80s was Ben Cooper, a company that licensed movie and TV characters, then turned them into children’s costumes that rarely looked like the originals. Star Trek, for example, became a $3 Captain Kirk mask and plastic jumpsuit with a picture of the Starship Enterprise on it. “I actually went to Paramount and said, ‘This is ridiculous,’ ” says Beige. In 1989, he pitched the company’s executives on an adult-size replica of a Star Trek uniform. “I showed them a beautiful reproduction of the actual uniform Captain Kirk wore with the pips on the collar and the patch. They said, ‘What about the mask?’ I said, ‘The people who buy this costume want to be Captain Kirk but as themselves.’ ” He got the license the same day.

Now that I’ve given you a fun-sized taste, go read the whole thing. It’s delicious—you learn the U.S. customs tax designations for “clothing” and “costumes,” you discover why Lucasfilm tells Rubie’s which characters will live and die in upcoming Star Wars episodes, and you get to find out which nostalgic ’90s franchises will show up as adult-sized costumes in 2017. Start planning your parties now.