Northwest Costume Brings Glamour, History and Mystique to Tacoma’s 6th Avenue

 

By Margo Greenman

Caroline Donovan, an employee at Northwest Costume, appropriately hangs a star while dressed as the Blue Fairy.
Northwest Costume employee Caroline Donovan  hangs a star while dressed as the Blue Fairy.

Well known by entertainers and themed party-goers alike, if you’ve ever driven or strolled down Tacoma’s popular 6th Avenue, chances are you’ve seen Northwest Costume. But, have you ever stepped inside?

I wanted to learn more about this popular, yet elusive 6th Avenue establishment, so I called the owner and asked for a tour. Come with me on my journey behind the doors of Northwest Costume and discover a world of glamour, history and make-believe, without ever leaving 6th Avenue.

Upon arriving at Northwest Costume, I notice a display of thematically dressed mannequins posing behind the windows, welcoming me to the store. I acknowledge their presence, then push through a pair of swinging doors. Mary Johnson and her husband, Tom, greet me. The two proprietors have been in business at their 6th Avenue location for nearly 30 years, and from the look and feel of things, you can tell they have poured their hearts and souls into every bit of their business.

Mary is finishing up with a customer, so I decide to use the time to peruse the store. Racks of sequined vests and masquerade masks are tucked between display cases full of glittery costume jewelry, colorful stage make-up, faux mustaches and more. On top of one of the display cases is a photo album. I stop to thumb through it and find pictures of cleverly dressed party-goers and glittery entertainers on every page.

Dress up wearing an original costume from the movie "Cutthroat Island." Photo courtesy of Stanton J. Stephens Photography.
Dress up wearing an original costume from the movie “Cutthroat Island.” Photo courtesy of Stanton J. Stephens Photography.

I hear the cash register shut and notice Mary walking toward me. She motions for me to follow her into the back room, where racks upon racks of costumes proudly hang. There must be at least a thousand costumes, maybe more. As she pulls a shimmering jacket from one of the racks. Mary says each one of her costumes has a story to tell. “Have you ever seen the movie Cutthroat Island?” she asks me. “This is one of the costumes from the movie.”

While not every costume at Northwest Costume got its start on the silver screen, Mary says each one has come from or has been somewhere interesting. “I love to think about the people who have worn the costumes, and the great times they had wearing them,” she says.

Gazing upon the impressive inventory, I ask Mary how she became involved in the industry. She tells me her grandfather must have passed it on to her. “My grandfather was a Vaudeville entertainer,” she explains. As a traveling performer, her grandfather met many famous actors, including the popular silent-film, cowboy actor and ventriloquist, Tom Mix. At the mention of Mix’s name, Mary pauses and asks me if I’d like to meet Johnny Clark. She runs upstairs and returns with a large, wooden ventriloquist dummy, the same one that Tom Mix was made famous for. While Johnny Clark may not be alive in the normal sense, he is alive with history, and history is something that’s very important to Mary.

Johnny Clark plays detective in the Sherlock Holmes room.
Johnny Clark plays detective in the Sherlock Holmes room.

Mary asks me to follow her upstairs, where she leads me into what she calls the “Sherlock Holmes Room.” She sets Johnny Clark at Sherlock’s desk, and I take a seat in a comfy chair belonging to Watson. Everything in the Sherlock Holmes room is something that Sherlock would have, or could have used. Mary says she’s been collecting artifacts and antiques for the room for about 30 years and hopes to someday start a Sherlock Holmes Society.

As we discuss the history of the items inside the room, Mary begins explaining the history of the building itself. Built in 1928, it was originally used as a grocery store. Mary and Tom purchased the building in 1988, and worked hard to restore and preserve the building’s original character and history. One example of this can be found in the ballroom, located across the hall from where we sit.

Walking into the ballroom, I feel as though I’ve been transported back in time, or into a fairytale. It’s midday, and the sun fills the room with a bright, warm, yellow light that bounces off the chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, illuminating the original 1920s hardwood floors below. It’s nothing short of enchanting. Mary says they rent the ballroom out for small weddings, birthday parties, and other events.

The ballroom at Northwest Costume has been restored to preserve it's 1920s charm.
The ballroom at Northwest Costume has been restored to preserve its 1920s charm.

I follow Mary downstairs, back into the costume shop. A few customers explore the make-up counter, while others comb through the racks to find exactly what they’re looking for. As I take one last look at the store and all its glittering mystique, Mary tells me that out of everything, her and Tom’s main focus has been based on creating a business that caters to fun. I think they nailed it.

To experience the wonder, history and fun firsthand, visit Northwest Costume Tuesday through Saturday, or click here for more information.

Northwest Costume
2315 6th Ave
Tacoma, WA 98403
253-383-4700

 

 

 

 

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