With Tiger King and Nurse Ratched already behind us, Hannah Cuthbertson, the store manager of Fitzroy’s Rose Chong Costumes, says requests for costumes inspired by Squid Game – the dystopic South Korean cult series that’s currently Netflix’s most successful ever original show – have been huge. Cuthbertson the in-house stylist, though, has been encouraging Halloween devotees to think more fabulously. “We can make you into a baroque vampire instead,” she says playfully, “and isn’t that better?”
In 1979 when founder and creative force Rose Chong purchased the former Macedonian social club at the corner of Gore and Gertrude Streets, the Fitzroy strip was better known for its heroin trade than it’s boutiques, and Halloween was far from the seasonally incongruous party starter it is today.
In the 42 years since, from the store’s famously flamboyant building, Chong has watched Melburnians’ taste for Halloween festivities change, and the celtic-cum-catholic-cum-consumer holiday steadily sink its ghoulish claws deeper and deeper into the city’s cultural calendar.
Dr Harriette Richards, a research associate at the school of Culture and Communications at Melbourne University, says that her first big Melbourne Halloween party was about eight years ago and since then she, like many other Melbournians, has noticed a significant uptick in spooky celebrations around the holiday.
It’s not like Easter or Christmas, she says, which are tied up with Christianity. “It’s an opportunity to come together around something that’s not based on religion,” which Richards believes holds appeal to secular millennials who enjoy developing their own traditions with their young families. For older Gen Zs, who are likely the first Australians to have celebrated the tradition as children themselves, Halloween is already seen as an established custom.
The changing face of Halloween certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed at the Fitzroy workshop. Chong and Cuthbertson say that the rise and rise of social media and streaming services in the past decade has driven a noticeable surge in Halloween trade, as well as which costumes people request and how quickly trends turn around. Cuthbertson has observed that since the pandemic, Melburnians have been churning through pop-culture references even faster.
When Cuthbertson started at the store 15 years ago, everyone wanted to go dressed as Moulin Rogue, and that was a trend that lasted for about five years.
Dr Richards agrees and reckons our increasing saturation in American culture has driven at least some of the trend, and that people’s perception of the holiday as “fun and playful” has also helped. “It’s an activity based holiday” that’s secular and inclusive, it makes everyone feel welcome she says.
Chong says the biggest Halloween parties are often hosted by the most unlikely industries. “Often they’re the most typically boring [professions]: lawyers, insurance brokers, financial advisors; suits basically.”
The past few years, they’ve noticed, too, their Santa costumes have gone entirely unloved. “Corporates stopped doing Christmas because of families going away and sensitivities around people who aren’t Christmas celebrators.”
During lockdown the store catered to eager Halloween revellers by offering online styling and click-and-collect. Emerging from hibernation in time for the big day on Sunday, it’s now doing in-person styling appointments, and to contend with demand it’s set up an appointment system, with slots still available on Friday and Saturday. Chong says the one-on-one sessions with one of her merry band of “Chongettes” will allow punters to find what they want in the three-level labyrinth of gaudery and good fun.
Chong says her staff are “pretty cluey” and can help figure out a client’s masquerading MO. If you’re spicy, “they’ll take you to one little degree more saucy than you imagined,” she says cheekily.
“It’s always the quiet ones who want to wear nothing,” says Cuthbertson, adding that if you’re more of a gorilla suit type of person, the team will work with you around your “silhouette preferences.”
Chong wants her customers to feel fabulous and classy and says the store has always been about conscious couture, meaning it doesn’t stock packaged costumes. “We are totally against that sort of thing,” the 76-year-old grandmother and art student with a fondness for pink says.
She’s designed and sewn many of the shop’s thousands of items herself, creating subversive collections like “the sexual clowns” – a pastel range of flowing chiffon smocks. Of course, classics like Austin Powers, Frenchy and Elvis are also available.
Outfit hire starts at $77 and deep cleaning is factored into the service. All garments are cleaned in the store’s in-house “lab”. “There’s more conflict and grief in the laundry than anywhere else in the business,” she says giggling, noting her staff regularly bicker over the best laundering techniques for the costumes. “we take the cleaning very seriously.”
Rose Chong and the Chongettes are available to help you realise all your Halloween costume fantasies by appointment or walk-in this Friday and Saturday. Personal styling bookings can be made by calling the store on 9419 6233 and are free.