Almost every small business has a story wrapped around it, and Victorian Vogue & The Costume Shoppe is no exception.
At 2 p.m. on a Wednesday, the store at 4289 State Street appears quiet and unassuming, albeit a little eccentric, much like proprietress Sonya Hayward, who sits behind the register before a display of jewels, her long, glittering blue nails tapping the glass countertop.
The mismatched racks of clothing, the soft piano music, and the sweet, musky scent of mothballs belie Victorian Vogue’s deep-rooted history, one that is embedded not only in the Santa Barbara community but in the life of Hayward, as well.
Revealing that history, which stretches back 25 years, takes some time for Hayward: The conversation weaves back and forth through a loving recitation on the history of Victorian laces to detailed instructions on how to properly wash a wig, to the latest gossip on the Santa Barbara party scene, including a recent Michael Towbes “M&T”-themed birthday, a steampunk wedding and an admittedly strange “dress-as-a-bad-acid-trip” soirée.
“Truth is stranger than fiction,” Hayward admitted. “It’s like being in a living-situation comedy — exit stage left, enter stage right, somebody who’s interrelated to somebody else — and there’s every age group and socioeconomic interaction going on.”
Hayward added, “Not to mention the people who work here; you know, we’re pretty funny.”
She gestures to her friend and employee, Salvatore, a.k.a. BellaDonna, who stopped by two Halloweens ago and “never left.”
She shakes her head, laughing.
“You just can’t make some of this stuff up,” she said. “I really wish I had been documenting it all these years.”
The discussion turns to a wistful commentary on Hayward’s life story, from her days as the daughter of a world-class dancer in Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo to a teepee-dwelling, anti-fashion hippie who eschewed material possessions, favoring Urantia book readings over her mother’s old stage costumes.
After her aunt, Rita, passed away in 1981, Hayward set up a showroom for the inheritance in her garage, adding to the collection with bits and pieces from estate sales and swap meets, for which she rose at the crack of dawn to be the first customer.
When she met her first buyers — Maureen and Oliver Duex, a couple who imported Victorian whites from Berlin — her selection soon extended into Edwardian apparel and through the decades until the 1980s.
In 1990, Hayward moved into a shared space with a shop called Bird Feathers and Fox Fur, whose owners struggled to make a go of it.
Still, the phones rang continually, and on the other end were the voices of Santa Barbara’s vibrant cultural community.
“I couldn’t believe the action in town for costumes,” she marveled, “so I did borrow some money, and bought what the inventory was — that is, a costume shop.”
From there, Hayward recalls, her business developed under what she believes were “angelic circumstances,” garnering selections from more than 30 catalogues and countless patrons who supply everything from antique collections to time-honored heirlooms.
“It is really fun when you get the authentic stuff, and the old laces,” Hayward said.
Not to say that her business has been without struggles. Yet even after the frenetic pace of customer service, the sky-high expense of maintenance, and the monthly returns of cigarette-stained, hole-torn, even blood-spattered rental items, Hayward acknowledges that “it’s not about the money; we found that out right at the beginning.”
It’s also thanks to the Santa Barbara community that she’s lasted so long.
“I don’t think I could make it in any other town,” she admitted. “I would’ve been out of business in a year or two.”
While it’s true that patrons are the lifeblood of her operation, they are also carry a sentimental value as well.
“It’s great to be getting the kids of the kids who I used to help,” said Hayward. “That’s really satisfying.”
It’s a place where junior high students find costumes for history projects, school plays and Halloween parties; where engaged couples realize their vision of bride and groom for a themed wedding; where sorority girls upgrade their wardrobes for a weekend in Sin City; and where budding photographers find inspiration for their next photo shoot.
On occasion, though, many people serendipitously stumble inside, if only to play dress-up again.
“I never played dress-up as a little girl,” Hayward said, “so I get to play dress-up now as a grownup.”
The most rewarding part, for Hayward, however, is the transforming effect that a simple pair of glasses and a wig can have on a reluctant debutante.
“Having somebody who is not into getting dressed up at all — they’re shy, they’re introverted — and it turns out when they get back they were the life of the party,” she said. “It’s fantastic to see that happen.”
As for the future of her beloved boutique, Hayward is optimistic.
“All we’ve become is a reflection of who the customers are, and we have wonderful, wonderful customers,” she said. “It’s still as much fun to come to work today as it’s ever been.”