By Ellen Barcel
Coming off the Spirit Tour in Setauket and Halloween, Nancy Altman “Nan” Guzzetta is preparing for the Dickens Festival in Port Jefferson — preparing costumes that is. As owner of Antique Costumes and Props By Nan in Port Jefferson, she provides high-end costumes for a wide variety of events including entire shows, themed weddings, historic anniversary celebrations and a whole lot more. Upcoming events for which Guzzetta will provide costumes include “The Music Man” in East Northport and the Santa Parade and Santa’s Workshop in Port Jefferson to name just a few.
Guzzetta’s attention is to detail, historical accuracy being her strong suit. “We don’t do Disney or Star Wars,” but Henry the VIII, that’s another story, or Gatsby, Titanic or Downton Abbey inspired pieces. “I work with museums a lot, for their galas.” When the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook opened its recent Gilded Coast exhibit, “I costumed people for the gala.” And, she added, “Oheka Castle has a big garden party every year. I costume for that.”
The Dickens Festival honoree was “costumed yesterday,” she added. And “we did the 350th anniversary of Smithtown … we did a descendent of Bull Smith.” Richard “Bull” Smith is said to have drawn up the boundaries of Smithtown in the 1600s when he rode a bull around a tract of land.
Other costumes available include classic movie stars, ancient Egyptian and Roman outfits and even Marie Antoinette. She also provides all sorts of accessories such as fencing foils for the Musketeers, art deco jewelry to go with early 20th century ball gowns and fancy hats to complete an ensemble. She even provides hat pins to hold the elegant head pieces in place.
Antique Costumes is located in a historic Civil War era house, the Captain Henry Hallock house. Hallock was a Port Jefferson sea captain and shipbuilder. The house is sometimes referred to as the Chambers Mansion as it was later owned by Dr. Martin Luther Chambers. The mansion was also the home at one time of the Moose Lodge and the Slavic Cultural Center.
The mansion has a fascinating history all its own. In the 1970s the English band Foghat recorded a number of its gold records there. Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen also produced recordings at the mansion. Guzzetta added that it was one of the foremost recording studios in the Northeast at the time. The building also has a stage where live productions were once held.
Costumes in the mansion are arranged by theme: the children’s room, the Downton Abbey rooms, the wedding room, the red carpet room, the Renaissance room, etc. Tucked between costumes is a door leading to Guzzetta’s personal research library. And through the passage way is the theater.
Filled with energy and a fount of knowledge, Guzzetta said, “Isn’t this fun?” as she showed one room after another filled with costumes.
Many of the events she costumes for will hold prizes for the best costume, Guzzetta said. “I can boast that we have more prize winners than any other.” She added that a man recently rented a Christopher Columbus costume. He was asked to lead, not only one or two, but six different Columbus Day parades. “He’s sending us pictures.”
But, she also added that “We’re the best kept secret,” around. Why? Because many people don’t like to share their secret. They want people to think that they make their own elegant and historically accurate outfits.
When asked how things have changed over these 40 years that she’s been in business, she noted that “It’s changed dramatically.” There are fewer themed weddings, for example, but there are many more historic celebrations, like a 100th anniversary celebration in Cold Spring Harbor last year. She recently designed a costume for a book on Nikola Tesla, the 19th century Serbian-American inventor whose Shoreham, Wardenclyffe, laboratory is currently under restoration.
Guzzetta added that with the Internet, her business now is not only local but national and even international. People sometimes rent here and bring the costumes to “Venice for Carnival or New Orleans for Mardi Gras.” She accommodates magazine and greeting card shoots, as well as commercials. She even rents vintage furniture.
When asked when is her biggest season, Guzzetta observed that the need for her high-end costumes is really spread throughout the year. In planning large events people contact her “well in advance,” but “Halloween is frequently last minute.” But Halloween is not just for kids. More and more adults are attending masquerade balls and parties where costumes are a must.
Not only does Guzzetta have costumes, ready to be rented, but “we built them,” as well. “Over the years we’ve collected many vintage items … we rarely rent out the vintage ones,” now, but use them as models for new pieces. “I collect the best of every period and rent it.”
How does she deal with all the different sizes and shapes of her clientele? In some cases, she has several different sizes of a particular costume. In others she will alter them to fit. “All alterations are done here at no extra charge.” In other cases, she does what many theater productions do: There’s a slit in the back and the costume is laced up to fit the wearer. And, if she’s “building” a new costume, she has the renter’s measurements. Usual rental for individuals (it varies for theater productions) is three days, one to pick up the costume, one for its use and one to return it.
“We do teas and tours here,” too. The tea service can include a tour of the restored mansion or a tour and lecture, the group’s choice.
How did Guzzetta, who was a registered nurse, develop such a unique business? A lover of art and history, she opened an antique shop in Port Jefferson acquiring some costumes. But, “when I couldn’t get any more vintage costumes, I began renting (rather than selling) them and then making copies.” But for her, it’s not really work at all. “It’s a joy to come in every day.”
Antiques Costumes and Props by Nan is located at 709 Main Street, Port Jefferson (parking off Jones Avenue). Call 631-331-2261 or go to www. antiquescostumes.com. The business is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays by appointment only and weekends in special circumstances.