Spotlight On: Williams Costume Company
After 60 years in business in Sin City, Nancy Williams has seen it all
(click image above for photo gallery)
Nancy Williams spoke with a wry smile of her early days in Las Vegas, reminiscing about the late 1940s in great detail as if it were yesterday.
She arrived in Sin City in 1948 as an 18-year-old dancer, thinking her stint would be a short two-week job at the El Rancho. She wound up staying and soon started dancing at Bugsy Siegel’s The Flamingo.
“Yep, I worked for the mob,” she said, matter-of-factly.
Williams “gave up dancing on the strip and went into the dancing school business.” Many of her students were children of mobsters. Part of her teaching duties was making costumes for their recitals in her garage, which turned out to be her calling.
In 1956, she opened Williams Costume Co. at the corner of S. Third and Colorado streets in the heart of what’s now referred to as Old Vegas. Sixty years later, Williams, 86, and her costume retail and rental business are still plugging along.
With 10,000 square feet at her disposal, Williams and her small staff utilize every inch of it.
The front portion of the business is stocked from floor to ceiling with for-sale items, including costumes, hats, beads, rhinestones and just about anything anyone could need to create a signature look. A journey to the back portion of the location, which was an expansion, there are multiple floors housing around 7,000 outfits, many of which were sewn by Williams herself.
“Everything is pretty well organized,” Williams said. “All the Santa and Christmas things are together, all the Roman uniforms are together, all the Old West things are together.”
These days, Williams Costume Co.’s biggest customers tend to be theatrical groups, wedding chapels that host themed weddings and individuals looking for Halloween costumes or perhaps a costume for their children who have a dance recital. It wasn’t always that way, however. Las Vegas has always been built around tourism, but the way the hotels go about attracting visitors has certainly changed over the decades.
“Caesar’s (Palace) was one of my big customers because they did all these pageants and had men walk around like with (Roman) soldiers,” Williams said. “Today, they just do nothing. The other hotels were always doing every kind of event you could think of … They don’t any of it anymore. They don’t have to. They still do stuff for conventions, but not the plain hotel visitors.”
Williams has had no shortage of celebrities waltz through her doors over the years. Past regulars include Elvis and Liberace. “All kinds of stars have come in here,” Williams said. “They have their stage costumes, but they still need things. Marie Osmond was just in here last week buying stones.”
Part of the allure of Williams Costume is its historic location away from the lights and glitz of the strip. The building is a concrete structure that looks at home in the southwest, as it is flanked by by palm trees and agaves. On an outside wall, there is a mural of a famous 1949 photo of the Dice Girls dancing troupe, of which Williams was a member.
Williams lives on site on the top floor, which she and her late husband Newt Baker had to fight the city to do. “We fought them for a long time, and they finally let us,” Williams said. Her living companion her 13-year-old dog, Spotty, who roams the costume shop during working hours.
Williams’ bedroom is set up with ancient Egyptian-style furniture and décor that she got from Caesar’s Palace when it was remodeled. Many of the items she originally made for the hotel.
“The hotel part of our business has really dropped because all the events are just not happening. But we still have all the other different kinds of events that we do, including all the different kinds of weddings, and people who want to make all their own stuff,” Williams said. “The hotels still need supplies for their show wardrobes, so we sell all the supplies for those.”
When asked how much longer she wants to keep working — Williams now utilizes a walker to help her get around the store — she had a quick response followed by a good laugh.
“Oh, they’ll have to carry me out of here.”
Quick Q&A with Nancy Williams
What do you love about the costume business?
The imagination that people show, and how they allow us into their lives. They come in here they have an idea for some kind of thing, even a wedding, and it turns into an event where they have to have all kinds of people in costumes. It’s been lots of interesting fun.
How have tastes change over the years?
You see less of the old-time television shows and old-time movies. For instance, “The Wizard of Oz,” we used to do that all the time, but you don’t see much of that anymore. … The older, more legendary costuming, Civil War and all that — we used to do a lot of Civil War — but you don’t get people in that.
Your shop is located in the older part of Vegas, closer to downtown than the strip. Have you ever thought of moving?
No, not really. … This location is central to everything. We’re near a lot of wedding chapels. We get a lot of business from weddings. Elvis and Marilyn Monroe get married a lot here. (laughs)
- WHAT: Williams Costume Co.
- WHERE: 1226 S. Third St., Las Vegas
- STORE SIZE: Approximately 10,000 square feet
- STAFF: Four full-time employees; two more added during Halloween and Christmas seasons
- WHAT THEY SELL: Costumes, accessories and everything needed to make costumes, including fabrics, beads, chains, feathers, rhinestones and much more; also costume rental
- ONLINE: www.williamscostumeco.net and Facebook