Juanita Hood of JOSETTE’S COSTUME SHOP IN BILOXI

By: Nancy Marchbanks
Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound….no, it’s not Superman – It’s the manager of the Costume and Theater Dept at Josette’s!  Meet Juanita Hood, who has been at the helm of this remarkable place for 13 years! When she was hired, she knew absolutely nothing about the business and found the job rather daunting. “I was petrified when I started. I never thought I could learn where everything was, and what to do. In time though, I did learn everything, and I knew I really belonged. Josette trained me and was such a wonderful teacher. I love it, and for some reason I thrive on all the craziness, pressure, and chaos” Juanita said. The job requires a calm, cool head and being able to react quickly and with great efficiency.  The days are filled with constant challenges, often requiring snap decisions to be made, with no room for error.
Josette’s is the premiere costume shop that has graced the corner of Howard Avenue and Caillivet Street for almost 40 years. You step inside and find yourself in a different world. Everywhere you look, there are racks upon racks of glorious costumes. Shoes, hats, and every conceivable accessory are here, and you can become anyone or anything with the help of these very talented people. They do it all at Josette’s – and if they don’t have what you want in stock (but they probably do!), they will happily make it for you.
Josette Locklar started out as an antique dealer. She hails from New Orleans. Although semi- retired now, Josette will usually spend one day a week in her beloved costume store, visiting with the staff and overseeing the latest projects in process. “The shop is still her baby, and it is so wonderful to be able to call her and get her thoughts and advice…we could not do without her,” Juanita said. Josette’s son, Jacob, is now running the business. He grew up watching his mother work and consequently learned everything about the shop, inside and out. “We all really love Jacob, he is the greatest boss and the shop could not be in better hands,” Juanita said.
The magic happens both upstairs and downstairs. There are so many costumes and articles of clothing…Juanita said she really does not know the exact number!  Every inch of space is utilized, every nook and cranny has something in it. This place is so extraordinary, but can be quite overwhelming because there is so much stuff!  Remarkably, Juanita and her assistants know exactly where everything is.
Upstairs is an enormous room that is filled with Mardi Gras costumes. The most ornate and exquisite custom made capes and headdresses are hung from the rafters. It can take up to 2 months to make one cape. The sequins and adornments are all done by hand. Headdresses can weigh as much as 15 lbs. Mardi Gras costumes will often rent for over $1,000 for the full season. Credit for the creation of most of these grand garments, and also many stunning hats and headpieces is given to one woman, Margie McGraw. She was on staff at Josette’s for over 10 years but has since gone out on her own. Now she continues to assist with various costume work at Josette’s because of her extraordinary talent and vision.
A work room is on the second floor and this is where all the beautiful clothing and costumes are tended. Repairs and modifications are made on a giant table in the center of the room. Everything is carefully and painstakingly examined by the most critical eye, so not to miss one pearl or bead, clasp or button. Margie was once the queen of the work room but since her departure, everyone pitches in when there is a job to be done. Brand new garments are also fashioned here.
Every single piece of fabric; every bead, feather, trim and button comes directly from Josette’s fabric department. Anna and Jean, the seamstresses in house, have the finest materials to work with. Anna makes costumes, gowns, and outfits specifically for the store, but customers can also purchase the fabrics and adornments to use outside of the shop if they wish. There are many bolts of fabric that cost well over $100 a yard. But if you want the best…this is where to find it. Samples of fabric are available for a fee. Prepackaged costumes are offered as well in every imaginable character and theme. Costumes are available for rent or for purchase, whatever suits you best, Josette’s will make it happen. The women in charge of the fabric dept. are Lauren and Barbara.
Our tour continues upstairs with the Vintage area and Costume department. All clothing and accessories are representations from a particular time in history. A suit jacket owned by Natalie Wood is a prized acquisition, among the thousands of garments housed in the building. Women’s fashions in the 50’s through the 70’s were much smaller in size. It was decided to create a selection of 70’s style clothing to accommodate the larger ladies of today, because it is almost impossible to fit most of us in the true vintage styles of yesteryear. Josette acquired many pieces of vintage clothing through estate sales, and often donations are made to the costume department when garages and attics get a spring cleaning.
Downstairs houses the Fabric department, the Formal and Bridal salon, and the Dance department. Josette’s furnishes all the shoes for the cocktail waitresses that work in the casinos. They also stock every kind of dance shoe imaginable. Drag queens are also some of Josette’s best customers! They know they can always find the make-up and “over the top” flashy jewelry and accessories that they want. “We have absolutely everything here. Josette’s is so diverse – we have the fabric, we have the tuxedos, the rental costumes and the alterations department, then Anna does tailoring, and custom made clothing,” Juanita said. The formal department is looked after by Sarah.
Juanita’s team are women who work very closely together and depend on each other for the good of the business. There are no egos here, and nothing ever gets in the way of the work. Everyone gets along famously and they think of one another as family. Kerry, known as Pumpkin, is Juanita’s number one assistant. She is a performer, musician and artist, and has done modeling as well. “I love this job. I get to express myself and have so much fun. I like to surprise everyone, they never know what I might be wearing or who I will be when I come to work,” Kerry said. The job is great fun, but when the pressure is on – playtime is over and everyone gives 110%. Juanita and Kerry are very well schooled in historical accuracy. They are often called upon to work with directors and theater companies to outfit actresses and actors for very specific period productions. Danni is also a valued costume department assistant that works with Kerry and Juanita.
A call came in from a representative from the original cast of “A Chorus Line” on Broadway in New York that required an “on the spot” decision. They needed costumes for the entire company. Juanita remained cool and collected, and immediately went to work on her latest monumental task. The deadline is just a few weeks away. “They wanted white sparkly vests and hats…I don’t have those so I came up with another idea…they liked it, so it’s a go,” she said as cool as a cucumber. The costumes are packaged and sent via UPS. “I never panic, no matter what – I can always figure something out but I do have to think very fast and be ready for anything,” Juanita said. She loves the pace, and finds herself actually dreaming about costumes when she sleeps. “I love my job – it goes in so many directions, and nothing is ever the same thing twice. It is sitting around and having nothing to do that would drive me crazy.”
Josette’s is a member of the National Costumers Association. They get requests for costumes and special apparel all the time from all over the country because of their impeccable reputation. Word of mouth spreads very quickly. The costumes for the Broadway production will garner a nod in the world famous Broadway Playbill. This is a first for Josettes! These women have outfitted Las Vegas showgirls, and decked out many Mardi Gras kings and queens. Whatever is next for this team of professionals, there is no doubt that they will be able to handle it.
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