“The lightning bug’s husband wanted to be a King Cake”: It sounds like something that a Lewis Carroll character would say before winking and disappearing into an enchanted forest.
But Sarah Wheelock, costume designer, fashionista and businesswoman, says this nonchalantly from her Uptown studio, surrounded by racks of colorful fabrics, overflowing bins of feathers and sequins, elaborately dressed mannequins and rows upon rows of hats and other accouterments. “The lightning bug,” it turns out, is one of Wheelock’s many clients: a woman whose husband needed a costume as unique and quirky as his wife’s for Mardi Gras Day – the King Cake costume ultimately consisted of, among other fabrics, white fur trim and glitter, and it was accessorized by a gold-painted baby doll stuck to a scepter.
You’re never too old to play dress-up in New Orleans. And Wheelock, a Massachusetts native and mother of two, has found a niche in creating and selling costumes, accessories and refurbished vintage clothing.
“I’ve always been into vintage clothes,” she says. “I started collecting hats when I was 12; my mom
taught me how to sew when I was 4. When I moved to New Orleans, there was so much demand for it. It seemed natural.”
For 13 years, Wheelock owned the Magazine Street shop and hipster haven Funky Monkey, selling recycled and vintage clothing. But she sold the store last year, opting to devote her time to making more costumes and buying and selling her collection of vintage items, which can be purchased at local art markets, Buffalo Exchange and Etsy.com at etsy.com/shop/neworleansmagpie.
After taking a millinery class – paying tribute to her lifelong passion for hats – Wheelock has been working on designs featuring vintage hats that she has collected and embellished with taxidermied birds from the 1920s; other chapeaux are decorated with Spanish moss and antlers or feathers.
Her unique and occasionally swamp-inspired designs are handmade and eye-catching, whether they’re in the form of a flashy showgirl costume, a pirate get-up, a feather headband, a cape or a headdress, and they can be worn whether it’s an average Tuesday or a Fat Tuesday. Wheelock also works with clients to create custom orders. “I’ve always used bustiers and feathers,” she says. “I do a lot of peacock costumes and really anything I think will work.”
Wheelock is a careful shopper, making sure to select materials that will withstand the test of time. She shops online, scours flea markets and frequents fabric stores, and her creations are as versatile and durable as
they are festive.
In November 2010, Wheelock debuted a few of her creations at the Righteous Fur multimedia fashion show, which emphasized the use of nutria fur in various designs. It’s a movement started by another costumier, Cree McCree, who seeks to promote eco-friendly fur, as the nutria is an invasive species to the Louisiana wetlands. Wheelock’s design collaborator, Jeremy Young, modeled an intricate American Indian-inspired headdress along with arm- and leg-cuffs and a warrior-style skirt made of nutria fur as he strutted down the runway at the Ogden Museum of
The duo also collaborated for New Orleans Fashion Week in March 2011, exhibiting a line of handmade kimonos with hand-dyed fabrics. (Young recently spent time in Japan and drew inspiration from the country’s traditional styles.)
Wheelock emphasizes quality in her work. “I prefer a finished style,” she says, meaning that her pieces are sewn rather than deconstructed. She says her style is over-the-top and generally appeals to people “who like to have fun.”
Her influences include Diane von Furstenberg, Marc Jacobs and Betsey Johnson, designers who are “eccentric and quirky but still classic.” But exuberance for Wheelock is key: ”If you like ruffles,” she muses, “how about get a million ruffles – not just one!”