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Five Minutes with Harriet Berlin, owner of Artistic Costumes & Dance Fashions

Harriet Berlin's role as owner of Artistic Costumes & Dance Fashions seems to shift from minute to minute, and each October, the pace intensifies.

On Wednesday, she doled out advice on makeup to a customer renting a Civil War-era ball gown, encouraging her to wear a hoop under the skirt and throwing in period gloves and a hat. The store owner then turned to a shopper who wanted to turn herself into a jellyfish, nodding approval as the young woman pulled on an aqua sequined suit.

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Berlin checked inventory and prices as she weaved through aisles of flapper and pirate costumes, with witch hats dangling overhead. She braced for the last-minute crush that typically comes two days before Halloween.

"It's like Christmas Eve at Macy's," said Berlin, 65. "In the old days, we'd run out of costumes. I'd have to pull things from my closet and add things to them."

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Berlin reflected last week on the longevity of her business, which stretches back to 1951, when her parents, Max and Edna Krents, started Artistic Dance Fashions in Washington. Her dad previously had run a costume shop and worked for a ballet pointe shoe maker, so he blended dance and dress-up in his new shop.

Long before anyone had heard of the internet, Berlin's mother took to selling ballet recital costumes sewn by local seamstresses through her own mail order catalog. Berlin worked for her parents for a decade before opening her shop in Towson in 1981.

"We're pretty much an institution," said Berlin, who's expanded her rental costume stock from five pieces to 2,000. "We have customers who've been coming here for 36 years, and they bring their children and grandchildren."

Between Halloween duties last week, Berlin took time out to fit a Towson University dance student for pointe shoes. Fitting the pink satin "toe" shoes is her specialty, as it was her father's for decades at his shop, which eventually moved from Washington to Cordell Avenue in Bethesda and was later run by Berlin's sister. Berlin's father died three years ago at 93; her mother had died more than a year earlier.

"He became really well-known with all the dance teachers in Washington," Berlin said. "He was a specialist in fitting pointe shoes. It's a real art to fitting them properly."

While ballet slippers and leotards are in demand year-round, so are rental costumes, Berlin said, by actors, theater groups, high school drama departments, advertising agencies and people throwing themed parties. Boots, shoes, wigs and Mardi Gras masks crowd the shelves, and theatrical makeup fills glass cases.

"We're creative," Berlin said. "What I used to always admire about my dad is I'd be working in the store as a kid, and someone would come in and say, 'I want to be a devil,' and he'd figure out a way to make devil's horns and put glitter on them. He could always solve a problem, and I do the same thing for people. They say, 'I need to be this character,' and somehow I'm able to pull it together."

Berlin said her shop's reputation keeps it competitive. It sells children's costumes but caters mostly to adults for Halloween.

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"The adults get to be children for that night," she said. "They take their masks off, in a sense."

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

Harriet Berlin

Title: Owner, Artistic Costumes & Dance Fashions Inc.

The Evening Sun

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Age: 65

Previous job: Worked at Artistic Dance Fashions and as a fashion illustrator

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Residence: Pikesville

Birthplace: Washington D.C.

Family: Two daughters, Julia, 30, and Sara, 25.

Education: Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Maryland Institute College of Art; master's degree from University of Baltimore in conjunction with MICA; attended Parsons School of Design in New York

Interests/hobbies: Movies, cooking, theater, museums, art, driving in her boyfriend's 1930 Model A


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