A PAIR OF Unicorn Warriors swiftly conquered the dance floor, gracefully maneuvering swords and shields, tipping their horns at the audience. After captivating the Halloween crowd at Hammerjack's last year, they also pranced away with a $500 Halloween prize.
"The fur looked precisely like horse hair. They were the most incredible costumes I had ever seen," says Geraldine Tully, a South Baltimore costumer who's developing her own reputation for putting together fantasies.
During the last decade, dressing up for Halloween has become almost as important to adults as it is to children. In fact, it's second only to New Year's Eve as the nation's prime party night. This year more than 50 million Americans, most of them adults, will attend at least one Halloween bash, according to the researchers at Hallmark Cards.
And roughly one in four adults will wear something they would never wear to work -- if you don't count those Halloween-happy bank tellers, waiters and dentists. Come Halloween, it's harder than ever to avoid doing business with someone dressed as a California Raisin.
Another spooky development is the price of this fun. Particularly elaborate costumes can cost as much as $300 -- or rent for $100 or more -- if you include face masks. The biggest demand for store-bought costumes falls in the $30 to $60 range, about the same as it does for rentals.
Tully and her mother, Betty Branson, run Gallery Elizabeth, a flowers and costumes fantasy shop which has all of the pleasant sensations of an attic filled with family treasures. For a $45 rental fee, Tully introduces a customer to a costume and wig and/or headpiece. For an extra $10, she commits makeup.
This year, the official Halloween party season lasts about ten days. Many of Tully's customers rent costumes for several occasions, such as the Knights of Columbus dance and the famous street party in Fells Point. There are private parties galore. One of the most popular local events is the costume contest at Hammerjacks. The nightclub hands out $500 prizes for costumes in the categories of most original, sexiest, ugliest and best couple. This year's party starts at 9 p.m. Sat. Oct. 27.
Although Halloween is the busiest time of year, Tully says there is steady demand for costumes for mystery evenings, sock hops and luaus.
"I'm amazed at the lack of imagination some people have," she says. "They can't seem to put things together unless we put it all together for them. Or they have to be stock characters like Snow White or Dracula."
Most of her women customers request alabaster skin, blood red nails and costumes to scream sex appeal: Cleopatra, Cat Woman, Elvira, The Flapper and The Street Walker.
"We haven't come across people wanting to be old-timey too much," Tully says. "They're not so much into the Victorian look.
"The men tend to go for the gory. They rent full masks, torn clothes. Last year, Batman and Joker were the biggest things, we couldn't do enough Joker things. Men also like to go as a couple. As Caesar and Cleopatra, as Rhett Butler and Scarlett."
It's a field littered with inspirational tales. Tully remembers the diffident school teacher who had never, ever thought about dressing up before he sauntered out of her Light Street store as a pirate.
"He had a gun that popped and a patch and outrageous jewelry. He affected a pirate voice and was singing sea ditties. You'd never have expected it from this guy," she says.
This Halloween Tully plans to appear as "Mama" from "Mama's Family."
"She's a big bosomy woman with cheap polyester clothes -- the stockings rolled down to her ankles -- who doesn't hold back anything that she thinks, even though she doesn't know much about the world."
In a break from tradition, Tully's husband will not share this fantasy and plans to dress up as The Wizard. Last year the couple went as King Ghoul and The Bride of Frankenstein, impressing revelers at Hammerjack's with their version of the Monster Mash. (They are also fondly remembered for their elegant portrayal of the Count and Countess of Monte Cristo.)
A native of Glens Falls, N.Y., Tully worked at the flower market in Harborplace before opening Gallery Elizabeth and embracing the art of masquerade. This season she is happily wearing a different costume every day.
"It doesn't really matter what character you are, or what you wear, as long as you can disguise yourself."