Best Of 2011

Best Place to Dress Up: Memory Lane, Fabric Plus and Robert Schmidt Costumes

Sandi Blair's three adjacent stores occupy virtually an entire block of downtown Wood River, Illinois. Memory Lane is a special-occasion boutique that focuses on bridal and prom wear — with an extra emphasis on the hoop skirts that are a tradition at local high school dances. Fabric Plus carries the colorful bolts of leftover laces and taffetas used by the Memory Lane seamstresses to craft custom-made finery. And Robert Schmidt Costumes is where ugly old gowns go to die. The latter business was founded in 1904, but its inventory was trucked over in its entirety from the old "Idle-a-While" bowling alley on Virginia Avenue in St. Louis just six years ago. Blair, whose main passion is theatrical costuming, has divided the store into two parts. Downstairs is the public area, where those wacky old prom and bridesmaids' dresses can be rented to ladies masquerading as Gunsmoke's Miss Kitty. Upstairs, which is open only to those pulling for theatrical productions, is where the best stuff lurks. Under a low tin ceiling, row after row of chronologically arranged outfits — "from the dawn of man to the present" — are crammed into tightly packed racks, with shelves full of boxed oddities like loincloths and coonskin caps. Some of the most intricately made vintage costumes are from a Shakespearean repertory company that toured the U.S. in the early part of the twentieth century. The menswear is particularly impressive: hand-sewn full-skirted Georgian coats with mitered piping on the lapels and knee breeches finished with exquisite bows. It's worth putting on a show just for entrée to this exclusive level.