A Capitol Hill Halloween

Joan Pekin, owner of the Costumes Creative mega-store in Silver Spring, calls it “sight recognition.”

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She recommends if you’re going to dress as a public figure, it should be someone people will know on the spot.

For example, she notes she’s getting requests for a Bernie Madoff mask, the New York businessman convicted of running a Ponzi scheme.

“I don’t think down here anybody would recognize the mask,” she said. “It’s not like Teddy Kennedy or something. There’s not a mask of him. It would have been popular had there been.”

BuyCostumes.com has several masks of political figures available, including President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and former President Bill Clinton.

And masks of the former presidential candidates are still for sale, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R).

If none of those grab you, politicalmasks.com has several old favorites, including Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and Abraham Lincoln.

But it doesn’t take a mask to dress up as a politician.

Howard Kurtz, a professor at the College of Visual Design and Performing Arts at George Mason University, has an idea for that old cowboy hat taking up space in the back of your closet. “Go as George retired.” Thinking of going as the first lady this year? Kurtz had one word — “sleeveless!”

Film costume designer Hope Hanafin, who took time off last year to work as a field director for the Obama campaign in Colorado, suggested that fans of the first couple wear Superman or Superwoman T-shirts underneath one of the Obamas’ signature styles — a sleek suit for the president and a sheath for the first lady.

If that sounds too complicated or expensive, Kurtz suggested a solution: scissors. “With what’s going on with our economy, people need find costumes within their own homes this year,” he said. “We’re really going back to simplicity this year — taking a sheet, cutting two holes out of it and going as a ghost.”

Hanafin agreed that award-winning costumes can’t be found in stores. “The best costumes I’ve ever seen are the ones people put a little time and sweat equity into and invest their own point of view.

“Instead of doing people,” suggested Hanafin, who is also vice president of the Costume Designers Guild, “sometimes it’s more fun to do a concept. One of the joys of Halloween is that the ideas can be there even if the execution isn’t always there.”

Or if you must get some use out of a boxy old navy blue suit, why not go as a pundit you hate with masking tape over his mouth?

Those types of home-sewn costumes reveal something about the people behind the masks and say “something about what they believe in and what they care about,” explained Hanafin, who once tied huge trash bags filled with shoes around her body and went as Imelda Marcos.

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“The first Mardi Gras after Katrina, the political bent on that stuff was brilliant,” said Hanafin, who was particularly struck by a group of “three blind mice” dressed as FEMA agents.

But using costumes and masks to make a political statement isn’t new.

According to Hanafin, the tradition of dressing up for religious holidays like All Souls Day and Mardi Gras was based on the rare opportunity to lampoon powerful figures like bishops or priests. In the late 1930s during World War II, she said, there was a peculiar trend of having young children dress up as Hitler.

“We kind of made it cute and seductive instead of political,” said Hanafin, “but it was always political.”

Pekin has seen some promising glimpses of capital creativity among her clients so far.

“People have bought some pigs with wings and a hospital mask to be the swine flu,” she laughed.

Hopefully that kind of imagination, and not the H1N1 virus, will catch on this Halloween season.