The clock is ticking at South Tampa Trading Co. It’s Nov. 23, 2021, nearly two months until Gasparilla, the annual Tampa tradition that fuels the store’s sales. Jeff Dervech walks in to order a parade costume; he is a new squire in the Krewe of the Knights of Sant’ Yago, one of the local social clubs.
His presence sets off a flurry of activity. Store owner Anne Bartlett rattles off Dervech’s family members’ names and his krewe’s colors and styles. Her team springs into action. Tape measures encircle him, swatches of blue fabric and silver lace fly out of the back room. Bartlett rattles off words like “castling,” “rows of trim,” “knight braids,” “collar” and “cuffs.” Dervech is new to it all and he trusts their expertise.
“Everyone gets their costumes from here,” Dervech says.
Bartlett has designed around three thousand outfits for Gasparilla since opening South Tampa Trading Co. seven years ago on Dale Mabry Highway. Dervech’s will be one of about 500 her team is making this year alone. She knows the drill: Measure in extra room around the arms for ease of bead throwing. Add pockets to hold IDs and credit cards. And make it look amazing because this is Tampa’s most celebrated, photographed day.
“The rule is you have to find me at Gasparilla and get your picture with me,” she tells him. “I have great pictures with everyone.”
Bartlett missed this organized chaos last year. COVID-19 sent her Gasparilla orders to a screeching halt when the parade was canceled. Her team pivoted to sewing face masks and was met with high demand. They have sold over 29,000 masks so far, shipping to 48 states.
“There was a time you couldn’t get them anywhere, so we were sewing as fast as we could,” Bartlett says. “For a while, we were working 20-hour days. It was wild, but it was fun.”
While she is happy to help out, handmade costumes are what make Bartlett come alive the most, and she couldn’t be more excited for Gasparilla’s return.
“It’s nice to be back in the swing again,” she says.
Walking into South Tampa Trading Co. is like entering a classy pirate wonderland. About 30 trading partners sell specialty items in the store, such as skulls, embroidery, hats and wreaths. They also sell beads in bulk. When Google mislabeled it a souvenir shop, Bartlett made lemonade out of lemons, adding a section of touristy items, such as snow globes, rum cakes and cookbooks.
While some ready-made costumes and semi-custom outfits are available, what sets the store apart is its fully customized ensembles. In the back is Bartlett’s playground of fabrics, trims, buttons and sequins. Her eyes light up as she talks about designing costumes and working with her team of seamstresses to bring her plans to life.
“I help people become what they dreamed they could be,” Bartlett says. “Whether they want to dress as a goddess, a pirate queen, a Voodoo chef, a knight, a king, a cancan dancer, Teddy Roosevelt or simply want to cut loose and walk Bayshore Boulevard dressed as a pirate — we can help them realize those dreams, step outside themselves, have fun and make great memories.”
Creating costumes is in Bartlett’s blood. Her mother, aunts and grandmothers were skilled sewists. When her sons started participating in high school madrigal dinners (Renaissance theater dinners), she became the choir’s go-to costume maker.
“One of my friends sewing with me said if you like this, you should join a krewe,” Bartlett recalls.
Intrigued, Bartlett joined Ye Loyal Krewe of Grace O’Malley in 2008. Its members wear 16th-century Elizabethan ball gowns, much to Bartlett’s delight, and she has collected over 20 outfits.
As more krewe members asked her to make their costumes, she determined there was enough demand to open a store. South Tampa Trading Co. has since become many krewes’ go-to costume shop. In fact, Bartlett estimates having made outfits for over 30 krewes.
Seamstress and krewe member Cindy “Anna Rosa” Dauck says, “Each krewe wants to have a unique look and be recognized from far away. The best part is seeing them in it showing off.”
Prices range from a couple hundred dollars to upward of six thousand dollars. After all, an elaborate costume could require 150 hours of labor over the course of a month. Bartlett’s main challenge is finding seamstresses.
“Sewing is a dying art and there’s not that many people who do it anymore,” Bartlett says.
“We’re willing to teach people. It’s very specialized, what we do. It’s very unique.”
The handiwork is intricate to say the least, with tedious applique work, custom trims and individually sewn stones and metals. It’s about making each person look their best, but it’s also more than that, Bartlett says.
“The heart of Gasparilla is really civic pride and wanting to share that with a lot of other people,” Bartlett says. “We are keepers of that history. It is a thing that has shaped this city.”
Want to learn more about Gasparilla? Check out The Making of Gasparilla