From dress-up to feet-up
By ANN-MARIE MAY
IT WAS only ever meant to be a hobby, not to take over her life. When Norma McConnell opened Coffs Harbour Fancy Dress Hire more than 30 years ago, she started with two racks of costumes. Today she has 22 racks, wardrobes filled to capacity, and five shelves. "I would say there are more than 3000 costumes ? and I have an intimate relationship with them all," Norma said. That is because she made the majority herself, and has a story for each one she bought. Norma's career in the fancy dress business began when she returned from Queensland to her home town of Coffs Harbour and joined the local drama group, now called CHATS. The professional singer, dressmaker, former nurse and mother of five, made her Coffs Harbour stage debut in 1962 when she played Anna in the musical The King and I. "It was such a long time ago, when I was young and beautiful," she said. "I made all my own costumes ? which was about eight dresses." More performances, including many pantomimes which featured up to 60 children, followed, and eventually Norma took on the role of director and producer. "They all required many and varied costumes, which were mostly made by me," she said. From this it seemed a natural progression to open the shop and the 'fancy dress lady' was born. "There has been so much fun and laughter here," she said. So why has she decided to retire and sell her beloved business? "I had another birthday," she said. "I have been doing this for more than 30 years and I thought it was time to retire and do nothing for a change. I don't know how I'll handle that as I've always been very active. "It was a very hard decision to make. The shop has been such a big part of my life ? it is my life. It's what I do, it's who I am. I'm the 'fancy dress lady'. "I have had a wonderful time. This has been my social life as well as my work life. "Over the years I have met some fantastic people, and some grouches, but mostly fantastic." Some of her favourite regulars have been the Santa Clauses. "I like to think I helped them bring the Christmas spirit to many children, but I won't miss caring for all those wigs and beards. "And that is why I'm staying open to early next year. I can't let the Santas down." After that she will start her life without opening hours at her new home in Sawtell. Norma's departing wish is that the new buyer will continue to run the business from its current Coffs Harbour address on the Pacific Highway ? or at least remain in town. "It will make leaving much easier if I know it is staying in Coffs Harbour. It would be such a shame for the town to lose it," she said. "I'm going to miss it."