You Deserve Better Than A Costume In A Bag: My Top Tips for DIYing An Awesome Halloween Costume

I think you deserve better than synthetic fibers and flimsy plastic accessories this year.
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Madeira Darling
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I think you deserve better than synthetic fibers and flimsy plastic accessories this year.

So, Halloween is, to no one’s surprise, my favorite holiday.  

In fact it’s not just my favorite holiday, it’s my whole family’s favorite holiday. My dad collects antique Halloween decorations, and my mom made Halloween costumes for the kids every year when we were growing up. So maybe I’m a little spoiled on the costume front. But I can’t be the only one who thinks the costumes one gets preassembled in plastic bags from the Halloween store are always kind of disappointing, and frankly overpriced for a polyester satin dress with badly stitched seams.  

I think you deserve better than synthetic fibers and flimsy plastic accessories this year, so I’m going to give you some of my top tips for creating a phantasmagoritastic Halloween costume (...I thought that was better than spooktacular and it wasn’t.)

So, let’s get to it.

  • Think about how much time you have. A simpler complete costume will look better than something super elaborate that you rushed. (That said, it doesn’t hurt to start prepping for next year. No seriously. If you want to do something elaborate, the more prep time you have the better!)
  • Think about what makes for a truly great Halloween costume. Think about qualities like humor, spectacle, originality, wearability and craftsmanship. Your costume doesn’t have to play to all of them, but it’s a good jumping off point for deciding what you want to be. Remember that large striking elements like hoopskirts or grandiose headpieces are impressive but can also be logistically difficult if one is in a crowded bar, for example. So be sure to take your Halloween plans into account.  

Was it Miss Scarlet in the lounge with the rope?  Yes.

Was it Miss Scarlet in the lounge with the rope?  Yes.

  • If you’re looking for something low effort but fun, never underestimate the value of uniforms. There are loads of possibilities -- hotel maid, ghostly hotel maid (distress uniform, add ghostly makeup), doctor, evil doctor (just add fake blood and upsettingly large fake syringe), obstetrician (just add fake baby), unsexy highly realistic nurse, chef, homicidal chef (fake blood, and a cleaver, though you probably want a prop cleaver because sharp objects and the prevalence of Halloween intoxication are an accident waiting to happen).
  • Thrift shops are obviously your friend.  ld prom dresses and wedding gowns are especially versatile pieces. You can be Carrie or Marie Antoinette or a Disney princess if that’s your jam. Find a Hawaiian shirt and you can be Hunter S. Thompson or a tourist. a white slip and you’re Elizabeth Taylor in "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof," And so on.

Here's a historically inaccurate Marie Antionette costume.  Marie Antionette is my go to "didn't have time to put together a costume" costume.

Here's a historically inaccurate Marie Antionette costume.  Marie Antionette is my go to "didn't have time to put together a costume" costume.

  • Distressing fabric the right way can make all the difference. Sandpaper can be used to create worn and distressed areas, and rubbing fuller's earth into a garment can give it a wonderfully “just crawled out of the grave” look. This is especially useful for zombie costumes and for Old West-type outfits. Using a seam ripper and unraveling patches of a garment's seams will get a more realistic tattered effect than merely cutting a jagged edge. Similarly for tears, making a small hole then ripping the material with your hands will look more realistic than just slashing with scissors.
  • Learning to style and work with wigs can be a huge life saver. For example, take this tutorial on turning a 13-dollar wig into an impressively accurate period piece or this one for creating a 1770s hairpiece. The right hairstyle or wig can transform a blah costume into a spectacular masterpiece of costume-y goodness. Dolluxe is my favorite source for wigs at the moment.

Dolly Parton?  A Show Girl? Sexy historically inaccurate historical costume? Who knows?

Dolly Parton?  A Show Girl? Sexy historically inaccurate historical costume? Who knows?

  • If you’ve got money to spend, Etsy can provide you with a huge range of costume options either off the rack or custom made.RomanticThreads does fantastic work but costs an arm and a leg. AzAcCouture does some GORGEOUS gowns and takes custom orders. And Revolt Couture does some awesomely slutty fairy or nymph outfits if that’s your jam.
  • If you’re looking for cyber or fetishy, Artifice clothing does absolutely gorgeous PVC pieces. Though remember, PVC doesn’t breathe well, so it’s not the best idea if you’re going to be somewhere warm,
  • Tailoring makes all the difference. You might think it’s kind of absurd to get your Halloween costume tailored, but if you’re trying to look good, it makes all the difference.

I got this vintage wedding gown tailored for a Sarah (from The Labyrinth) costume, it fits like a glove (and looks bitchin' with yet another Marie Antionette wig)

I got this vintage wedding gown tailored for a Sarah (from The Labyrinth) costume, it fits like a glove (and looks bitchin' with yet another Marie Antionette wig)

See what I mean?  That wig looks bitchin.  The bird is my own addition, the wig is from Dolluxe

See what I mean?  That wig looks bitchin.  The bird is my own addition, the wig is from Dolluxe

  • Pun-based and pop culture reference costumes are usually easy to put together. Any celebrity who’s done something especially weird lately is usually a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. People just fucking love funny costumes
  • If you’re looking for Regency period, Victorian, Civil War, Edwardian or 1920s stuff and are up for spending some dough, Recollections does some stunning gowns which I spend WAY too much time drooling over. Basic pieces like some of their petticoats can be used in a wide variety of costumes, and if you’re like me and think bustles are perfectly normal street wear, their clothes are well made enough to be incorporated into your regular wardrobe.
  • If you’re having trouble coming up with something to dress up as for Halloween, why not take a cue from the 1920s and dress up as Halloween itself? Wear a black or orange dress with felt cutouts of things like pumpkins or black cats, trim with black or orange lace or ribbon, put on a black and orange party hat and a mask and BOOM, super fun costume.

1920s Halloween costumes are so perf.

1920s Halloween costumes are so perf.

  • Look at your own wardrobe. Do you have a Marilyn Monroe dress? Wednesday Addams? (If you have a brother you can get to wear a striped shirt, instant siblings costume.) Mr. Rogers sweater? Consider the possibilities.

Here's my "This is bat country" outfit, you'll note how the makeup is COMPLETELY wrong for it (and I'm missing a cigarette holder and a bottle of ether)

Here's my "This is bat country" outfit, you'll note how the makeup is COMPLETELY wrong for it (and I'm missing a cigarette holder and a bottle of ether)

  • A large carvable foam pumpkin or “funkin” as they’re apparently called by their manufacturer can be used as a mask. just cut a hole in the bottom large enough for your noggin and you can be someone with a pumpkin for a head. (I would recommend looking for these in person so you can figure out which size to use for your head). You can also do this with a real pumpkin, but they’re heavy and slimey.
  • Remember, the right makeup can also make all the difference. Give your Halloween look some test runs before the big night.
  • Look at historical costumes, favorite characters real or fictional, art, folklore and mythology for inspiration.Jenny Greenteeth would be a super scary costume. (Here’s a tutorial on making fake seaweed if you want to do that or be a mermaid or a ghost pirate or other aquatic type thing.)

Little Bo Creep has eaten her sheep

Little Bo Creep has eaten her sheep

  • Remember that to get good even coverage with an unnaturally colored foundation (true white, green, blue, etc) you must pat it on with a sponge rather than rubbing.
  • Think about your DIY skills. Are you good with mechanical things? Make something with moving parts! Great at sewing? Well, stitch away. Special effects makeup more your jam? Go for it.
  • The only rule is that there are no rules. Except that in most regions you have to cover your nipples and junk.

Have fun!