“What do you want to be this year?”
It’s a Halloween season kick-off question that ushers in either feelings of grief or giddiness depending on personal views towards costumes as catastrophes or crowning moments. Sometimes the answer comes after wandering the aisles of pop-up costume retailers set up in empty department stores. But for others, the response is borne of an epic do-it-yourself season of imagination, thread and glue, punctuated by a homemade costume that becomes the stuff of family legend.
Scavenging with specificity
Lauren Makeyenko started making her own Halloween costumes in elementary school. Growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, she’d come up with an idea and her mom would help her implement it using mostly things she found around the house. Back then, she says, there was no budget for store-bought costumes and no inexpensive Halloween superstores anyway.
Now Makeyenko does the same with her 11-year-old daughter. They came up with an “Anne of Green Gables” wardrobe featuring a found smock, hat and wicker suitcase just like the character carried. Last year the pair researched all of Madonna’s distinctive looks and arrived at one they wanted to recreate from her ’80s “Lucky Stars” era—then searched second-hand stores to find just the right shades, jewelry and layered rocker clothing based on reference photos.
While Halloween is a big deal for her daughter and the posse of a dozen kids in their Allentown neighborhood, Makeyenko still gets a kick out of crafting her own ornate but inexpensive costumes. When she turned 50 last year, just a week after Halloween, she scoured thrift shops for the signature red polyester outfit worn by the Sally O’Malley character in “Saturday Night Live” who loudly proclaims in skits that she’s 50.
“I obsessed about the costume and hit the Goodwill and Salvation Army looking for the right red pants and red shirt and teased my hair,” Makeyenko says. “The whole thing cost me $5. The details matter; you’ve got to get them right.”
Makeup is another tool Makeyenko uses to transform ordinary clothing items into extraordinary costumes. Wearing a simple black dress with a white lacy collar, she once became a marionette with the help of two sticks and some string—held by her husband, a tweed-clad puppet master—and a face painted with makeup that gave her a creepy disjointed mouth and vacant eyes.
“I’m a nature educator by profession, not a makeup artist,” she explains. “But I watched online tutorials and practiced until I figured it out.”
Something old, something new
To make her daughter’s Halloween costumes, Gretchen Schmitt often starts with one base item and morphs it into the finished outfit. A little horse started with a fuzzy brown hoodie to which she added ears and a white mane, for instance. Sometimes Schmitt starts with a packaged ensemble and adds her own flourishes or improvements, like the time her daughter’s store-bought donut costume looked a little flat—so Schmitt carefully opened the seams to add more stuffing.
Even though Schmitt herself is usually not a big Halloween fan, she had an idea for a complimentary get-up to match her daughter’s donut: a cup of Tim Hortons coffee, which she made out of a newly purchased trash can wrapped in brown contact paper, a white rim and a printed logo, and paired with the black trash can lid on her head marked with a white “dd” to signify the barista’s shorthand for “double cream, double sugar.”
“It’s easier than people think,” she says. “Everyone is creative, and the internet is amazing for ideas you can pick and choose from. Duct tape and super glue are my best friends. There’s a lot of trial and error. But if I can do it, anyone can.”
Online inspiration was especially important last year when Gretta, who is 11, wanted to be a refrigerator. The mother-daughter duo started with a cardboard box, used white duct tape to attach handles and decorated the front with magnets, a shopping list and a spelling test. The doors open on duct tape hinges to reveal shelves full of faux food from Gretta’s play kitchen and empty containers from their real fridge.
“I love seeing people’s reactions when they open their front door and see a trick-or-treater in a costume that’s not typical,” Schmitt says. “We sure weren’t finding that one at a store!”
As her mom’s costume-making assistant, Gretta offers her own practical insights for kids who want to help their parents make costumes.
“Making costumes is really fun, but a lot of work,” she explains. “Make sure you start early and have a good idea of what your costume is and what you need for it. Don’t forget to keep in mind the weather on Halloween. If it’s cold, you can layer under your costume. If it’s rainy, you can decorate an umbrella to match what you’re wearing.”
A family affair
In Jillmarie Giardina’s house, Halloween costume planning begins right after trick-or-treating the previous year. The discussion continues on Christmas eve, during summer car trips and until her three older kids, ages 4, 8 and 9, negotiate with each other and agree on a theme to outfit the entire clan by October 1. (The newborn doesn’t get a vote yet.)
When the oldest two children were toddlers, their first costumes of choice were a pile of spaghetti and a meatball. Since then the ideas have earned the family a reputation for killer costumes within their Halloween-loving neighborhood, becoming more outlandish and imaginative each October.
“They’ve never watched mainstream TV and movies, so they don’t really have any desire to be characters,” explains Giardina. “Their starting points are foods, things in the environment, things they see outside their doors. I think that’s why the costumes tend to be more creative.”
Past favorite themes have included the sea, complete with a shark and a pirate who captured a mermaid; and the family circus, with a tiny strongman in a muscle suit and the illusion of a young contortionist on a table. Despite the intricate execution of a whole cast of costumes, Giardina insists she’s not that crafty.
“I don’t have any sewing skills beyond pillows; I make it up as I go,” she says. “I mess up a lot while I’m making them.”
The family sees costume crafting as their October project to complete together, with everyone chipping in to shop for materials, paint and glue, help sew and so on. It’s a tradition she’s carrying on from her own mother, who has kept some of the costumes she made when Giardina was little.
“I grew up in a family where my mom sewed by hand all of our costumes every year,” she says. “It was a big deal to her. When I had kids, I did the same.”
While some humbly claim to have no costume crafting skills whatsoever, Amy Archibald Lepertine is a pro. She is a seamstress by night who has been altering wedding gowns, sewing prom dresses from scratch and whipping up costumes for her family and friends for almost 30 years. When her kids were little, she made all of their Halloween costumes; family favorites include an Energizer Bunny, the cast from “Star Wars” and Sponge Bob.
But nowadays requests for custom get-ups come in all year round. Last year she made Elsa and Ana gowns from the Disney movie “Frozen” for her two adult daughters so they could make a “celebrity” appearance at a charity event. One of the girls is turning 20 on New Year’s Eve this year, and Lepertine is already working on a “Roaring ’20s” flapper dress for the birthday girl to wear. She made a Sha’ira costume for a friend to attend a Gen Con war games convention.
Sometimes she makes costumes for no reason other than an idea strikes her—like the “mail order bride” dress that popped into her head when she found a pile of fabric U.S. Mail bags a few months ago. Her creations end up being part instruction, part instinct.
“I’d say my costumes are 70 percent pattern and 30 percent made up,” she explains. “I’ll start with a pattern then add on, adjust, take a skirt from one dress pattern and the bodice of another, or play with fabrics to get the details right.”
Among the fabrics she says give her the most trouble are felt, which shows needle holes if she has to take out stitches, and organza, which likes to unravel and shed threads if it’s not hemmed immediately after cutting. Sometimes she has to sequester glittery tulle in sealed bags in her basement sewing studio so the sparkles don’t cling to other projects. Still, she relishes the chance to play with new materials and ideas whenever she can.
“I love the creative aspect of costumes all year round,” she says. “It’s a fun way to think outside of the box!”
Find directions to make quirky kids costumes like bubble tea, a seashell and a whole slew of ideas for Halloween (or make-believe) that start with a simple paper bag.
Look for a wearable cup of hot cocoa, how to turn a wagon into a toaster (with a toddler as toast) and 20 last-minute solutions for the Halloween parade you found out about the night before.
Yes, this blog has kids’ costumes, but the adult versions are epic—like couples’ costumes, group ideas, pregnant belly and baby carrier costumes, and comfy options that involve sweatpants.
Story topics: Home & Style