Halloween costumes are a big deal where I come from in Massachusetts. I grew up just minutes away from the Salem Witch Museum. Like most local kids I was steeped in witch trial history. It made an impact and maybe influenced a kind of competitive creative spirit around Halloween.
You really didn’t want to be the kid with the store-bought mask. When we aged out of gathering Trick or Treat candies and Halloween became a social event, it was all the more important to show resourcefulness, coordination, and style.
One student, still a good friend, showed up to a Halloween-themed school dance dressed as an amoeba. That’s right, one of those single-cell creatures you look at under a microscope in a science lab. He filled a clear garbage bag with balloons, taped on drawings of various amoeba parts, and put two holes in the bottom for his legs. We howled with laughter at the time, but what creativity and imagination.
My friend’s costume was unforgettable, but it was also cost-effective, simple, and made with what was readily available to him. Being an amoeba might not appeal to most people, but consider the spirit of his attempt and get inspired by what’s around you. Once, while working in a city far from home, I was invited at the last minute to a Halloween party. I draped my roommate’s pale blue tablecloth around myself in Grecian style and painted dark rings around my eyes. In 5 minutes, I was a DIY zombie bride ready to dance the night away.
It’s not always easy to think of a costume idea as brilliant as the ones above but inspiration for your next great Halloween costume idea can come from just about anywhere. You can make a DIY costume with items you already own and things like face paint, extra fabric, and even spray paint can all be used to craft an easy DIY Halloween costume.
Benefits of making your own Halloween costumes
Halloween costumes don’t have to be perfect, complicated, expensive, or look like they belong on the floor of a comic convention. That’s great if you have the time and money, but you can work wonders with what you have at home, supplemented with Dollar Store and second-hand thrift deals.
Making your own Halloween costumes can be fun and less expensive than buying one from a store. Costume templates are printed out year after year with few changes. As a result, you are left with cultural cliches: clown, witch, hippy, sexy fill-in-the-blank, cowboy, superhero. I even saw native American costumes and afro wigs at one costume shop. Those should be retired.
You can do so much better and have fun doing it. The spirit of Halloween in the U.S. is about cleverness, disguise and surprise.
If you are stuck on what you want to be, look at the costumes available online for inspiration. Search for the most popular costumes and consider taking the product idea and making it your own. They have a generic pirate costume. The first thing you think of might be a specific pirate. Captain Hook jumped to mind and then The Man in Black from The Princess Bride. Hook is complicated. But I could definitely cut holes in a large triangle of black T-shirt and tie it around my head like The Man in Black. You get the idea.
You might also consider a couple’s costume — not being two halves of a horse, but maybe dressing as a famous duo. Adults can also use ideas that they used a kid. A bedsheet ghost still works (though it’s a challenge to see at your Halloween party).
Easy ways to repurpose what you already have in your closet for DIY Halloween costumes
The first thing to do when thinking about costumes is to take an inventory of stuff you have cluttering your home: cardboard boxes, styrofoam, plastic bottles, lids, shower curtains, old sheets and clothing you are willing to cut up or alter. You probably have more than you’ll need.
The best thing you can own for costuming purposes are plain old cotton t-shirts and cardboard boxes. They are a blank slate for your creativity. T-shirt cotton and cardboard are easy to cut, paint, rip, sew, glue and staple. You can make just about anything out of cardboard: masks, body armor, helmets, you name it.
Assess your tool supply: scissors, kids watercolors, Exacto knife, duct tape, hot glue gun, twine, stapler, rubber cement, pencil, measuring tape, and binder clips. That’s my basic costume DIY kit, but if you are a crafter, you’ll probably have specialty tools to add in. And maybe you just have glue, tape and a stapler. That’s fine, use what you’ve got.
You should also do a reasonable assessment of your own skills. This may not be the first time to use hot glue or to try to turn a swatch of fabric into the DIY costume of hour dreams. Bad face paint can be a disaster but having your DIY Halloween costume fall apart could be a lot worse.
Then, how much time do you have until the party? If it’s tonight, skip down to the quick tips. If you have a few days to a few weeks you’ll have more options, but just as much fun.
If you are aiming at being a character out of a series or movie, they might be living in your closet! That cardigan? Mr. Rogers. You have a floral blouse and a friend’s vest? Janet from “The Good Place”. See what I mean? Maybe you need an accessory or an odd pair of shoes that you want to glue stuff to? Go to a local second-hand store to punch up the details. Heck, you can even dip into a costume shop for an inexpensive hat.
You’d be surprised how easy it is to turn a dress, shirt. or some other item or things you already own into a clever costume.
How to build your own Halloween costumes from thrift store and dollar store finds
If you have even more time and just a little extra cash, go browsing at your local thrift shops. That 1960s or 1970s era skirt set? Phyllis Schlafly. Find a Tux? 007 or Kingsman. If it’s in bad shape, consider buying it to further destress it and splatter it with fake blood. There are so many characters who have appeared in disordered tuxedos and suits.
And as I mentioned before, thrift stores can have accessories from any era. They can even be an entire costume. Find a nice fedora and a double-breasted suit, you’re a gangster. Find a beret, and you’re one half of Bonnie and Clyde. If you are part of a couple, you can shop together to coordinate your looks.
Tips for making quick Halloween costumes
Masks. All you really need is a mask to be in costume, but a mask with a prop is even better.
Quick stick ‘em up: cut stockings and nylons to wear as a burglar’s mask. Raid the Monopoly game for cash and stuff your pockets to overflow.
Makeup mask. Draw on a curly mustache, a goatee, sideburns, stubble. Depending on your outfit, you become an Instant pop star or supervillain. Hollow out your cheeks and blacken your eye sockets. Complete the look with a dress or sport’s fan gear and you’ll be on your way to an undead prom or game. Think of the Beetlejuice waiting room.
Paper plate emoji mask: Use two plates for stability. Staple or glue them together. If you have no yellow paint, just get a Sharpie and go to work. You can staple the plate to a stick, a paint stirrer, a ruler, something flat, sturdy, and light that isn’t valuable. Remember to make eyeholes.
If you have more than an hour, consider making the mask wearable by bracing the sides with 2-inch rounds or squares of stapled cardboard. Tie twine around the cardboard like a button. Tie in back.
Wear a suit, so it looks like a choice rather than a sloppy accident.
Box mask. It’s silly but charming. If you happen to have a box that fits your head. Cut a face out of one side. It can be square and robot-like or emoji-like. You can paste a cut out of someone or something’s face onto it. Remember to make eye holes.
Robot: If you are going for a robot look, make yourself some rectangular cardboard gauntlets. Draw colored buttons and squares on them. Or if you have time and an old computer, hot glue keys onto your gauntlets and maybe your mask.
Finally, there’s an emergency costume. Go to a pharmacy on the way to the party and pick the most ridiculous kids’ costume you can find. Get safety pins. Pin the costume to your clothes. And wear an expression of absolute confidence. No one will know and it’ll be a great conversation starter.
–By Nic Desmet