Making costumes in time for a Halloween party doesn’t have to be expensive.
I know a thing or two about costumes. I began cosplaying in 2008, and by 2010 I was making costumes on my own. And like many cosplayers, I got a taste for dressing up as my favorite fictional characters as a kid on Halloween.
But let’s get real: mass-produced Halloween costumes aren’t necessarily good. Women’s sections of Halloween stores present “sexy” as the only option, manufacturers market cultures as costumes, the variety of costumes is poor, and some costumes are laughably inaccurate. In other words, there are many good reasons you might head into the costume store and find yourself still wanting.
On the other hand, you could consider making a Halloween costume on your own.
When making costumes for Halloween, I approach them as costumes for cosplay. Forget your standard witches, monsters and so on, I go for dressing up as fictional characters, wearing wigs, using props, and often making costumes from scratch.
Of course, for a lot of people the hurdle of learning to make your own costumes seems too large to jump. And it’s true that along with the cost of buying fabric and the time spent to put it together, handmade costumes are a challenge. But it’s easier than you think for a beginner to jump in, and you don’t have to break the bank doing it. I’ve done both inexpensive costumes that cost me under $50, and I’ve done costumes that were closer to $300.
It’s Halloween, and I’m betting you don’t feel like dropping $300, however. So read on for some easy tips on making your own costume and doing it on a budget.
1) Start early or scale back.
If you’re only just starting your Halloween costume now, you shouldn’t expect to do a costume that requires a lot of time and materials. However long you think you’ll need to make your costume, triple that estimate. You will make mistakes and need time to fix them.
My last Halloween costume was a group of Powerpuff Girls. We started planning in early September, taking a trip to the store to figure out what fabric to use. Because we planned on making all three out of the same material for cohesion, picking a fabric that came in the right pink, blue, and green was difficult, and we ended up spending the extra time dyeing the fabric. Between making the three costumes and having responsibilities like college, we were able to finish about a week before Halloween. Even then, the costumes were quite the rush job, and my own suffered as a result. Had I started sewing earlier, I would have felt less pressure to cut corners when I ran into sizing errors. Learn from the mistake I continually make: things will usually take you three times longer to complete than you expect.
Be realistic about the skills you have and the time you have available at your disposal. If this is going to be your very first costume and it’s mid-October, plan to do a costume that has no complicated parts and no props that are necessary to the costume. If you are buying a part of the costume that will need to ship to you, when will it arrive? Buying wigs or pieces of a costume should be done well in advance, especially if you’re buying products sold outside of your country.
If all goes well and you receive your products early, that’s great! Except the wig you bought or the piece of clothing you bought doesn’t exactly match the picture of what you bought online. This happens. Unfortunately, it takes time to communicate with the company and exchange the item. If you’re short on time and you can make it work, don’t fret. Several times when I have taken the cheap route of buying wigs on eBay, I’ve received items that weren’t precisely what I ordered. On three occasions, I’ve received wigs in the right color but a longer length. I ended up keeping them and cutting them shorter. Don’t assume whatever you receive will be perfect.
Starting early will also allow you to take advantage of sales and coupons at fabric and craft stores. For example, JoAnn will regularly mark certain types of fabric on sale often at 30% or 40%. Coupons arrive in the mail, in newspapers, through the company’s app, through email, and online. New ones appear each week. Never go shopping without coupons on hand. During my last shopping trip, I saved myself $30 thanks to sales and coupons.
2) Borrow equipment from friends and family and ask for help.
If this is your first handmade costume, chances are you don’t have a lot of materials. Unless you want to spend even more time handsewing, sewing with a basic machine will make the construction process much easier. If you don’t own a sewing machine yourself, chances are your parents, your grandparents, or friends will have at least one machine somewhere you can borrow. A basic, 10-stitch sewing machine is all you need for most beginner costumes. You’ll want to be able to stitch forward and backward, and maybe even a zigzag stitch. Be wary of venturing into crazy stitches for your costumes; most of them are for decoration or used in edge-case situations.
You don’t want to go into your project blind. Talk to friends who have sewn before to show you how to set up a sewing machine. Watch tutorials on YouTube, and offer your friends cookies when they volunteer to show you how something is done.
The best advice I can give for newcomers who want direction in making a costume is to use patterns. These come in packs of different designs by brands like Simplicity, McCall’s, Burda, and others, and they’re on sale both online and in fabric stores. Fabric stores have books next to the cabinets of patterns for people to look through. Each pattern has a few versions of a similar outfit, and costume-specific patterns will either be dedicated to a certain series or character or it will include patterns for different but related costumes. This year, both McCall’s and Simplicity have sewing patterns for Frozen‘s Elsa and Anna, as well as Game of Thrones-inspired costumes.
Patterns indicate how much fabric you will need for each style at your size. (Note: always check the sizing measurement guides on patterns as the pattern size will be different from the number you use when shopping for clothing.) Printed on thin paper, patterns allow you to make some modifications to the pattern for your body type. You can hold up the pieces to your body to see how they will lie against you. For example, if you’re like me and are very short, you can adjust the length of a pants leg on the pattern so that you don’t have to cut off all the excess fabric after constructing the garment. Directions with the pattern pieces explain with illustrations where to pin your pattern on your fabric before cutting it, where to sew, and how to proceed from one step to the next. Most patterns usually contain a glossary of terms for newcomers. Should a step confuse you, play around with placing the pattern pieces together to figure out what the directions are indicating, or seek help from friends or tutorials. Likely someone has an answer for you.
There are a plethora of tutorials and answers for you on sites like DeviantArt, Tumblr, YouTube, and Cosplay.com. Don’t underestimate common materials you have. This summer I learned round pop-up laundry hampers make an excellent base for peanut butter and jelly jars!
Don’t be afraid to use patterns that aren’t exactly what you’re looking for. My mom used a dinosaur pattern as a base for my Sonic the Hedgehog costume. With the right color scheme, it was obvious I was Sonic. Similarly, the same pattern with a different hood was used for my sister’s matching Tails costume.
3) Thrift stores are your friends, but they’re also hit or miss.
Don’t be intimidated by all of the sewing; you don’t always need to sew for a costume. Some costumes you can make out of things found in your closet and thrift stores.
Thrifting allows you to find clothes for a cheap price. In some cases, people will even go thrifting for a garment made out of more expensive fabric to buy that fabric inexpensively. Thrifting works especially well when a costume is made up of everyday pieces of clothing, such as dressing up as characters from Supernatural, Doctor Who, Bob’s Burgers or other shows set in modern day. This also works for “casual cosplays,” costumes that people will assemble using common clothes to represent a character. Considering most clothes at thrift stores are less than $10, someone could easily make a Rose Tyler costume from modified secondhand clothes.
For example, the cheapest costume I have ever put together cost me $50 total, but most of it was things I had bought years ago and put into a closet. One evening I cosplayed as Rico from the manga and anime Gunslinger Girl because I was looking for a comfortable, easy costume to wear for one night in the cold. The costume comprised a black turtleneck shirt, khaki pants, a belt, and a short blonde wig. I already owned the pants and the wig (which had already been used for three different costumes!), and I was able to find the rest, plus a cheap prop gun, through thrift stores. That round of shopping cost $15. Another costume I did, Shion from the anime No.6, cost slightly more than that, but again I was able to find several pieces of clothing in thrift stores.
However, you can’t go into a thrift store knowing you’ll walk out with what you need. The clothes at thrift stores are replaced on a fairly regular basis, so once they’re gone, they’re gone. There are no mass mailings going out indicating what’s available, so you can’t go into a Goodwill being certain you’ll find the perfect trenchcoat. However, some Goodwill locations sell things in online auctions, so you aren’t confined to a local Goodwill location.
4) Decide how accurate you want to be.
Accuracy will often increase the cost of a costume. There’s a reason a lot of cheap, mass-produced costumes don’t accurately resemble characters. There’s a saying that goes, “Fast, cheap, or good: pick two.”
A lot of cosplayers will pride themselves on accuracy, but a lot of Halloween costumes are more for the spirit of dressing up as something than bringing a character to life. Both are perfectly valid, and it depends on how much you’re into costuming.
If you’re short on cash, maybe you don’t want to buy that $10/yard fabric that drapes really well for your cape; maybe you want to use a flimsier fabric at $3/yard.
Wigs are a huge part of cosplay, but they’re pretty expensive for someone who is only going to wear a costume for Halloween once. High quality wigs can range from $30 to $60 depending on style and length, whereas lower quality wigs are around $15 to $20. These wigs will tangle very easily, come with a sheen, and resemble plastic. While these may be cheaper, if you plan on wearing your costume with a wig more than once, investing in a better wig will save you money in the long run. Temporary hairsprays are even cheaper, but they’re more prone to accidents as they sit on top of your hair and rub off.
If you need to sacrifice accuracy due to time or money constraints, you can try to find one thing to invest your time in that will make the costume recognizable. Want to be a Pokemon trainer? Use a pokeball prop. This way you prioritize the important parts of the costume just enough to make yourself recognizable. Dressing up as a Jedi Warrior? Wear a long robe and carry a toy lightsaber. One year as a kid my mom and I found a brown cloak with a hood. I can’t remember what I wore under the cloak, but with my blue lightsaber, even the out-of-touch parents giving out candy knew I was from Star Wars. I even repurposed the cloak for a different costume later!
5) Have fun.
This is important whether you’re an experienced cosplayer or if this is the first time you’re making your own costume. Just like how cosplaying at a convention allows you to strike conversations with people who like the same series, Halloween costumes from childhood to adulthood are about having fun. As a kid, costumes are tied to free candy on one night of the year. As an adult, you don’t just sit at home in costume. You’re with your kids walking around, handing out candy at your home, or attending parties. Wearing a costume on Halloween is a social activity.
No matter how it turns out, you made something, and that’s awesome.