A Costume Designer Gives You 4 Ways to Win Halloween
For a costume designer, Halloween can be tricky. On the one hand, we have the skills to tear it up, from concept to sourcing to execution. (See: friend and colleague Erica Evans killing it as 90s Poison Ivy.) On the other hand, we’re always using those skills, and we’re underpaid and over-scheduled, so wedging another concept-sourcing-execution into an already overstuffed October ain’t always possible. Also, it’s one thing springing for the right fabric or the perfect gloves when you have a production budget, and quite another when it’s your own hard-earned cash you’re forking over. Ditto execution. I can make a mask, a gown, a corset, a headdress, or a pair of hyper-realistic feathered wings, and thanks to my work with Company XIV I know how to embellish a corset with basically anything, but I don’t always want to in my off hours, you know?
Forget store-bought. Not for snobbery reasons, but because this time of year in NYC the line to get into Halloween Adventure goes around the block and I am not here for that.
Most Halloweens I end up throwing something together at the absolute last minute and I can’t bring myself to spend more than thirty bucks, or more than an afternoon crafting. Sometimes, hell, I pick up something at the store to stick on my head and run out the door.
Here’s a few Halloween getups done the costume designer way: cheap, quick, and dirty. No specialist knowledge necessary.
Maenads, or the Bacchae if you wanna play, Pentheus, were Dionysian acolytes/party girls known for rampaging around in maddened intoxication and tearing men apart. The crown of grape leaves will set you back less than $25 and an afternoon. I threw a Vivienne Westwood Anglomania tunic and a vintage necklace on Ashley, but it’ll also go with a towel toga, a rumpled suit, a Freakum Dress, shorts and combat boots –anything that says PARTY, FRENZY, or ANDROPHAGY.
+ Hemp wrapped floral wire, like this
+ Thin florists wire, like this
+ Ivy leaves, fake or real, and 1 or 2 bunches of fake grapes
+ A wire cutter, or pliers, or some shitty scissors and the willingness to saw at it a bit
- Cut a length of hemp wrapped wire, long enough to go around your head more than once and less than twice. This is the base.
- Cut a bunch of pieces of skinny wire about fingertip-to-elbow-length. This is how the vines go on.
- Get twisting & wrapping:
Keep good wire tension! or everything will be floppy and insecure like a romance protagonist!
And you’re done. The more irregular and lush your ivy/grape clusters are, the better this will look, so don’t worry too much about symmetry or neatness. I like to split a big bunch of grapes and put a half-bunch on each side of my head, but you’re the Maenad here, not me. FYI, this costume is an excellent excuse to carry around a bottle of wine and employ a very dark lip.
2. Starry Sky
This look is selfie-optimized and inspired by Hedy Lamarr and old-school showgirls, with a nod to Karl Sagan and the Egyptian goddess Nuit. It set me back about $10 and took an evening to make. I paired it with my perfect, reliable, beloved, thrifted black turtleneck dress, but you could also push the old Hollywood/retro glamour angle and try some décolletage, or an LBD with sparkly New Year’s Eve shoes.
+ A headband. The wider, dollar-store variety is best.
+ Thin florist wire, like this
+ 5-odd sheets of silver glitter sticky- back craft foam (like this–I got ‘em at Michaels)
+ Duct tape
+ Wire cutter or shitty scissors
- Put on a movie. Hey, maybe it’s time to re-watch Clue! Or Ziegfeld Girl, the movie Hedy wore those stars for.
- Trace and cut out as many stars as you can get out of the foam sheets. Do not try to freehand a star shape. You will lose an hour of your life. Google “star template” and pick your favorite.
- Add wires to headband:
I cut down my duct tape into little strips. Keep wires tight!
Stick down your foam stars:
See why we don’t freehand stars?
Flip the whole thing over and stick stars onto the other side, like you’re making a star-wire-star sandwich. And that’s it. Get into your preferred noir-cosmic outfit and stick leftover stars fetchingly all over yourself. Priscilla did silver eyeshadow and used dark pewter eyeliner on my lips but you could go full 1930s glamour on this one, too.
3. Spider Attack
This costume is simple and striking and involves barely any crafting and and like $10. Think Scary Stories to Tell In The Dark (yes, THAT one, about the SPIDER FACE), Arachnophobia, The Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse, & Garbage Pail Kids. I styled Ashley with Shirley Manson in mind, but this could easily go with something lacy and gothic, or crisp and professional, or retro-pulp-cover, so consult your closet. It does involve some face-gluing, so please make sure face glue is ok for your specific face.
+ Spirit gum or clear eyelash glue. Spirit gum is great, but you’ll need to go to a costume store and also buy spirit gum remover. Lash glue is a bit cheaper and you can get it from the drugstore.
+ Little plastic spiders. I got a bag of way more than I needed at Target for $3
+ Big mama spider (Michaels, also $3)
+ Safety pin and hair-securing-things of your choice
- First, the Big Spider goes in your hair. I pierced it with a safety pin and then used bobby pins to fasten the safety pin into Ashley’s braids. (If your hair laughs cruelly at bobby pins, you could safety pin Spidey to an elastic headband, or hot-glue her to a stiff headband.)
- If you want to wear makeup, put it on now.
- Apply your adhesive to the spider (especially legs/edges) and then WAIT.
- Seriously, wait fifty actual seconds before you try to stick it to your face. The glue has to almost dry and get tacky or it won’t stick and you’ll be sliding glue and spiders around your face.
- Keep gluing ‘til it looks done!
I like the boobs -> neck -> face -> hair spider trajectory, but hey, whatever floats your creepy boat. We went with standard grungey-glam makeup, but If you want to drop an extra $20 on Kryolan eye blood, you could take a page out of Undercover’s book and get extra nasssty, with spiders coming out of bloody eyes.
4. Bird’s Nest
I like this costume for its disheveled, fairy-tale feeling and because it reminds me of 18th century coiffures and Linda Cardellini’s cameo in Good Burger’s head-scratchy mental hospital scene. I also like it because it is just about the laziest costume there is and cost me about $8. You can wear something tattered and vintage-y, or go full-out earth mother, or wear a tux for something a little more Surreal. I split the difference with vintage, off-white silk and wrinkled the crap out of it.
+ Fake bird’s nest, like this
+ Fake birds. Michael’s has these in-store but not online, for $2.50. Or try the dollar store.
+ Bobby pins, & probably half a can of Aquanet
- Use your preferred method to get as much curl in your hair as possible. (I have thin, flat, straight hair, so I either put damp hair into foam grandma rollers overnight or use Hot Sticks). If you are genetically blessed with curls, skip this step and have a beer.
- Hairspray on your whole head.
- Backcomb every bit of your hair. Every last bit.
- Repeat the hairspray + backcomb steps until your hair stands on its own.
- Twist and pin into a scraggly messed-up pompadour tower. I start with a french twist and then flop everything forward.
- Place and pin birds. Spray like crazy.
We did white lashes for maximum creepiness; Priscilla used mascara primer but if you don’t have that onhand, try a dusting of white eyeshadow. I don’t have much hair so I only used two birds + nest, but you can add as many birds as you can reasonably fit in your, uh, coiffure. Add moss and twigs if you want. Or don’t. Whatever gets you to the party faster.
Photos by Emma Mead, makeup by Priscilla Perez, face/sass by Ashley Reese and yours truly.