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Last minute DIY Halloween costume ideas for adults and kids

A procrastinator's guide to cobbling together a homemade Halloween costume on the cheap.
Image: Witches and fairies made their way down the parade route during the 23rd Annual Salem Chamber of Commerce Haunted Happenings Grand Parade
The best thing about Halloween is that you can get silly and weird and your costume will be all the better for it. Joseph Prezioso / AFP - Getty Images file

Halloween is my favorite holiday, and every year I decide that I will finally learn how to use the sewing machine that has been collecting dust in my closet. I feel compelled to follow in the footsteps of my mother, who made me costumes from scratch every Halloween until I was in middle school.

But I just don’t have the patience or the time to spend hours making an outfit that I will only wear once in my life (and likely get stained by fake blood and makeup). I know I could just go online or to a party store and buy something ready-made, but that can be expensive and, for a Halloween enthusiast like me, unfulfilling. I like a costume that I know is mine and no one else’s — even when I’m going as something as generic as a cat or a zombie.

Fortunately those of us who are scarce on time, money and tailoring skills have plenty of tricks we can use to make our very last-minute Halloween costume.

Using Pinterest for inspiration, not intimidation

Pinterest is famous for setting the DIY bar pretty high. Masters of crafts take to the platform to showcase their stunning work, some of which looks like it could be in a museum (consider this light-up fairy gown), but these marvelous creations may best not be interpreted as an end goal, but instead as an inspiration for a costume.

“Part of what makes Pinterest fun to browse is that so many of the ideas are thorough and have a professional feeling to them, but the magic is when you take those ideas and put your own spin on them,” says Larkin Brown, user researcher and in-house stylist at Pinterest. “That is so much of what we see people using Pinterest for: finding the idea that works for them and then adding their own twist.”

Make-up and body paint are on trend — and there are loads of tutorials on how to use

These individual twists and spins don’t require a sewing machine or even much fuss with fabric, necessarily. Brown has noted a spike in costumes on Pinterest that highlight the creative usage of makeup over clothing.

Two of Pinterest’s 2018 Pinfrights report's most popular costumes —“flamingo” and “cow” — are costumes you can create solely with make-up and body paint.

“More people are using makeup as a key part — sometimes the only part — of their costume,” says Brown. “Animal print is seeing a huge wave in popularity right now. People are using makeup or body paint on their face, or arms and legs.”

It’s perhaps no surprise then that among the top ten trending costumes discovered in Pinterest’s 2018 Pinfrights report are “flamingo” and “cow” — costumes that you could sew your way around, but could also create solely with make-up and body paint. And there is an endless trove of make-up video tutorials, which Brown notes are helping to fuel this DIY trend.

Repurposing athleisure-wear: Leggings will take you far

Another integral aspect to so many DIY costumes that Pinterest is eyeing (and requires no effort to incorporate) are: leggings. Almost every costume idea on the Pinfrights report can be facilitated by donning a pair.

Tonya Harding is the #1 solo guise this year, according to Pinterest.

“All these costumes are basically leggings,” Brown notes with a laugh as we go through the top 10 solo costumes. Tonya Harding is the #1 solo guise this year. You could wear tights for accuracy, but Halloween is a chilly occasion in most parts, with parades taking place outside in the evening. Leggings will keep you warmer and give the same effect. Same goes for Black Panther and Edna Mode, character costumes that also grace the trendiest list, along with those flamingo and cow get-ups.

Athleisure in general ties in well this year,” says Brown, noting that this falls in line with a greater trend of repurposing old or seldom used clothes. “We tend to think of DIY as meaning something from scratch, but it can also be about repurposing other pieces.”

Make Goodwill your good friend

Brown admits that she is not one for sewing and doesn’t perceive herself as particularly skilled in the crafts area. But she and her team at Pinterest take Halloween “very seriously.”

She hits up thrift stores to put together her costumes.

“I rely on the Goodwill a lot,” she says. “If I want to be a cat I can find inexpensive pieces with cat print and then all I have to do is make or buy cat ears and be done. Last year my team at Pinterest last year had an ‘Under the Sea’ theme. I was a fisherman. I had rain boots, yellow overalls and I repurposed a striped shirt belonging to my husband and wore his beanie. It was nothing heavy duty DIY, but it did feel homemade and I was able to hone elements to create something I liked.”

Krista Marie Ivan, costume manager at ScareHouse, a haunted house attraction in Pittsburgh, also relies on secondhand stores for Halloween costumes, of which she needs an abundance to bring ScareHouse to life.

From zombie to flapper, old clothing is your best (and easiest) bet

“Thrift stores always have finds that you can easily turn into something great,” Ivan says. “If you're looking for a historical theme costume, it is important to know the shape of the garment you are looking for. Wide coat lapels for the ‘30s gentleman, drop-waist or jumper dress for a 60’s lady, a drop-waist or a shift dress for a flapper —simply add a boa and some long necklaces as accessories.”

If you’re going as a zombie, your costume is less about creating and more about destroying.

“All you need is to distress any kind of clothing,” says Ivan. “Tear them up with scissors, knives and rub them on pavement. Add some makeup from a simple kit.”

Plastic tablecloths, hangers and bubble wrap: all potential material

One wonderful thing about Halloween is that unlike with wedding or baby shower planning (other popular Pinterest subjects), is that you don’t have to take this stuff seriously. You can get silly and weird and your costume will be all the better for it.

One year I dressed up as OK Cupid (I would meet my husband on that site but nine months later!). I wore a short red slip dress with 99 cent store angel wings and using construction paper, wrote out phrases in Sharpie that were familiar on the site like “looking for a partner in crime” and “best feature: my eyes.” I cut these out in bubble comment shapes, safety-pinned them all over my dress with the letters “OK” extra big in a heart shape on the bodice.

This makeshift Halloween costume took me all of 30 minutes to make and wound up winning me second prize in a contest.

Other Halloween celebrants have had similar success with just using what’s lying around their home.

“I have done some wacky stuff without ever sewing anything,” says Jeanine Murch, a Brooklyn-based artist. “A mermaid tail out of duct tape, light-up fairy wings from hangers, pantyhose and LED lights; octopus tentacles from hangers and bubble wrap; a patchwork dress out of felt, and a wig out of yarn as a few examples.”

Even those who know how to sew will forego the time-consuming process for a hot glue gun and some felt — items that Lauren Reid, a digital producer in Brooklyn dubs “your best friends” come Halloween.

“Our group friend costume this year is Batman. I'm Robin, and plan on using a yellow trashbag, poncho and plastic tablecloth cut up into a cape,” Reid says. “I'll get a basic red tee from my closet or a thrift store and will make the details to add to it out of felt. Then I just need a black belt and some green exercise shorts and tights (again, already in my closet), a basic eye mask cut out of felt or makeup. If I'm feeling fancy I'll grab a pair of green rubber dishwashing gloves for a couple bucks to complete the costume.”

These quick hacks work for kids’ costumes, too

Though those memories of my mother spending hours sewing the perfect costumes for me lingers warmly in my mind, her method isn’t necessarily the best way to make your kid a costume (no offense, Mom, your work was genius). It can actually be more fun for you and your child to do something collaborative.

Halloween costumes have become more of a shared activity to do with your kids,” notes Brown. “It’s not parents toiling late into the evening so much as making this a shared and connected experience. This can also be more cost-effective. With DIY, there’s a lot of practicality to stick to a family budget.”

Daisy Luther, a blogger in Virginia, says she “can’t sew to save her life” but has made some admirable costumes for her two girls.

“You can make a cute kid's ballerina costume with about six yards of their favorite color tulle, little safety pins and ribbon for the waist,” she says. “Fold over the tulle and safety pin it to make a waistband. Then thread the ribbon through, gathering the tulle to make it poofy. Dress them in leggings and a plain long sleeved shirt. Wrap the skirt around their waist and tie the ribbon into a big bow. We also pinned on silk flowers from the dollar store all over the skirt and added a matching flower crown with long ribbons trailing off it. If you add dollar store wings, the child becomes a fairy.”

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