12 Real-Talk Steps for Choosing Your Child’s Halloween Costume

pottery barn costumes edit
Thanks, Pottery Barn, for ruining it for the rest of us.

Outfitting your kids for Trick-or-Treating can be intensely stressful. There’s nothing like putting 40 hours into a lovingly-crafted costume, only to have your child turn around and refuse to wear anything but the same store-bought Elsa dress as all her other classmates, or trying to figure out how to fulfill your toddler’s request for a tiger-Batman-unicorn. While there’s no way to actually child-proof the process, I hope the following tips can take some of the pain away and help everyone get more fun out of the season.

1. Know Your Strengths.

Ask yourself some basic questions about what you’re good at. Have more money than time? Consider buying or renting a costume from a supplier or local theater. Love to sew? Great! You’ll get to have the time-honored parent tradition of grappling with the sewing machine and several yards of polyester fur. Does the thought of sewing give you PTSD flashbacks to middle school Home Ec? Perhaps you should skip the elaborate craft project and figure out how to achieve your kid’s dream with thrift store finds, duct tape, and a little ingenuity. However you decide to tackle this costume, don’t set yourself up for failure and frustration before you even get started.

2. Know Your Kid.

Do you know from past experience that little Suzy is going to change her mind about what she wants to be six times between Oct. 1 and Oct. 31? Don’t spend a lot of time and money on the first idea. Instead, prepare yourself for a last-minute costume sprint and cultivate some reasonable expectations. When four-year-old Charlie asks to be Superman, does he really want a Hollywood-esque Man of Steel? Or will he be totally happy as long as he has a cape? Everyone is going to be happier if you cater to the child you have, rather than the costume you want to make. If your toddler is a total blur of motion, don’t put her in a restrictive outfit unless you WANT to provoke a meltdown. If your fourth-grader is only going to be happy with a store-bought costume, then just go with it if you can. Save the battles for something important.

hate costume copy
Don’t let this be you.

3: Know Your Environment.

Here in Minnesota, by the end of October we can usually count on winter to be right around the corner. When I was growing up in Virginia, it rained half the time on Halloween. When you’re thinking about a costume, don’t forget to figure in where it’s going to be worn. If you can incorporate weather-appropriate outerwear into the design, your kid isn’t going to be crushed because you made him wear his parka over his Tigger suit. Conversely, if you know that the costume is only going to be worn indoors, or to a school with a dress code, or to your child’s sporting event, plan accordingly.

4: Plan Ahead When Possible / Do the Easy Stuff First.

When I put together a costume, I always start with research – what parts do I need, how do I want it to look, what is the person wearing it going to need to be able to do? If I’m copying a character, I look at pictures, movie stills, and examples of costumes that other people have made and posted online. If I’m working on an original idea, I search for images that fit with the picture in my head. This research doesn’t have to take very long, but it helps me to develop a list of pieces, some ideas about how to accomplish what I want to do, and a timeline for getting it all done in time. Once you have your lists, figure out which things will be easy and which may be time-consuming. It’s often tempting to put the easy stuff off until the end, because you think it’s not going to take long and you’re excited to dive right in to the complicated bits. Don’t give in to this temptation. If you’re planning a pre-Raphaelite angel but you know you’re going to buy the wings, then just go buy the wings. It’ll be something you can cross off your list right away, and you won’t find yourself paying for expedited shipping on Oct. 29th because you forgot about it until the last minute.

Just buy the damn wings.

5: Look For Short Cuts.

My mother always told me that if something was worth doing, it was worth doing it right – but I also watched her execute the Halloween Scramble enough to know that sometimes short cuts are ok. The trick is knowing which ones will speed you up, and which ones will just make your life harder down the road. Velcro instead of zippers? Usually a good choice. Hot glue instead of sewing? Good for applying trim; less good for securing a crotch seam. Stuffing a sweatshirt instead of spending money on a fake muscle suit? It depends on your level of skill and how disappointed your kid is going to be when he doesn’t look exactly like Movie Hulk.

6: Get Creative / Make Do.

If you’re short on time, money, or know-how, creativity can be your friend. This applies to the whole costume process, from conception to execution. You can cut a couple of holes in an old sheet and do the standard ghost bit, or you can take that same sheet and a little white face paint and dress your kid up as a classical Greek or Roman statue. Your home is already full of things that can be repurposed into costume pieces: old linens, plastic containers, cardboard boxes, street clothes – all of these things can have new life as costume parts. This year, I’m making a fez for a baby out of a washed-out yogurt container and some scrap felt. Before you get stressed out about acquiring the right things, look around you and imagine ways to use what you already have.

7: Thrift Store Power Hour.

Remember earlier, when I told you to do your research? Having a specific image in your mind of the finished costume gives you the best platform to re-engineer existing clothes into the pieces that you need. Sometimes you can use broad gestures to suggest an idea without having to commit to a detailed re-creation of what you’re trying to make. A black turtleneck and a long black skirt combined with a big piece of fabric for a cape makes a passable Wicked Witch of the West, especially if you add a cheap store-bought witch hat and some green make-up from your local party store. A white hoodie and some yellow dye makes for a great start for a Minion outfit, and a standard pair of overalls with a green t-shirt is all you need for a basic Luigi. Thrift shopping can take time, but can yield great results and sometimes even spark new ideas.

8: Use the Right Tools.

This one is aimed at the Makers among you. I worked as a professional costumer for several years, and having the right tool for the job can seriously speed up your process. Knowing WHAT the right tool is takes familiarity with what tools are out there and how they work, but they can make the difference between a finished costume and a frustrated, haphazard mess. Something as simple as using long pins instead of short ones when you’re pinning a long seam can cut time out of a project, simply by reducing the number of pins you have to insert and then remove. If you’re sewing fake fur, grab a throat plate for your machine with a small opening, so that the needle doesn’t push fur down into the bobbin mechanism. Keep a bottle of rubbing alcohol by your machine if you’re sewing those awful fabrics with the glued-on sequins, because your needle WILL get sticky. And make educated decisions about how much work something really needs. Cut the buttonholes and use snaps, and then sew the buttons on the outside if you still want the look. And you can totally glue the rick rack on that Raggedy Ann apron instead of sewing it. I give you permission.

duct tape stick people
You can do a lot with duct tape.

9: Involve Your Kid.

One of the best ways to keep a child from changing their mind about what they want to be at the last minute is to get them invested in the costume from the start. Depending on your child’s age, you can give them projects to help with or accomplish on their own. You may not want your five-year-old using your good sewing scissors, but they can go with you to the store, help you pick out the fabric and the pattern, and make a mask or do some hand-sewing. No one likes to see their hard work go to waste, so let your kid work hard. If you can help them succeed, they will be proud to wear their creation.

10: Make Costume Time a Priority.

This is true whether you’re involving your child in the creation process or not. There’s nothing fun about trying to cram 15 hours’ worth of work into three days at the end of October. Make some time each week to get a part of the costume done, and set some intermediate goals to keep yourself on track. Having some scheduled costume time can give everyone in your family an event to look forward to, just like carving the pumpkin or attending a party. And following on from that…

11: Don’t Stay Up All Night Unless YOU Want To.

If you do reach the point where cramming is inevitable, take a moment to decide what you can realistically accomplish. If staying up all night working on a costume is going to make you resent your kid, Halloween, and the whole concept of costumes, don’t do it. Figure out what you can cut and what you can prioritize to try to make everyone happy, including yourself. Remember: this is supposed to be fun. And if you’re like me and you think that staying up all night sewing is fun and worth it, that’s ok too. But make it your choice, not an obligation. You do not have to be a Halloween Martyr (although that would make a great costume idea!).

12: Good is Great, but Done is Better.

This is my mantra for most of my life, but it especially applies to projects like these. There is always “just one more thing” that you can add, but at some point you have to stop. Make a choice, and then let the rest go. Decide that you are going to stop at 10 pm on Oct. 30 or 4 pm on Oct. 31 or whenever it is, and then just be done. There’s always next year.

british empire
The Author and Husband, Halloween 2013
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