How to Make a Halloween Costume

by Jen Doll

Tiger Costume. Be five or six years old. Be adorable. Have your mother pull your hair back into a ponytail and put you into footed PJs the supposed color of a cat from the wild — orangish-brownish. There should be a head part to this suit, which she has created, topped rakishly by triangular ears with felt pink insides. There should be a hole for your face so your own face can do the work for you. If your mother is very devoted to the craft, she will also sew black stripes using felt or some other fabric upon the arms and back of the suit. Using black eyeliner or possibly mascara, she will paint whiskers onto your face, and add a wee black nose. You won’t remember much about this Halloween, but knowing your parents as you do, you’re sure they didn’t let you eat all of your candy loot at once. By the time, months later, that you got to the bottom of the plastic pumpkin it was stored in, it had been infested by ants and had to be thrown away.

Octopus Costume. Arrange for your parents to have a large appliance delivered a few weeks before Halloween. A stove, maybe, or a refrigerator — both, if you have a sibling. Have a dad, a dad who is maybe an engineer or an architect but at the very least is “handy.” Have him come up with the idea to make your brother a robot costume, and have the brilliant idea yourself that you want to be an octopus. No one is ever an octopus.

Take up the clarinet, but decide you hate it and quickly shift to piano. When your parents let you select your own piano, pick a deep brown upright model made of the silkiest wood, with bronze foot pedals. Love it deeply. Have it delivered on Halloween, so that your thoughts go like this: CANDY! Piano? Candy? Piano. PIANO! Candy! as you traverse the streets knocking on doors and shouting trick-or-treat wearing your painted purple refrigerator box with eight trailing cardboard legs and a Sharpie-drawn octopus smile. Run back home throughout the afternoon, peering through the cut-out eye holes in the box to keep from tripping, to see if the piano has arrived yet. When it hasn’t, resume trick-or-treating. When people ask what you are, respond in a warbly imagined octopus voice, as if you’re underwater and not simply under cardboard. Go home and check again on the piano. You’ll never practice, but no one knows that, yet.

Witch Costume. From the depths of your mother’s closet comes the witch costume. It’s a black gown she’s had for years, paired with a black pointy hat that needs to sit for a few days on a broom handle so as to shake free its many wrinkles from the year in storage. The gown is too long, but that only makes it witchier, as does its grandma’s-house aroma. Wear sensible shoes and have your mother paint your entire face green, the same virulent green as your brother’s face because he’s going as the Incredible Hulk, or as he says, the “Credible Inhulk.” Rule the streets, green children.

Hooker Costume. Be in fifth grade and be awkward, with the awkward inkling that Halloween is a time in which you should be primarily alluring to boys. Have a red shirt that your mother has loaned you that hangs off one shoulder and a messy side ponytail to accent the other. Borrow orange-red lipstick to create a mouth like a slash across your face. Have a short stonewashed denim skirt that you wear to school, sometimes, but which when paired with this red shirt is somehow a bit of a lady-of-the-night look, which is exactly what you’re going for, or so you think. Have your dad come in and see you and your friend dressed as such and have him cough very loudly and try not to say anything. Have your mom make you wear a windbreaker and wipe off the lipstick before going out to trick-or-treat.

Nun Costume. Several years later, reprise the black dress, shorter now that you’re taller, from the witch costume. Add a habit made from some black-and-white cloth you find in your mother’s sewing closet. Add a cross necklace and a pious expression. Go to a party held by a classmate at a school where you are relatively new, having moved from a northern state to a southern one only recently, and somewhat shy, having yet to master the local dialect or middle-school dynamics. When you get to the party overhear some popular girls whispering, “Of course she’d be a nun!” Be unsure what they mean, exactly, but understand it’s not a compliment. Go home early and eat popcorn with your family while watching It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and feel not happy, but not sad, either.

Bathrobe Costume. Realize it’s Halloween and you’re in college and what the hell are you supposed to wear in Halloween in college except what’s hanging around in your dorm room? Scan the room. Let your eyes land upon that beige robe that your mom bought you for Christmas the year before, the one you still haven’t worn. Everyone’s dressing up to go see a screening of The Exorcist, so throw it on over your clothes and head out the door and when everyone asks you what you’re supposed to be, say, I’m wearing a bathrobe while shaking your head in disdain. Fortunately, after the fear and Jell-O shots, nobody cares much about costumes anyway.

Skiier Costume. It’s Halloween, and you’re still in college. This time, you’re more prepared. You have the ski gear that you’ve toted to your university in its northeast-adjacent environment on the off chance you might actually go skiing, which, of course, you never do. No matter! You gather a delightful ensemble, pants and goggles and snow boots and a patchwork Crayola-hued down jacket and you wear them all, your lift ticket still dangling on its wire attached to the coat, a real gesture at authenticity or simple laziness, but it works! At a party in the dorms you strip down eventually to your long underwear because it turns out that wearing ski clothes inside is kind of hot, and not in the way you were going for.

Cat Costume. Remember when you were a tiger? You rock this look, so do, over and over again. Wear opaque black tights, or maybe shiny or matte leggings. Don a black turtleneck, or a black long-sleeved shirt, or even a black tank top. Buy some cat ears stuck to a headband, and a tail. Reuse them again and again. Attach the tail with a safety pin, and every time it hits the back of your legs, no matter how often it does, over the night or even the years, turn in visceral paranoia that a stranger is touching your butt. Apply makeup liberally: black eyeliner to define cat eyes, whiskers, and a nose; bronzer for a cat complexion; red lips because you’re, obviously, a sexy cat — is there any other kind? At some point you’ll own a cheap, ugly leopard-print coat that you adore, and you’ll throw it on before you go outside in this costume and, hours and hours later, wake up with it still on, even though you’re at home in your own bed, maybe alone, maybe not.

Audrey Hepburn Costume. Write the following note to yourself in your diary to be found (mortifyingly) years later:

In preparation for Halloween, I am assembling the logistical and accessorizable elements of my chosen costume. Mentally and emotionally, I have been preparing for the past year. I will BE Holly Golightly!

Must acquire/purchase/borrow or steal the following:
2 long, arm-length black gloves
1 long and dramatic cigarette holder and 1 cigarette
1 dramatic-type black evening dress
1 pair of extremely large, round sunglasses
1 diamond (looking) tiara
many streaks throughout my brown hair (and the ability to put it up, Audrey-style)
2 large, diamond-looking (or similarly eye-catching) earrings
3 long, strandy pearl necklaces (or 1 that looks like three)

At the party to which you’ll wear this costume, drink worm punch (not real worms) and meet a boy who’s wearing a white trash bag with Peeps stapled to it who professes to be a “chick magnet.” Date him through the holidays, purchasing him Crate and Barrel highball glasses for Christmas that you never give to him because you both go home for the holidays and then he dumps you in January to get back together with his college girlfriend, leaving the glasses to sit in your hall closet for more than a year until you finally move and re-appropriate them for yourself.

Bat Costume. Reprise the cat costume except, this time, borrow a tiny Batman cape from a coworker at the place where you’re freelancing — it’s her kid’s, but he’s going as Malcolm Gladwell. Attempt to look batlike (alert, with a razor-sharp sense of hearing) rather than catlike (sleepy, languid, feline). Hang out with Martha-Stewart-in-Jail and a skinny K. Fed in a dark New York City bar with a lot of velvet curtains, sipping strange, sweet drinks. It will take you months to return that cape. In fact, maybe you still have it.

“Starlet” Costume. You really didn’t have time to get it together for this one, so you look through your closet and decide: black slip. You go to the wig store and buy a cheap blonde wig, and throw it on over your brown hair that you’ve bobby-pinned up into oblivion, and add red lipstick, done and done. You have a party to go to and you want to look your best! Unfortunately, you only look cold and borderline undressed, and no one has the faintest idea who or what you’re supposed to be. When you finally get home there are 47 million bobby pins to be removed from your head before you can sleep. Two days later, you’re still finding them.

Edie Sedgwick Costume. Thank goodness you bought that wig last Halloween! Cut it short, like Edie-short (you’ve been reading an Edie Sedgwick biography and you are fascinated — oh the beauty, oh the tragedy), and wear a long- or short-sleeved striped shirt with some opaque black tights and try to convince a friend to dress as Andy Warhol. No one will do it; your friends all want to go as cats. Oh well. Give yourself really dark eyebrows with eyeliner or mascara and add some black streaks to your Edie-hair and put on a pair of big, glitzy earrings. Head to a party, where your friend who believes Halloween costumes should be scary is a vampire with highly realistic fake blood dripping down her face. Participate in a “Thriller” dance-off (you do not win) before leaving to go to another party. There meet a man dressed as a tennis player who asks for your number. Later he will call and ask you on a date, and you will tell your friends the tennis player asked you out; later still, they will ask how your date with “Dennis Blair” was. Everyone will be very confused for a moment but then you will have a good laugh, because he’s not named Dennis Blair any more than he’s an actual tennis player, and isn’t this just how rumors get started? On your date you’ll drink too much and tell Dennis Blair/the tennis player all of this, and he will look at you funny. Don’t worry: You’ll be Facebook friends forever.

Bedbug Costume. Reprise your leggings or opaque black tights from the Edie/Cat/Bat costume. Find an old pink sheet that already has holes in it and cut some more, so you can fit your arms into it and wrap it around you like you’re a terrible, infesting insect hiding in someone’s mattress. You’re all about newsy costumes, and bedbugs are hot right now. Create some sort of antennae out of foil and an old coat hanger, and attach it to your head like it’s a halo. Go to a party, and then to another one, and at the end of the night go home and find that your elderly super has had a heart attack and is being taken to the hospital. Cry hysterically and call the boy with whom you’ve been texting all night; when he offers to come over, take him up on it. When he asks you if you need anything, say Cheetos, but when he brings you the small bag, feel it’s a sign. This will never work. Days later, find out your super has died, feel impossibly sad, and cry some more. When your lease ends, move.

You Costume. You have no real plans, just a few different parties you may or may not go to, and you look out the window and it’s snowing outside, snowing on October 31, what the fuck!? But it’s sort of nice, all that snow falling down gently, white stuff from the sky that’s not garbage or candy wrappers or ash from far-flung forest fires but instead quiet, natural frozen precipitation. You’re not going to think about climate change, you’re just going to enjoy it, so you do. Instead of going out and tromping around as a sexy or unsexy anything, you curl up under a blanket in sweatpants and your favorite T-shirt with some red wine within reach and you watch the snow fall and you think, I don’t have to be anything, I can just be me.

Jen Doll is a senior writer for The Atlantic Wire.

Image via Flickr