As Halloween nears, I always grow excited at the prospect of seeing clever costume ideas brought to life. Costumes these days are light years ahead of the simple, cheap, unconvincing ones of my childhood.
When I was a kid, a costume took one of two forms.
The first was the thrown-together-from-stuff-I-found-lying-around-the-house outfit.
“I’m a hobo,” I’d proclaim, wearing a hodgepodge of my brothers’ castoff clothes and a hat from the rag bag, my chin darkened to simulate a beard. An old pillowcase to hold my trick-or-treat loot completed the look.
A notch up (although barely) was the plastic costume purchased at Woolworth’s, which consisted of a rayon or polyester garment and matching plastic mask held on with a loop of string. Those masks had a tiny nose hole and two eyeholes not much larger, and were so thin their edges would give you a paper cut if not handled just so. The colors were garish and any resemblance to the character you were supposed to represent was nominal at best.
When I grew up and had my own children, I yearned for something more realistic, more sophisticated, for their Halloween costumes. Luckily, I had acquired some proficiency at sewing, so I was able to whip up some real doozies over the years.
My oldest daughter, Jenny, was cast as a spider in a second-grade play, and I sewed extra arms onto a black sweatshirt to create her look. That same year, I cut down a Little Bo Peep-style bridesmaid dress to make her Scarlett O’Hara dress, complete with a length of copper tubing sewn into the hem to make it bell out. (That looked cool, but was a nightmare to get in and out of the car.)
A few years later, I cut bread slices from a sheet of mattress foam and sewed lettuce, tomato, cheese and meat from scraps of fabric for a baloney sandwich costume that won her a prize.
Sometimes a single item became the genesis of a costume. During a visit to the costume storage at Jefferson College, longtime play director Joe Wilson offhandedly tossed a tiny, flower-topped straw hat to Jenny to take home. That was the basis for her Mary Poppins outfit, complete with carpetbag and sensible shoes. (Thanks, Goodwill!)
Her younger sister, Lindsay, was a newsboy one year, simply because we found a newsboy hat at a yard sale and a pair of knickers at a vintage clothing store.
Sometimes craft items were used for the costume or the accompanying props.
Lindsay once wore a spaceman outfit with a jet pack on the back, made from painted 2-liter soda bottles, spare plastic knobs and who knows what else, with felt flames coming out the bottom.
I found a length of shiny cloth on a clearance rack, and that was the basis for my son Drew’s knight-in-shining-armor outfit.
When my youngest daughter, Maddie, was 7, she was cast as “Elfis” in a school holiday program. I admit, I may have gone a little nuts in the fabric store, resulting in an extravagant red satin pantsuit and cape embellished with shiny gold trim, epaulets and all sorts of gewgaws, as well as a shimmery silver guitar made from a yardstick and a sheet of science fair project board.
Okay, maybe I have gone a wee bit overboard at times.
But I’m not sorry. And nothing has made me happier than seeing my children continue the tradition.
Four of my daughters live in Florida, and they’ve gotten together to do group costumes, roping in their spouses and children. They’ve created quite a stir at the annual Walt Disney World Halloween festivities with their “Star Wars” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Wreck It Ralph” groups.
In high school, Drew and his sister, Hannah, put together their own costume of Wayne and Garth from “Saturday Night Live,” complete with ripped jeans, blonde wig and drumsticks.
Maddie and her best friend actually purchased a toilet seat and clay pot from a local discount store to portray Moaning Myrtle and Professor Sprout from Harry Potter. (The seat was later donated to Habitat for Humanity).
A few years ago, we were cleaning out our old minivan in preparation for trading it in when we ran across a 6-foot-tall, homemade silver staff stuffed under the seats.
“Loki’s scepter. Superhero day. Homecoming,” Maddie explained with a shrug.
I have been afraid that Halloween costumes would go by the wayside during the pandemic. Even before COVID, the trend has seemingly been heading away from walking through the neighborhood and more toward “trunk-or-treat” events on school or church parking lots.
But it seems costumes are alive and well, and even surging in some areas, as cosplay becomes ever more popular.
“Cosplayers” are folks who dress like their favorite book, movie or TV characters, down to the last detail. These are typically adolescents or adults, not children, who are willing and able to spend a few bucks and a lot of time to look just like Sauron from “Lord of the Rings” or Harley Quinn from DC Comics or a storm trooper from “Star Wars.”
I love to see them. I love the idea of people at a science fiction and fantasy convention peering out from under the makeup or the mask to see the world from a completely new perspective, just the way they did on Halloween as a 7-year-old.
I hope, for our children’s and grandchildren’s sake, we never give up this tradition of parents going all out to help their kids enjoy a rich fantasy life.
I hope, the night before Halloween, there is more than one parent scouring the shelves of the dollar store for props and burning the midnight oil to get that last row of glittery trim sewed onto the bottom of that cape.
I hope, given the year we’ve just had, we all make the conscious decision to keep alive the Halloween costume tradition.
Just because it’s fun.