Homemade Halloween costumes

Five creative Brooklyn parents share the inspiration-and shortcuts-behind their handcrafted Halloween designs.

By Lisa Freedman |

Sure, you could opt for a store-bought outfit...or you could let this quintet of crafty parents inspire you to make one yourself. Check out the amazing ensembles these talented moms and dads came up with for their kids.

Snow Globe and Banana

Designer: Joel Potischman

Neighborhood: Boerum Hill

Occupation: Lead software architect at arc90

Child: Nina, 10 and Coby, 7

You've created a ton of Halloween costumes. What's your favorite?
When my son was younger, I turned his stroller into an F train. I felt I really captured the curved walls of the train. I also had a lot of fun with details like crowds in the windows and working lights. And it still worked as a stroller, which is important when you're dragging a two-year-old around town. About 100 people took pictures of it. At one point we passed a woman on a cell phone who said to her friend, "Oh my God, there's the F train costume! I heard about this one!" Clearly a buzz preceded us.

That sounds elaborate! What's been your biggest challenge?
Figuring out how to meet my daughter's request for a color-changing octopus. It took two weeks of thinking before I came up with the solution—lights and colored cellophane mounted inside the mantle.

Wait—exactly how much time do you spend on these?
Building them usually takes three to five nights after work. Most of my costumes are foam or cardboard hot-glued together and spray-painted. I save a lot of time by not hand-painting or using a sewing machine. It took some practice to get good at cutting and joining the foam into realistic shapes—often curved—but that has been key in making believable organic objects. For a banana costume, I once peeled a banana and measured each strip—they're all different—and then used Excel to scale them up. Quite geeky, but it worked.

Any advice for first-time costume makers?
Embrace silliness. I know I've nailed a costume when I crack myself up. And always get help from the client. Let the kids participate in the process so there are no unpleasant surprises or tantrums when it's done. Nina and I trekked around Brooklyn to pick out the materials together for the snow globe costume.

For behind-the-scenes photos of Joel making these creations, visit his flickr page.

Empire State Building, Spiderman and Chrysler Building

Designer: Melanie Conklin

Neighborhood: Park Slope

Occupation: Product developer and housewares specialist

Child: Perry, 3

Is Halloween a big deal in your house?
Yes! My sister comes up from North Carolina every year to celebrate. It's been a tradition since childhood for us to spend the day together making homemade costumes. Most years we manage to get them all done in one day.

Where do you get your ideas?
Now that Perry is older, he knows exactly what he wants well before Halloween—never a homemade costume! We've always been into themes, so I compromise by letting him pick out his costume from the store and build costumes for the adults around it. Last year he wanted to be Spider-Man. We tossed around the idea of making other superhero costumes, but that wasn't very exciting. Once I realized that we'd spend a lot of time carrying him, it made sense for Spider-Man to be climbing New York City buildings. My husband and I wore black shirts and I made the tops of iconic buildings—the Empire State and the Chrysler—for our heads. People knew exactly what we were.

How much work goes into your creations? 
Not too much. I don't even know how to sew! My favorite tools are hot glue, packing tape, cooking string, a stapler, paint and foam-backed fabric.

Does Perry help too?
I try to make sure that there are parts of the costumes that are safe and easy for him to work on, so we get to enjoy it together. He can paint, use markers and tape things. He loves cutting shapes and seeing things come together as we work.

How can parents simplify costume making?
Focus on one or two details that define a character, and add them to a store-bought clothing item. For example, an elephant costume could easily start with a gray sweatshirt. Tie on a trunk with some string and add ears to a headband. Those stretchy fabric headbands are great because they can be decorated with ears, horns or yarn to top off any costume.

Ballerina Bat and Crayon

Designer: Jenna Park

Neighborhood: Park Slope

Occupation: Freelance art director/designer and co-owner of confectionary company Whimsy & Spice

Child: Mia, 5 and Claudine, 2

When did you start making costumes?
My kids are still young, so I haven't been designing their costumes for very long. But my mom made a few costumes for me growing up. Then, once I became interested in sewing and fashion, I made my own. Even when I didn't have time to tackle a full-blown sewing project, I'd still assemble something small.

Where do your ideas come from?
The kids usually dictate what they want. Last year my older daughter felt conflicted because she really wanted to be a bat but most of her friends were going as ballerinas and princesses. We compromised and I created a ballerina bat costume, with a black tutu and bat wings that I made out of heavy black felt with stiff wire and glitter.

What's been your favorite costume?
A blue crayon getup. I made a very simple shift dress out of felt. I cut out the elements of the black Crayola logo from felt, sewed the black background onto the dress and attached the letters with glue. I made a basic cone-shaped hat and stuffed the inside so that it would stand nice and tall for the crayon point.

What supplies are good to have on hand?
Face makeup and a really great accessory go a long way. There isn't a rule that you have to transform yourself into a recognizable character for Halloween. Try out a wig, a pair of wings or a great hat. And take cues from your kids. They have really imaginative ideas.


Designer: Jennifer Yun

Neighborhood: Cobble Hill

Occupation: Founder of Two Blue Cars, a handcrafted T-shirt company for boys

Children: Raul Andres, 4, and Gabriel, 2

Who picks the costume ideas?
My sons direct me and I just go with it. I have always been into the DIY movement, but it wasn't until I met my husband that I was able to articulate my own visual vocabulary. He's very visual, and we spend a lot of our time articulating what we think about art, design or architecture. Our worst fight ever was over a Marvel refrigerator!

How much measuring and sewing do you do for these?
One of the things I love about making Halloween costumes is that I can be free from most of the things that make sewing time-consuming and daunting. I almost never need to measure or worry about fine seams—there's no need for the stitches to be neat. Most costumes just need a one-piece suit; I'll lay my son out on the fabric and cut out his body shape, then cut out a second identical piece and sew the two together. Whether it's a mouse or lion or wolf costume, the fabric you choose is what's important.

Where do you get your fabric?
Village Fabric (180 First Ave at 11th St, 212-473-8290). I always buy enough material for extreme disasters, so at least half as much more than what I think I'll need.

Do you ever rely on the Internet for help?
There's a whole wonderful world of homemade Halloween costumes out there. Spend a few seconds on Google and you'll find a neat list of homey, crafty blogs and websites written by moms. Some of my favorites are weewonderfuls.com and loobylu.com. For Halloween costume ideas, a simple Google search can help get the juices flowing and you can quickly get a sense of what's possible for your skills. The great thing, too, is that it's impossible to make your child look ugly. Homemade costumes always up the cute factor exponentially!


Designer: Jennifer Ward

Neighborhood: Carroll Gardens

Occupation: Founder of children's interior design consulting firm Minor Designs

Child: Parker, 5

What was last year's costume?
Parker wanted to be a glittery butterfly witch and the purple cat from Eric Carle's Brown Bear book. I went to Rite Aid and got a witch costume. With some glitter, glue and wings, we made a glittery butterfly witch. For the purple cat, we used a pair of pants from her Jasmine dress-up set, a purple vest found on clearance at The Children's Place, a purple thermal undershirt and some purple hair spray from Ricky's. We added felt ears to a black headband and used purple eyeliner to draw the nose. We topped it off with a sequined belt and attached a stuffed felt tail to it. All told, I spent about $30 on everything.

That's a steal. Nice job. So you started with store-bought costumes and added your own touch?
Yes. It's a good idea to provide the base and then let your child tweak it a bit to make it more his own. It doesn't need to be perfect, and if your child helps, it will be great no matter what because he'll feel proud.

If Parker let you pick her costume, what would it be?
I'd like to try my hand at Pippi Longstocking. We have a ton of clothing that we've been meaning to donate to Goodwill that could be recycled into a perfect Pippi outfit. It doesn't require clean sewing lines and is open for colors and patterns of any kind. You can do the same thing for a boy and make him a pirate. A simple construction made out of old clothes is a perfect fit.

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