Pattern Reviews,  Sewing Tips

Sewing Halloween costumes

Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, is famous for this quote:

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But just HOW well?  Sure, there’s no point spending time in any endeavor that you know ahead of time is a waste. On the other extreme, doesn’t perfectionism sometimes get in the way of finishing some projects completely? For example: How well does a Halloween costume need to be sewn? 

Compare a Halloween costume to a theater costume. Theater costumes are often works of engineering, constructed to withstand repeated wearings under sweaty conditions of stage action under klieg lights. Halloween costumes are (sadly) often designed to be worn just once (in the dark!) and then relegated to the trash bin. Often they suffer from the downward spiral of the “bridesmaid dress effect”:

  • you don’t want to invest a lot on something that you might wear once
  • so you cut back on quality of fabrics and making
  • which leads to a piece that you only can wear once

I dislike “landfill clothes” of any sort, whether it’s disposable graduation gowns, the ubiquitous tee-shirt for every event,  or cheap fast-fashion from the mall chains (I recently read a newspaper article where college students were interviewed shopping, and they explained that they preferred to stock up on low-price new items rather than do laundry.  At the end of the semester they throw it all away.)

When sewing for Halloween, I aim for better quality so that costumes can be passed to siblings or friends, worn for dress-up play, re-sold, or donated to thrift shops where October is a huge month for sales (the “Savers” charity thrift chain does so much Halloween business that they now supplement donated costumes with purchased stock of new costumes and accessories).

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I’m sewing a “Dorothy” costume for a client this month, from “The Wizard of Oz”, a Halloween classic. Previously I’ve made  duplicates of this iconic dress designed by Gilbert Adrian, worn by Judy Garland in the 1939 MGM film:

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(Did you know that this dress was skillfully designed to minimize Miss Garland’s budding breasts, to maintain the illusion of childhood? Note how your eye is drawn away from the bustline by the trim details at the collar and sleeve, the non-functional buttons at the waist and the subtle bias insert  towards the hemline.  The neckline ruching takes the place of bust darts. As the film taping progressed, the actress was elastic-bound to keep her chest flat, and her hair was artfully arranged to hide her figure.)

Sewing that dress is a lot of work (seven horizontal seamlines to match up perfectly at center-back for the zipper!), and it needs to fit perfectly through the neckline and fitted shoulder to look good. It’s also SO specific to the film that it can’t easily be worn other than as a costume.  Ironically it doesn’t look much like the original illustrations by William Wallace Denslow in the book by Frank L. Baum:

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Nor does it look like the later illustrations for Baum’s books by John R. Neill:

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But people expect something similar to the classic film version in blue gingham check, except that lately they prefer it to be short and sassy, often with a circle-skirt a la Little Minis.  You can find this costume ready-made in cheap polyester everywhere (left-to-right: Target, Wal-Mart, Best Party Supply):

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My client wants a cotton version for her daughter, less shiny and flammable. Sadly the only gingham available locally (Wal-Mart, Jo-Ann, Hobby Lobby) is a very lightweight  poly-cotton, however with a lining it’s not bad. It’s not substantial enough for a stage costume (also the 1/4″ checks will “read” as a solid from the distance of the audience) but it’s fine for Halloween or a summer dress.

She also wants something less literal/”costumey”.  Something that might serve also as a summer pinafore or sundress. I went through my pattern stash and found three great options for her. I printed them out, studied the construction (all 3 pdfs looked professional), and let her choose.

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The first pattern that I grabbed was the Moocuzzi “Primrose”:

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Of course the gingham check on the pattern cover page got me! Seems meant to be a “Dorothy” type dress.

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I was also drawn to the Jilly Atlanta “Macy”:

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The sweet photo drew me right in! This darling blue version is from Maria Borges Duarte on her sewing blog FairiesBubblesCo. (You can read Maria’s reviews of several Jilly Atlanta patterns here: https://fairiesbubblesco.wordpress.com/tag/jilly-atlanta/)

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The third option was the relatively new Duchess and Hare “Mini Pinny”…. look at this cute shot on the pattern cover:

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I know, blue checks. Perfect! (Seriously, I do know how to overlook color and print, and focus on silhouette, I promise).  I’ve used the Mini Pinny pattern before but only as a skirted-diaper-cover…not yet as a pinafore.

(You may notice my pdf-pattern storage system: I clip pattern pieces to a skirt hanger and then hang  an abbreviated page of instructions inserted in a clear sheet-protector).

Honestly, any of these 3 designs would work very well as a modern “Dorothy” that can be worn IRL. All 3 have the option of ruffled or non-ruffled top.  “Macy” has 2 skirt lengths….”Mini Pinny” has circle or gathered skirt options.

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My client chose the Moocuzzi “Primrose”. It’s a well-designed pattern consisting completely of rectangles, so cutting out is simple. Typically I avoid “rectangle” patterns as they tend to be oversized-then-elasticized (ie; they cover the body but are not necessarily flattering) but I have a feeling this one is different, just from looking at the tester photos.

The pattern pieces are graded consistently, and stacked from a corner which makes it a breeze to cut different sizes: simple fold down the paper pattern up on the size lines you want, place on fabric, and rotary cut:

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(And you can see right here that I skipped the test-muslin process. Yup, broke my own rule. The reason was because this style has zero fitting required…elasticized waistback and adjustable straps.  I don’t recommend this when using any pattern for the first time…..as it turns out, I wanted to change a construction step and would have been better off with a test garment. More on that later….)

Since the fabric is so lightweight, I ironed on a lightweight fusible interfacing to the yardage being cut into structural elements (waistbands, straps, bodice)…everything except the skirt. It’s more efficient to fuse the yardage and then cut, than to fuse each individual pattern piece. I buy Pellon by the  bolt when it’s on sale:

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The great thing about yarn-dyes is that you can see clearly that your pattern pieces are on grain!  The downside is that distinct fabric designs need to be extra-carefully cut (and stitched) because anything off-grain will stand out like  a sore thumb. A way to avoid this issue is to cut adjacent pieces on the bias. In this case, I placed the waistbands and straps on the true bias (since they are interfaced, the bias won’t stretch out of shape):

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The only other pattern change I made was to widen the straps (slash-and-spread), which is purely personal preference:

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Oh and I cut a lining for the skirt, because of the lightweight fabric.

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The instructions for the Primrose are well-written and easy to understand. I love that Moocuuzi uses illustrations, which are of course much more time-consuming to create than photographs of the steps, but they save time for the sewer because they are so clear.

There are eight style variations and I made two:

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I love the look of the ruffled straps, and this pattern has a clever method of enclosing the ruffle with a clean finish  however I found that it was not easy to turn the straps inside out; I would change the construction next time around: instead of stitching the straps and then turning inside out, I would press the seam allowances under and then edgestitch. See what I mean when I say that you should make a test-muslin first? It’s not just for fit, it’s also to test construction methods and see if there’s anything you’d prefer to do differently.

The skirt is a simple gather.  Everybody has a favorite gathering method and mine is the gathering foot (not a ruffle foot) :

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I underlined the skirt, since the gingham is so limp.

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I’ve found that a tailor’s ham makes pressing small areas easier….this is a combo sleeve-press-tailor’s-ham that I found at the flea market, which works well for pressing the waistband:

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Overall this is a simple pattern, what makes this particular costume difficult is the darn checks! It takes a bit of effort to stitch them carefully so that the finished item doesn’t look wonky. This is how the basic style turned out:

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And here is the ruffled-strap version:

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All in all I’d say it’s a charming design, a well-written and well-drafted pattern, and I’m looking forward to using this design for more pinafores in the future.  I’d love to hear your Halloween-costume-sewing stories! Worth the effort to sew them, or not?

Happy sewing and Happy Halloween!

Janet

11 Comments

  • Theresa in Tucson

    Janet, I sewed Halloween costumes when the offspring was younger and tried to make them as good as possible. The offspring wore his black jumpsuit for three years in a row in three different variation until his torso finally outgrew it. Great costumes can be passed around, used for play and worn by many.

  • Cathy

    I agree! I make my girls costumes each year, with the expectation they can be reused or donated. Sadly, when making costumes for clients they want the “cheapest” way possible. I had several people ask me to give them a quote on a kids costume, and they were woken to the cost and time it takes to make things. 😀

  • Shelley

    My kids always liked interesting things… When they were little the challenge was to make it comfortable. Both kids started in the pumpkin costume stuffed with some bubble plastic. Later in elementary, they went through zombies, Dorothy, Power Rangers, a shaggy monster, elves, Princess Jasmine, etc. One of the more memorable ones was the year of learning to sew vinyl. Son wanted to be a knight with armor and daughter,.- Xena,Warrior Princess. There was a fabrics factory outlet that sold odd yardage by the pound, and they had cheap silver vinyl and the more typical brown. I really miss that place.
    Of course they kids grew out of Halloween in high school and they didn’t want mom made clothes either. Daughter did return to mom made by junior year though, thanks to cosplay. The most ambitious one was Silver the Hedgehog, mascot style. Hubby had a hand in that one because we added EL wire as a special effect. Fun times.

  • Ruth

    Last year I made a Halloween costume where the pieces could be worn separately as normal clothes, and they did indeed get lots of wear until my kid grew out of them. Those I sewed just as well as I would sew normal clothes.

    This year he got a more “costume” costume – no disguising the Champions Tunic from Zelda: Breath of the Wild as a normal shirt. There was a lot of fusible double stick tape involved for hems, so not up to my usual standards. But today he insisted on wearing the costume again, so at least it’s getting more than one wear! And I think even with the fused hems it’s sturdy enough to last through another kid or two. It was also made mostly out of scraps from other projects, so I don’t feel too bad about it, and the pants and boots are already in daily rotation.

    I do think it’s good to try and minimize waste with costumes, and to make them well enough that they can go into the dress up box for year-round fun.

  • Mary Pepin

    This is definitely a keeper with all your beautiful effort. I made myself one of these for a Halloween a couple years back. I definitely did not use your lovely details but it wasn’t intended to be used again. In reality, it is in the back of the closet with its ruby slippers waiting for it’s next Halloween. I wish I went your route.

  • JustGail

    I’ve only made 2 Halloween costumes for DS – a felt dinosaur and then a clown costume by adding ruffles to striped pants and making a hat/wig. I still have both. After that, it was purchased fire-fighter and pilot costumes worn for multiple years (his choice). He was done with costumes before his high school years.

    I like your PDF pattern storage. If I ever do PDF patterns, I think I’ll leave all sizes un-cut and trace off, as I do now with purchased paper patterns. And I really like your bright coloring of different sizes if not already done by the pattern company.

  • [email protected]

    I’m not familiar with her patterns, however she gets great reviews and the photos are excellent. Her theater background shows through in the design accuracy of her work; if I was costume director for a stage show or school event I’d definitely prefer her patterns over the Big Four! Plus she gives sneak peeks of her construction methods in the Etsy photos, which I haven’t seen before from a pdf designer….nice touch!

  • [email protected]

    Hi Cathy! That’s such a common problem, that clients want to have a custom-made, unique costume…yet they also want to save money! Well, saving money comes with mass production, not couture. You just have to be honest about the true cost, and let the customer decide. It’s not easy to do though!

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