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Creating Quick Costumes on a Budget

Updated on April 18, 2012

Whether you’re trying to outfit your kids for a school party or setting the stage for community theater, costumes can be expensive and time consuming. Purchased costumes are often made of inferior materials,and those made from scratch can strain your wallet and your patience.

If you are on a budget, either of money or time, and your sewing machine hasn’t seen the light of day in years, learning to build a costume from existing pieces can be easy and fun, offering quick gratification for those latent creative longings. The following resources are essential for anyone seeking a nearly-instant identity change:

Basic Crafting Supplies can be kept on hand to make costumes at a moments’ notice. These include:

Scissors – Two pairs are best. Never cut anything but fabric with your fabric scissors.

Hot Glue Gun – Faster than a needle and thread, hot glue can build costume pieces where a soft, smooth edge is not necessary. Hot glue can fasten a ribbon tie to a superhero’s cape, trim a bonnet with bows and flowers, and fasten Velcro to a faux boot. With synthetic fabrics like polyester, do a test patch to make sure the fabric won’t melt.

Fabric Glue – Use fabric glue anywhere that hot glue would be inappropriate, such as on a hem or with delicate embellishments like beads and sequins. Be patient and wait for the piece to dry completely before handling.

Permanent markers in various colors – Markers are softer and faster drying than fabric paints, and can be used to draw in details like the lines on a mermaid’s seashells or the zigzag on Charlie Brown’s shirt. They are also great for freshening up worn out pieces, filling in scuff marks on leather shoes, belts, and vests.

Felt and Craft Foam – Felt and craft foam can be used in conjunction with hot glue to create the accessories that authenticate a costume. Wrapped around a pant leg and trimmed to fit over a matching shoe, they can be boots for a pirate or superhero. Glued into a triangle shape and trimmed with a feather, they are a hat for Peter Pan or Robin Hood. Felt and foam can be cut to make swords, superhero masks, and the aforementioned seashells. Adhesive backed felt or foam can provide stability for any costume pieces that are made from paper, like a logo or picture printed from the computer.

Safety Pins – Pins are the obvious choice for fast, temporary alterations.

Needle and thread – Sometimes you just can’t escape sewing an item, and if you don’t own a machine, you will need to learn to sew a few things by hand. Waxed dental floss is a great alternative to regular thread if you are sewing thick or heavy fabrics, particularly if they need to support any kind of weight.

Various Embellishments - Both new and recycled ribbons, beads, buttons, lace, and costume jewelry can add dimension to your project.

Your Local Thrift Store can be your best asset for acquiring materials. The imaginative shopper will see the potential in a variety of pieces.

Versatile wardrobe pieces can be purchased even if you don’t have an immediate use for them in mind. White button down shirts, solid colored leotards, sweat pants, sweatshirts, and t-shirts can be the foundation for any number of costumes. An adult long-sleeved shirt with button cuffs will provide the necessary fullness for pirate-style sleeves when the cuffs are taken in to fit a child’s wrist. Sweat pants and shirts can become a whole menagerie of animals when embellished with felt, yarn or faux fur. A green t-shirt and leggings or sweat pants can complete a Peter Pan ensemble, especially for a boy who is opposed to wearing tights. For Bible costumes, bathrobes and housecoats are a dime a dozen and come in a variety of colors and sizes to suit all of the children in your production.

You needn’t fear deconstructing an existing garment to create something new. Bell sleeves from a blouse can be added to a strapless or spaghetti-strapped cocktail dress to create a princess gown. If you are in community theater, era-appropriate pieces can sometimes be created by marrying part of one garment to part of another garment. And sometimes a thrift store item provides enough fabric to create something completely new, at a much cheaper price than the yardage at the fabric store.

Accessories available at thrift stores include belts, boots, hats, scarves, costume jewelry, and vests, just to name a few. It’s these little things that make for the most convincing pirates, cowboys and superheroes. You can also find a treasure trove of cast-off crafting supplies.

Recycling existing items can be the most cost-effective and rewarding way to create a costume.

Before purchasing anything new, drag out all of the clothes you kept “in case you need them someday”. Bridesmaid dresses, your college choir outfit, those weird hand-me-downs and cast-offs can become something new and wonderful. A floor length, 1970s-style ivory polyester gown is an angel’s robe. A green peasant skirt with a handkerchief hem, sewn together in the right places, is our mermaid’s tail. Dance recital costumes and accessories can be split up and added to other costumes to complete a look. Tired wool felt hats can be steamed into the shape of a bonnet, with ribbons and flowers erasing any past identity.

Again, deconstructing a piece that you didn’t have the heart to get rid of shouldn’t give rise to a guilty conscience. The finished product can be very gratifying, and probably will look better than the original article. A cheap dollar store Snow White outfit can be salvaged to make a yellow cape for Robin.

With a little imagination and a few dollars, creating costumes can be quick, easy, and affordable. Learn to see the potential in found pieces, and appreciate your own hidden design talents.


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