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Cartoon of a woman is dressed as a witch for Halloween. She wears a black witch’s hat, a tattered black dress, and holds a broom. A bat flies behind her. Denis Novikov/Getty Images

How to come up with a last-minute Halloween costume without spending a ton of money

Tap your creativity (and closet) for the best Halloween costume.

With an October 30 birthday, it’s only natural that Kimberly Murphy takes Halloween extremely seriously. A natural redhead, Murphy has dressed up as iconic crimson-haired characters like the Wendy’s mascot and Chuckie from Rugrats, but once she started dating her now-fiancé, Brian, nearly a decade ago, Murphy’s costumes leveled up. A selection of Murphy and Brian’s greatest Halloween hits: Dexter and Dee Dee from Dexter’s Laboratory, Ms. Frizzle and the eponymous bus from The Magic School Bus, Jack and Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas, Tormund and Brienne of Tarth from Game of Thrones, and Shaun White and a snowboard.

“We put my snowboard on his back so I could actually ‘ride’ him,” Murphy, who, regardless of the character’s gender, always dresses as the redhead, says. “It gave a funny, experiential element to the costume.”

This October, the couple, both in their early 30s, is getting married and will be depicting Chucky and Bride of Chucky for Halloween. (You can guess who’ll be donning the white dress.)

In childhood, Halloween is one of the few days of the year where you can wear your most imaginative garb to school and to strangers’ doors. As you get older, that sense of youthful creativity might wane, and figuring out what to wear to a costume party becomes another minor conundrum. Whether you dabble in dress-up or are a cosplay aficionado, conceiving of creative, yet approachable, Halloween attire doesn’t need to be a bewildering or expensive experience. Experts in the art of costuming offer their advice for ideating and executing your best guise so you can take home top honors in this year’s costume contest.

Narrow your focus

When every character, celebrity, historical figure, animal, pun, and meme is potential costume fodder, homing in on one idea can feel overwhelming. Limitations and parameters are your best friend. Use your own appearance — is there a person or fictional character who has a similar style as you? Vaguely comparable features? — and the media that interested you this year as jumping-off points. Everything from YA novels and nostalgic ‘90s TV shows to extremely local jokes and gags (public transit, sports mascots) to niche memes (hello, Chris Pine astral projecting) are prime inspo.

Is there an alter ego you’re interested in exploring? Cosplayer and photographer Hope Elmekies often dresses up as characters she feels a personal connection to, like Morticia Addams. “I very much felt like I related to [her] because she’s not fitting in,” she says. “I felt that kinship to that character.”

A woman wearing a long black wig and black velvet dress holds a black umbrella and stands with her hand on the hood of a black hearse.
One of Hope Elmekies’ go-to cosplay characters is Morticia Addams.
Courtesy Fungirlwithacamera Photography

For all of her costumes, Murphy has let her red hair and the height difference between her and her fiancé (she’s 5 feet tall, he’s 6-foot-2) guide her choices. She thinks back to significant pop culture or historical moments that fall under these categories. For example, Murphy flagged Queen’s Gambit as a potential ensemble, due to its buzzworthiness and the fact that the protagonist had red hair. “I take this formulaic approach to Halloween where if it’s unusually small or redheaded,” she says, “that fits my formula of a potential Halloween candidate.”

For group or family costumes, it can be helpful to focus on one shared interest, accessory, or hobby. If you all met in an adult dodgeball league, maybe you want to dress up as dodgeball players. Maybe your group is composed of three couples and you want to do a Grease-inspired collab.

Then, figure out what effect you’d like your costume to have. Is your goal to make everyone laugh? Be the sexy one? Go all-in on minute details? Incorporate a few friends for a group costume? This can help you zero in on an idea.

The location of your Halloween bash can help further narrow down your options, says custom costume maker Correen Borst-Straub of Correen’s Creative Designs. Think about where you’ll wear the getup to determine what’s appropriate. If you’re going to a party in a small apartment, you probably won’t want to wear a huge Marie Antoinette dress or you might want to think twice about wearing vampire fangs to a costumed fundraiser with a sit-down dinner.

Buck convention, respectfully

Using popular culture as inspiration may yield a few potential ideas, but if you really want a memorable guise, approach these concepts in an unconventional manner. Many people tend to dress up as the main characters from popular shows (how many chefs and Targaryens are we going to see this year?) but supporting roles or genre tropes can also be crowd-pleasing attire. For her all-time favorite Halloween costume, Dani Cabot, the manager of New York City vintage boutique Screaming Mimis, dressed up as a virgin sacrifice. “I got bedsheets and a classic cheesy ’70s Roman goddess dress and I got a huge wig, and then a choker that made it look like my throat was slashed,” she says.

Even if you don’t share every physical trait with a character, use your differences to your advantage. Murphy and her fiance have often dressed up as characters that have historically been depicted as opposite to the couple’s own gender presentation. “Gender is always very subjective,” says Philadelphia-based drag queen VinChelle. “Everyone can express themselves how they want to.” VinChelle frequently performs in looks inspired by Beyoncé and uses the star’s photoshoots as a reference. She’ll then scour fabric stores in Philadelphia or New York City for the garment and works closely with seamstresses to construct the outfit. “Beyoncé’s a glorified drag queen,” she says.

To be clear: This is not an excuse to appropriate other cultures, use makeup to darken your skin, or wear racist costumes. If you’re unsure if a costume is appropriate, run your idea by a few friends first, says Kate Farrier, the wardrobe manager for RWS Entertainment Group, an entertainment and event production company that has produced haunted experiences for the likes of Six Flags Great America, Sea World, and Legoland.

Reference your personal style

Think about ways you can infuse your personality into popular ideas. Say you want to be a witch or a vampire. What can you do to make the costume feel like you? If your one wardrobe staple is a leather jacket, make your witch persona wear a leather jacket. “If you’re always on your phone, maybe you’re a celebrity vampire, social media vampire,” Farrier says. “Try and make it about something that you always have by bringing your personal items into it because that will make it special for you.”

One year, a shopper at Screaming Mimis spiced up their vampire attire by adding ’70s disco accessories. “They did this insane disco Studio 54 vampire look,” Cabot says. You can also take a character who isn’t particularly known for their fashion, like Pacman, and make an interesting garment inspired by their aesthetic.

Another way to differentiate is to make subtle changes to tried-and-true depictions. Borst-Straub has a 25 percent rule where she infuses her creativity into well-known designs so the resulting look is 75 percent true to pop culture and 25 percent her own.

Elmekies gets inspiration by searching her costume idea plus “cosplay” on Pinterest to see how others have approached the concept. Don’t worry about being so niche that everyone has to ask you what you are, Elmekies says. “So, what are you?” is a great icebreaker. “Sometimes when I go out as Belle from Beauty and the Beast, people don’t know who I am necessarily because it’s not a Disney knockoff, it’s more built that you can wear every day,” Elmekies says.

Use what you’ve got (or shop secondhand)

Halloween outfits shouldn’t cost a ton of money. Think about the colors, shapes, and silhouettes needed for a costume to help you identify the look’s building blocks. For a gargoyle look, for example, you’ll need a lot of gray apparel and makeup. “Think about the shapes of things instead of the actual items,” says Ryan Walton, the producer of Halloween experiences for RWS Entertainment Group. “[Say] I need a round hoop-like thing. What can I do that’s round and hoop-like that’s not going to cost me a lot of money and then I can refabricate?”

Scour your closet (or your friends’ closets) for pieces you’ll need. If you’re dressing up as a flapper, dig out a slip dress if you have one. Then, let your accessories and props do all the talking. “So things like jewelry, gloves, stockings, headpieces, masks can really transform a basic into something that’s excellent,” Cabot says.

For any pieces you don’t already own, visit a local vintage or thrift store, indie costume shop, or dollar store to get materials. Workers at these stores can offer expert costuming advice, and by shopping in person, you can be sure you’re getting exactly what you want — no online ordering surprises, Cabot says. Shopping secondhand is also far more sustainable than purchasing a polyester outfit from a big-box store. Chances are you can even incorporate aspects of your ensemble into your regular wardrobe, too.

Rock your costume

Ultimately, you’re going to have the best time in an outfit you feel comfortable and confident wearing. Think about how the fabrics and props feel; it’s not worth being constricted by shoes that are impossible to walk in. “You will light up the most when you are wearing something that you love,” VinChelle says. “When I am in my favorite costume, I’m a whole other person.”

Even if you feel like you don’t have the “right” body type for a certain character or look, “you can look at it as this is my character and my character’s just curvy,” Elmekies says. “Realize your character is incredible.”

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