Refashion Cast-Offs for the Look You Want.

I have been a frustrated costume designer since I was a teen. Halloween was my favorite holiday and I loved dressing up as someone else. Since I learned to sew at the age of 11, I always made my own costumes rather than buying one of the flimsy off-the-rack jobs. I would go all out and sew from scratch, either using a commercial pattern or creating my own. In this manner, I’ve been everyone from Wonder Woman to Carmen Miranda (complete with foot-high fruit headdress). Sadly I only have snapshots from those days.

Ann Boleyn costume from prom dressThe year I decided to be Ann Boleyn led me in a different direction. I had a gorgeous velvet gown I had made for my high school Junior Prom a decade before; inspired by Zeferelli’s Romeo and Juliet it had a Renaissance look. I decided to adapt the existing gown to a more period-look with slashed sleeves and an ornate bodice.

The basic cut was already perfect, so I only had to add embellishment using brocade, lace, costume jewelry, and the golden cord that had marked me as an honor student.

Using the brocade, I created a panel for the bodice and accented the sleeves, gathering it at intervals to make it appear to be an under-sleeve peaking from the “slashes.” Beads from a disassembled necklace added the look of royalty. I looped the fringed, golden cord around the empire waist and gathered lace at the cuffs. I was the perfect partner for my date, Henry VIII (made that costume too).

With the birth of my daughter, my costume-creating opportunities increased.

At first, I went a little crazy sewing elaborate costumes from expensive fabric. I made fairy princess outfits, and the pink gown from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (16 pattern pieces and 4 shades of pink satin). I purposefully made them big, so my daughter and her friends got much joy out of them for years. But, as the years went on, I knew I had to scale back, and turned to the skills I learned in making the Renaissance costume; I got inventive and headed to the thrift stores.

Caribbean pirate from thrift store findsTo create a Caribbean pirate, I found a stained velveteen prom dress, satiny woman’s blouse, and black boots at the local Value Village. I altered the blouse to fit, shortening the sleeves and adding elastic to make a ruffled cuff. The prom dress was cannibalized for fabric to make the leggings and head scarf. Colorful beads strung on a piece of wire added that Captain Jack Sparrow touch, along with chains and pendant from our costume box. She was ready to board the Black Pearl—and had a costume that would accommodate long underwear if the weather turned chilly.

Pantyhose SpiderWhen she asked to be a spider, I came up with this relatively easy take using a long-sleeved black t-shirt, two pair of black tights, and some metallic red fabric I had on hand. First I cut an hourglass shape from the red fabric and appliquéd it to the back. Next, I cut the legs off the pantyhose and stuffed them with tissue paper (to keep them light), then sewed one on each side of the shirt at the bottom and another centered between the hem and the sleeve. I connected the foot of the center leg to the cuff of the sleeve with invisible thread leaving about a foot of thread between. The bottom legs were connected to the center legs in the same fashion. This allowed all the “legs” to move in unison with my daughter’s arms. Black leggings completed this simple, but creepy costume.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis rocker girl look was influenced by the movie “School of Rock,” and probably the easiest costume I ever made. A thrift shop skirt and tie were topped with one of my own sweaters. Spray-on hair color, black knee socks and guitar earrings completed the ensemble—no sewing required. It was the perfect look for a tween who wanted to dress-up but was no longer a fairy princess.

Grown-up pirate galA more grown-up pirate look was achieved with a bit of sewing and smart accessorizing. We scoured the thrift stores for a suitably ruffled shirt and a long vest. The shirt worked, but no vest could be found. Instead, we bought a woman’s blazer. I transformed it into a vest by cutting off the sleeves using the same technique as shown in an earlier post. The lapels were folded to the inside and tacked down for a smooth v-neck. The thrift store also yielded a blousy pair of women’s slacks in black rayon that needed only a bit of altering. A scarf from my closet made a lovely sash and two belts finished it off. We found the tri-corner hat and toy pistol at a local costume shop.

The trick is to pick a look, and be creative without worrying about matching a particular character exactly. And remember—it’s just a costume, so perfection in sewing or fit, is not required. The following books are great references for this kind of costuming and come in handy if you help out with the school play too!  Costuming Made Easy: How to Make Theatrical Costumes from Cast-Off Clothing by Barb Rogers, or Elegantly Frugal Costumes: The Poor Man’s Do-It-Yourself Costume Maker’s Guide by Shirley Dearling.