Halloween Costumes On The Cheap

By Fred Jerant

My wife teaches fourth grade, and she’s had her fill of Halloween by October 1 (you can probably guess why).

On the other hand, I have a good time, even dressing up to hand out the candy. I’ve been Joliet Jake Blues (a cheap fedora and dollar-store sunglasses), Clark Kent (with a Superman t-shirt underneath my regular clothes) and other characters.

They help me share the Halloween spirit without breaking the bank. And you can do the same, by taking the advice of experienced costumers in the Lehigh Valley.

Kara Sorrentino, former wardrobe mistress for the Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, says costumes are in her blood – both of her great-grandmothers were seamstresses. She also started making her own costumes in childhood. Her favorite was a robot, using a large empty box, aluminum foil and lots of things found around the house – much like Ralph Kramden’s “man from space.”

Today, though, her first stop for Halloween duds is the thrift shop. “It’s a costume haven,” she says, “but the idea has caught on, so some things can be a bit pricey.” Sorrentino adds that flea markets and garage sales can be good sources, too.

Will Morris, technical director for the Civic Theatre of Allentown, agrees. “Thrift stores are always hit-or-miss,” he says, “but you can often find amazing things. When we do historical shows at Civic, about 50% of our costumes come from thrift shops.”

When something stirs your imagination, don’t hesitate to work with it, Morris adds. Turn long pants into shorts, take the sleeves off a shirt, or be a little Frankenstein-y, and piece some things together.

Can’t sew? Morris reveals his secret weapon – a hot glue gun. “They’re cheap, and the adhesion power is astounding. I’ve used glue guns for shows that ran four weeks – and your costume is just for one night,” he says. They’re useful even if you do sew – attaching some last-minute accents, for example.

You might structure a costume around one or two items. It could be as simple as a huge hairdo, or garish temporary tattoos. “The best costumes have one big ‘wow!’ factor,” Sorrentino says. “If you have one great piece, everyone’s attention will be drawn to it, and the rest of your costume won’t matter as much.”

“It’s really about making an entrance,” Morris adds. “After you’ve had your ‘paparazzi moment’, you’ll just get caught up in the fun.”

But one key rule of style applies even on Halloween: don’t overlook the details. Just ask Louella Torrence, owner of Drop Me A Line, a costume sale and rental store in Allentown.

“By themselves, clothes don’t always convey what you want to be,” she says.  “But the right accessories can bring out your character. A cowboy just isn’t a cowboy unless he’s wearing the right hat and gun. ”

Torrence’s store has a wealth of complete costumes for kids and adults, but take some time to poke around a bit. You’ll probably find just the touches you need to complete your self-made costume – dashikis, funky wigs, studded wristbands, animal ears and noses, tie-dye t-shirts, jewelry, and lots more.

“That’s all well and good,” you say, “but I’m not creative! I never have any good ideas!”

Never fear. Our costume mavens are ready to dole out a sackful of treats for you – no door-to-door canvassing needed!


“For a party, I wore a platinum wig, too much makeup, a lacy tank, ripped-up jeans, and temporary tattoos on my arms and chest,” Sorrentino says. You can make tats by printing designs on a special computer paper, or using a mehndi kit.


Get a trench coat from a thrift shop, and use safety pins to attach cheap costume jewelry and watches to the front linings. “You can add price tags to each piece,” Morris says, “and make it an interactive costume by flashing your goods to other partygoers and trying to sell them something.”


“Wear a black dress, an appropriate wig, and carry some wire coat hangers,” Morris suggests. Finish it off with heavy red lipstick, thick eyebrows and a faux mink or fox stole.


Torrence suggests wearing jeans and a tie-dyed (or ‘60s rock group) t-shirt with a long wig, headband, granny glasses and a peace-sign pendant. Whether you’re a man, woman or child, you’ll look like you just drifted in from Haight-Ashbury.


Especially cute on kids, adults can pull it off, too. “Wear a swimsuit or t-shirt and shorts,” Morris says, “and attach inflated purple balloons all over them.”


(great for little girls): “Accessorize a flowing white dress with silvery wings and a halo,” says Torrence.


“Wear a one-piece bathing suit or a high-cut leotard, leg warmers, and plenty of eye make-up and jewelry,” Sorrentino says. If your hair is long, pull it into a high, offset pony tail; or go big, curly and loaded with mousse.


Suitable for all ages, “You wear a pair of cat ears, and carry a big sack full of stuff,” Morris says. You might load it with costume jewelry, CDs, “golden” candlesticks, bundles of play money…you get the idea.

And if you’re really pressed, you can do what one of our Halloween guests did: wear pajamas, fuzzy slippers, a bathrobe and a tiara. Just imagine the groans that will erupt when you announce that you’re portraying “Sleeping Beauty!”

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