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7 Essential Rules for Creating a Great Halloween Costume

Every Halloween, the same problem arrives for those of us that take the holiday (way too) seriously: what are we going to do for a costume? This is not something to be taken lightly. You get one shot a year at this, and even though last November 1st you had like a thousand great ideas, you can’t remember them now when you actually need a great costume.

Well, you could always put it off and wing it, but you know you that’s a recipe for making something terrible, and you’ll end up looking almost as lame as the worst human being alive guy that refuses to wear one to the party because he’s “a little old to be playing dress up.” Or, even worse, you can just wear the one you wore last year. Sure, do that, no one will notice, except everyone that matters.

No, you need to put some time and thought into this. This is important–too important to just hope everything comes together. Without some planning and effort, you will end up with a lame Halloween costume, which is the worst for you and everyone you love. So, to help you, I will now share my sacred rules that I have honed and refined over many Halloweens, to guide you towards a winning costume.

Remember, these are just my own personal rules, do with them what you will, adjust them or modify them as you see fit, but if you go against them you’ll have no one to blame but yourself for your boring costume.

1) Avoid current events.

This is one of the biggest mistakes people make. Look, we get it, Donald Trump is all over the news, everyone is talking about him, so they’ll totally be into you wearing a suit with the stuffed-animal hamster on your head. Besides, what’s more classic than a clown costume? But that’s exactly why you need to avoid the nightly news or the most recent blockbuster, because it doesn’t require much thought or energy, since those things are on everyone’s mind already. That’s why you’ll see plenty of the same costumes every year, because some people don’t put a lot of time into them, and they don’t realize every other lazy person is thinking the same way.

If you want to go as Sarah Palin, Vice Presidential nominee from 2008, do it. Enough time has passed so you can go dig out that pink jacket and your glasses knowing you have a winner. You want to go as 2015 Hillary Clinton? Well no one is going to be blown away by you wearing a business suit and saying, “I’m the lady from the news tonight.”

Tina-Fey-Sarah-Palin-saturday-night-liveTina Fey was the only one who could do this and not be lame. 

You must avoid being too timely, which leads directly into the next rule.

2) Aim for things people love, but haven’t thought of for awhile (aka: Nostalgia always works).

No one wants to see a costume that reminds them of something they hate. I’m sure Jennifer Aniston would be angry if a couple showed up to her Halloween party dressed as Mr. and Mrs. Smith. So aim for crowd-pleasers, and it’s okay if they are ironic crowd-pleasers, because Halloween, a day dedicated to ghosts and death and monsters, should not be serious and depressing, it should be light and fun. So strive to create something people will love.

And boy do people love nostalgia. It’s nice to remember something you enjoyed that hasn’t really been in your thoughts for a long time. It’s kind of like getting a surprise gift from a stranger. One of these days I’m going to attend a party and someone will be wearing a Small Wonder Vickie costume and that’s going to be my favorite Halloween party. I haven’t watched an episode since I was probably eight, but man, I loved that show. Meanwhile, I’m a Game of Thrones fanatic, but I wouldn’t be half as excited by someone’s Samwell Tarly costume. All I’d probably notice are the inaccuracies. Nostalgia-inspired costumes trump modern-day costumes every time.

Sometimes a costume that fits the second rule can suddenly fall under rule number one. Case in point, probably my best costume ever was my way too accurate Marty McFly from several years ago, but it wouldn’t work now because this month is the 30th anniversary of the movie, and “Back to the Future Day,” the day Doc and Marty arrived in the future-future. October 21st, 2015, is being recognized with a new Blu-Ray and documentary. Which means by October 31st, that throwback costume is too timely. Save it for a couple of years from now.

marty-mcfly-cback-to-the-futureSorry Marty, this costume will be better….in the future!

3) If you can’t do it right, don’t do it.

Look, you can have the best idea in the world for a costume, but if you don’t have the means or skills to make it right, those flaws and inaccuracies are all people are going to see. No one expects you to look like a professional cosplayer, and a Halloween costume isn’t that anyway, but they expect you to not have obvious errors or to take lazy shortcuts. Your Inspector Gadget costume was a great idea, but when you show up without a hat you’re no longer a beloved cartoon, you are now dressed as “guy that flashes strangers on a train.” Then, when you have to explain what you really are (another issue we’ll get to), no one is going to give you credit for your great idea. Instead, they’re going to be bummed out you didn’t get the hat. “Well the only one I could find was 80 bucks, and that was a little too much” might be true, but no one will care. All they will care about is your costume was incomplete.

4) Use what you naturally have to your advantage.

I have a beard. I will not be shaving it for Halloween, which instantly means I can’t have a beardless costume, because that would violate rule number 3. However, don’t look at this as a limit, look at it as one more tool at your disposal. Do you have red hair? Use it. Are you tall? Short? Thin? Pale? Use what you have. Creating a great costume from scratch can be intimidating, like trying to order from a menu that has 30 pages. You’re better off beginning with a smaller subset, because it will inspire you to generate some actual ideas, rather than just aimlessly searching from “all of human history.” It’s still okay to use wigs or makeup, but those don’t always work the way you want. I put a ton of energy finding the right pieces for my Ron Burgundy costume, but the party was so hot that my fake mustache kept falling off and I ended up just being a guy wearing a red suit.

ron-burgundy-anchormanSadly, when my mustache fell off, I was not Ron Burgundy, but a guy wearing a woman’s blazer.

This also ties in to rule 3, which is why it’s ideal to make your actual features an asset and not an obstacle.

5) “Clever” doesn’t mean “funny”

This is probably my most controversial rule, and it might upset some people, but it needs to be said.

Look, I love a good pun. I really do. They are awful and wonderful and can hit perfectly if delivered with the right timing. They are funny for that one, exact moment, and then never funny again. No one reminisces about that great pun Rob made last week, let alone last hour. So how long do you think your pun-based costume will be funny? Probably not long enough to finish one drink. So unless your plan is to spend two minutes at 500 parties, avoid anything that is basically a wearable pun. Most people hate puns anyway, and even people like me that love them tend to groan at them when they go on too long. Spending all night as a “Cereal Killer” will murder any chance you had at a great costume.

Now, this does not mean you can’t do funny things with your costumes. Two of my favorites ever were two friends that (using rule 4) went as “Fat Flash” and “Skinny Hulk.” No one needed to ask them what they were, they just got it, and it was funny. It was funny because it was actually funny, and not clever.

(Remember Denzel Washington‘s Halloween costume in Philadelphia, where he stapled a bunch of legal briefs to his suit and told people he was a “lawsuit?” Watch the reactions he gets. That’s the most accurate Halloween party in movie history.)

halloween-philadelphia-lawsuit-denzel-washingtonIf you have to ask someone if they “get it,” you’ve already failed.

NOTE: When it comes to animals this rule is the complete opposite. Pun-based animal costumes are the best and should not be reserved only for Halloween. “Oh who’s a good Hot Dog with his little mustard and ketchup? YOU’REAGOODHOTDOGTHAT’SWHO!”

All of this brings us to maybe the single most important rule of all, the one that makes everything before this moot if not followed.

6) People should recognize your costume by sight.

When it comes to a great costume, you can’t overcome a bad first impression. If someone sees you and doesn’t know what you are, they never respond with excitement after you explain it. They don’t flip out with joy because they “get it now,” they say things like, “Ooooh, yeah, yeah, okay,” or, “I’m sorry I don’t know what that is.” That is a disaster. A costume is a visual medium, and once you have to use words to communicate it you’ve failed. This is why rule 3 matters so much. Following this rule will make or break your costume, and should be adhered to at all times, with one exception.

The Proportion of Awesomeness to Recognition Sub-rule

You can create an amazing costume that will only be recognized by a limited number of people, but it is hard, because that number of people is directly related to how awesome your costume is. If everyone in the world would recognize your costume it just needs to be merely okay. If only one person in the world would recognize it, it needs to be the greatest costume ever created. The more obscure you get, the better it needs to be. You can’t create something that only 3 people at the party will get, unless those 3 people lose their mind over it. I’m serious, they will need to remember that costume for the rest of their lives. Otherwise, what’s the point? Your costume is terrible to everyone else, and the few people who know what it is don’t care.

Phantom-of-the-paradiseYou might not get this one, but the people that do will probably love it.

So remember, if you intentionally want to wear a costume that is, by its very nature, not inclusive, make sure it is worth it for that select group. If you make a costume everyone gets it can range from okay to amazing, but the fewer people that recognize it the closer you have to be to awesome.

Finally, one last rule, which too often is forgotten in the excitement of a great idea.

7) Be aware of your surroundings.

This is the final rule because it’s the newest, but it can make or break your entire night. I live near Boston, which means it will most likely be cold for Halloween. If I plan on going somewhere my costume will either have to keep me warm itself, or I will have to wear a jacket, which runs the risk of ruining all of my hard work, not to mention hiding my costume while I travel. Conversely, if you live someplace warm, you probably don’t want to wear something that is going to be way too heavy because you’ll sweat all night.

Of course, eventually you’ll end up some place. Will it be sweltering, like a packed bar, or maybe a little cooler like at a smaller house party? Even then, will your costume be too cumbersome to move in? Can you walk in it? Or turn around? Are things breaking off of it in a crowd? Those things might not matter if you only need to go from the kitchen to the living room, but it will be if you planned for a night of pub-crawling.

Don’t forget where you’ll be either. A sexy cat or sexy fireman might not be the best idea for that kid’s party, but neither is your Eskimo costume for the single’s bar. So just ask yourself: what problems are created or solved by my costume at the place I will actually wear it?

Those are my rules, developed over years of thinking about this stuff way too much and discussing it for hours and hours. You can view them as suggestions if you prefer, but no matter how you take them, they are here to help you create a memorable, meaningful, respected, and most importantly, awesome Halloween costume.

You only get a chance to do this once a year. Get it right.

So what do you think of these rules? What does Mike have right, and what does he have wrong? Share your best rules or suggestions for a great costume in the comments below. And make sure to let us know if you create one using these rules.


Featured: Roseanne/ABC
Marty McFly: Universal Pictures
Philadelphia: Tristar Pictures
Tina Fey: Saturday Night Live/NBC
Anchorman: Apatow Productions
Phantom of the Paradise: 20th Century Fox

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