What were you for Halloween?

Finally October, and that means no one can stop me from talking about Halloween costumes!

This year, my wish is finally coming true: Benny is going to be Sarah from Sarah & Duck for Halloween, and Corrie is going to be Duck. Rarely have costumes been matched so well to personalities. I had to sweeten the deal by promising to be Yarn Lady, and I don’t really see that that’s especially apt, but the kids think it’s pretty funny. 

Halloween costumes have certainly changed from my youth. When I was growing up, most of the class turned up in those brittle, blurry plastic masks with tiny nostril holes and eyes and a slitty mouth, and you would clothe yourself in a slithery plastic smock with a picture of yourself on the chest, and that was magical enough.

In my family, though, some combination of being poor and weird compelled us to make our own costumes. My mother absolutely hated this kind of project. She would suffer torments for us, die for us, but making Halloween costumes was a bridge too far; so we were mostly left to our own devices, with mixed results.

First grade: My older sister was an angel, and I was a devil. One of my teenage sisters sewed these costumes, which were pretty spectacular. I remember yards and yards of gold wiggly ric-rac, and my big sister spreading the white fabric for the angel costume out on the floor and saying in mock gruff tones, “Put yer neck right here” so she could measure it. I remember when it was my turn to lie on the devil-red fabric on the floor, and hearing and feeling the scissors slowly biting through the cloth, closer and closer to my head. The thrill! 

I totally should have won the class costume contest for my devil suit, but instead, Amy who was dressed like a nurse won, just because they thought she was cute. Inexcusable. But when we went trick-or-treating, somebody thought I was so cute, she gave me an entire full-sized bag of potato chips! Imagine walking home in the dark on your stubby little devil legs hauling an enormous bag of chips, all for yourself, based solely on your cuteness. Vindicated! That triumph has never been equalled to this day.

Second grade: We were ladybugs, my sister and I both. My mother got a library book possibly this one, by Frieda Gates

that told you how to make easy costumes out of “oak tag,” which is what my mother called what is now called “poster board.”  (My mother also called ground beef “chopmeat” and jeans “dungarees,” I assumed for the sole purpose of humiliating me in front of my friends.) Many of the costumes were two pieces of poster board connected with string to hang over your shoulders, like a sandwich board sign. The lady bug costume was red poster board with big black dots, and there must have been some kind of headpiece, or maybe just a black hat. Everyone was pleased and relieved that we could wear our winter jackets under the costumes without doing violence to the aesthetic, which was always a point of contention.  We could even integrate those fluorescent orange reflective dot stickers the fire station used to give out, to discourage cars from running little children down. 

Correction! The book we had was this one: Easy Costumes You Don’t Have to Sew by Goldie Chernoff

Here’s my sister as a tombstone, using the “two pieces of oaktag” method.

This style of costume also forces you to walk in a sedate, ladylike manner, or else it flaps something awful. 

This may have been the year my sister and I wandered out so late and so long, deciding to try for one more house and one more house, that we looked up and realized we were far, far past any neighborhood we recognized, next to some kind of strange tire junk yard with a broken down fence, and it was well and truly black sky dark out, not just dusk, and our hands were freezing cold and our bags were heavy and our legs were stiff and exhausted. Whether or not we made it back home, I don’t remember. 

Third grade: A tree. This was certainly my own idea, and it was not a good one. It took a very long time to trace all those separate maple leaves out of construction paper, draw the little veins on, and cut them out, but the really hard part was holding my arms up the whole time. Yes, I designed this costumes so that it only looked like a tree if I held my arms up in the air, treelike. If I ever rested my arms, I just looked like a wad of construction paper. Oaktag, if you will. I believe this is the year my sister was a gravestone, or possibly an ear of corn (which also flapped a lot).


Still smiling;  hadn’t yet realized about the arms. 

Fourth grade: I don’t remember. I do recall I spent a lot of time drawing and painting pictures of people raking leaves, the leaves rendered with bits of sponge dipped in paint and dabbed delicately on the paper; and I spent an awful lot of time drawing skeletons. This lasted throughout the whole year and into the next. Just never got tired of drawing skeletons, and they are still often on my mind. I did enter a Halloween window painting contest; maybe that was fourth grade. Skeletons were a major part of it, as well as some bats. The purple paint from the clouds dripped down over the bats, and me and my friend Lori decided to pretend we had done it on purpose, because the bats were so spooky, even their blood was purple! And we won second place, but the Eagle Times reported that we had won third, and my mother didn’t let me call in a correction, which is total chopmeat. 

Wow, I just suddenly remembered that I had a Halloween party at my house instead of trick-or treating one year! That must have been fourth grade. My father, who was the librarian at the local state college, borrowed a skeleton from the science class, and we set that up in the doorway to greet people. We had an old, rather shabby victorian house, which helped to sell the whole vibe. We did the classic “dead man’s remains” party game, turning off the lights and passing around various foods, solemnly explaining which body parts they were. Peeled grapes for eyeballs, oiled spaghetti for brains, perhaps some Jell-o for some other organ. My father must have organized this. He used to be a children’s librarian, and he loved doing group activities with songs and games. He used to do this thing where you drew little bits of a map as you told a story, and when the story was done, it turned out you had been drawing a duck the whole time. For the Halloween party, I’m guessing he employed his 

Fifth grade: I was Sleeping Beauty. By this time, we had acquired some kind of princess dress made with maroon velveteen and brocade from a yard sale or something. It had ballooning, floral patterned sleeves with long ribbons at the shoulders, you could lace up your arms in a criss-cross pattern, very romantic. So I wore that and made a spinning wheel out of cardboard. I seem to remember a gold crown made out of . . . something uncrownlike, that hurt my scalp a lot. It couldn’t have been barbed wire, but that’s how I remember it. I do remember a freckled girl named Pam being picked up by her mom, staring at my dress with great envy, and savagely remarking, “Must be nice to have someone make homemade costumes for you!” and her mom looking sad. This essay, like all essays, seems to be about moms.

Sixth grade: A flower? I think I made a mask out of a paper plate with painted paper plate petals, and then made a center out of hot pink synthetic fur. This would have been about 1986, so it was pretty easy to get your hands on some synthetic hot pink fur. This was right about the age you were supposed to stop caring about dressing up for Halloween, so you had to start veering into ironic or upsetting or sexy if you wanted to wear a costume. I may have been an idiot in sixth grade, but even I could tell I wasn’t sexy, no matter how many jelly bracelets I managed to cram on my arms; and in my house, my mother scathingly referred to Madonna as “Madoona,” because she didn’t deserve to have the same name as the Blessed Mother; so there wasn’t any way I was going to get away with that kind of costume anyway) so I guess I went with upsetting. I remember sort of looming at people, and refusing to speak, and feeling that I must be an alien flower from some other galaxy. (Really I was just a regular flower.)

And then I don’t think I dressed up again until college, when we were supposed to wear costumes based on the things we were reading in Humanities. 

One year I was, sorry, Aristotle’s Incontinent Man, and that was when I found out how expensive adult diapers are (too expensive for a joke costume, it turns out). I guess I wore dark clothes with a sheet wrapped around my loins, and then I wore makeup to make my eyebrows look indecisive. When it was my turn to present my costume, I asked Maria for a cigarette, and then as soon as I lit it, I change my mind and stamped it out, which made Maria pretty mad. Ha ha, get it, because he’s incontinent. Boy, I miss smoking. 

And that is all I remember. If someone out there went to college with me and has photos of me in blackface or something, please have mercy and keep it to yourself! I’ve changed! I’m Yarn Lady now. 


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6 thoughts on “What were you for Halloween?”

  1. In second grade, I decided I would be a “kitty cat” and my mother kept asking, “Are you sure you want this costume because it says scary cat.” I insisted. She bought it at the local Gibsons. When I put it on and looked at myself in the mirror, I screamed in horror at the evil black cat with red blood streaks for whiskers. Mom drove me back and we returned it. I went as Cinderella with the blond slit nose mask and blue plastic overall. It poured on Halloween so we wore rain coats and galoshes –we lived where it rained a lot so we owned them, so no one actually saw any part of my costume but the mask which I propped on my head because I couldn’t see and that thing got hot.

  2. I remember the year I was a nurse. The costume was from Sears. It was the year I broke my ankle, so I was a nurse with a cast on my leg and everyone thought it was hilarious.

    We, too, had a skeleton in the house! My father was a doctor and borrowed it every year from another MD who had one… no idea how this guy acquired it, but he did. My mother would put on a black dress and made the kids shake the skeleton’s hand before she would give them their candy. Every year as the evening wore on, the teenagers would show up: “Is this the house with the skeleton?”

  3. Great topic and great photos! Yeah, I hated those stupid plastic masks and flimsy costumes, too, but they were an easy and quick solution for those who were pressed for time and/or imagination, I guess. My costumes were pretty much all made out of whatever was around. I am most proud of turning myself into the Jolly Green Giant in freshman year of high school (last year a friend and I went out and it was so much fun!). I wore green tights, a green turtleneck and two green towels fastened at one shoulder over a pair of green shorts and used oil pastels on my face and a pair of old white canvas sneakers. The crowning glory was a headpiece made of a zillion little green felt leaves I cut out and stapled together, which I still have – I put it on top of one of those old paper mache jack-o-lanterns from the 1950s my mom had. I am surprised at how professional a lot of the costumes are on the kids who come to our door nowadays, but every now and then there is one done in the spirit of making something out of nothing and I love seeing what people come up with!

  4. My mom wasn’t much for costume making, but Dad sure was. One year he fashioned really neat knight armor for my brothers out of cardboard, duck tape, and feather dusters (for helmet plumes) and another year he made an eyeball costume by cutting apart a pink marbled bouncy ball (the big inflatable type that used to be in those giant bungy cord bins in Walmart) and drawing a very realistic iris and veins on it in marker. My brother wore it on his head like a hat (that was the year Taco Bell was doing those straws with an embedded plastic eyeball encased in clear plastic and water so it moved around when you moved the straw…1996, I think). He was in the National Guard and they really loved to do training over Halloween though, so there were only a handful of Halloweens he got to do that with us.

    I don’t think we ever bought a costume. We were still dressing up in High School. My fifteen year old brother dressed in a suit and pale makeup and white hair with blacked out eyes and went as, “I’m not sure, but it looks cool.” I was seventeen and went as the Queen of Hearts meets Cyndi Lauper with a dress covered in cut out and glued fabric hearts and high pig tails that were frazzled out and dyed red.

    And…uh…my homecoming queen crown (still not sure how the heck I ended up winning it).

    No idea what I’m going as this year. My four year old daughter wants to go as Tony the Tiger.

  5. My mother liked to sew, but she wasn’t too keen on costume-making. She made a clown costume that worked for several years, a black cat one, and an angel costume when I was little that I used to wear as a nightgown (sans wings).

    But in later elementary school she did sew an entire mouse costume so I could be Reepicheep! My sword was sadly flimsy, as I recall, but I didn’t really care. I got to be Reepicheep!

    And then I grew up, and had kids who love my Reepicheep voice and ask me to say our favorite line “Am I to understand [ominous pause] that this singularly discourteous person is under Your Majesty’s protection?”

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