It all started with one hat. A plush magenta flamingo hat to be exact. Then it just kept building from there. A hot-pink Victor Costa ball gown skirt found at a thrift store, a men’s sequined tuxedo jacket, an appropriate disco-era shirt and black-and-pink fuzzy boots (for my husband, of course). These are the beginnings of this year’s flamingo costumes. A do-it-yourself approach isn’t only fun but also budget-friendly. I make my own costumes every year, whether from scratch or re-purposed pieces. I know how to sew but I’m hardly a seamstress. The most important thing is training your eye to see the potential in raw materials. Some random scraps of decrepit fishnet fabric made great trim for my husband’s Poseidon costume last year. A handful of shell necklaces became additional trim on my sea creature getup – perfect since holes were already there to sew onto the neckline.
Costumes make Mardi Gras happen. As a kid growing up in the New Orleans area I was always excited by the splendor of Carnival royalty’s float attire, and the fascination continued through adulthood. Unlike the one-shot night of Halloween, where parents are trick-or-treating and Frenchmen Street is overflowing like an overstuffed shrimp poor boy, Mardi Gras is an all-day affair with plenty of photo opportunities. It is about fully embracing Mardi Gras, particularly the day of. It is the pageantry, the sense of pride for our city, pride in how seriously we take our revelry. The residents of New Orleans create Mardi Gras magic and you’ve got to show up to the party in more than a cheap mask you bought the night before.
Big holidays are great times to stock up on potential costume materials, especially post-season when goodies go on sale. Trawl a big-box craft store and pick up plenty of sparkles, especially after Christmas or Valentine’s Day. That leftover red glitter ribbon from Christmas could be an excellent finishing touch on a Venetian costume. Or if you truly want to stick to a budget try to find potential in unused household items. When we switched curtains in our living room I scolded my husband for putting the old purple ones in the trash. “But that’s great costume fabric!” I lamented. They are now sitting in my craft box, waiting to be transformed into something, and I didn’t have to run out and buy anything new.
While do-it-yourself (DIY for short) is certainly more budget-friendly than buying an entirely manufactured costume, it still isn’t cheap – at least not the way I do it. To really finish off your handiwork there are false eyelashes to obtain, wigs to try on and yes, some pre-made pieces to purchase, such as crowns and arm gauntlets. Not everything has to be made from scratch to achieve the homemade effect, although the end result won’t come without some elbow grease and maybe even a little needle and thread.
Costumes are work. Sewing seed beads onto the bodice of a corset is painstaking, and stitching hand-cut chiffon leaves from a shredded vintage dress takes hours upon hours. But the end result is always worth it when I can proudly say, “Yes, I made this.”
Planning ahead is smart. I have costumes lined up for the next three years. Sounds crazy but whenever you find a great piece make sure you jump on it. You will be glad you did instead of trying to hunt down that one crucial piece two days beforehand. Thrift stores can be gold mines for costumes if you learn to develop your eye. A floor-length taffeta skirt that I purchased in the dead of August – that’s right, August – easily became a cape for my husband’s Poseidon costume. Costuming isn’t just something that you do once or twice a year, it’s a mindset. Be prepared to buy all year round – you never know when that special piece will pop up. I have a samba-worthy hat that’s in queue for Mardi Gras 2014 and a picturesque lily pad hat equipped with a stuffed frog on top. My husband found a complimentary old floatrider shirt with a sequined trout on the front at a thrift store. Yeah, I might be crazy for Carnival. But unprepared?
Kaci Thomassie’s Costuming Tips
In addition to her line of fascinators and headbands (Kc Thomassie Designs), Kaci Thomassie is a graduate of Samford University with a degree in theater and concentration in costume design. She has worked with the Jefferson Performing Arts Society in addition to internships at Stage Door and Martin Izquierdo Studio in New York City. She shares some tips with us on giving your costume a professional look, even if you’re an amateur.
I have a general idea of a look or theme for the costume. Where do I start?
The most important thing is to have a good understanding of what you want the final costume to look like. It doesn’t have to be a super-detailed vision, but you need a clear idea of shape and color. Do research. Print out pictures and make a collage, or sketch it out.
I only have basic sewing skills and limited crafting supplies, How do I begin the process of making my own costume?
Don’t bother buying a pattern, starting from scratch is more time consuming than necessary. Find a base to build on, such as a thrift store ball gown or a pair of pants you already own, and add and alter as necessary. The construction doesn’t have to be perfect, there are many tricks to achieve the look you want without having advanced sewing skills.
I found a great piece of clothing to work with but it has stains on it. Can I get stains out of vintage clothing?
Fill a spray bottle with half vodka and half water – it’s magical stuff – or you can soak in it. It’s also great for neutralizing smells in garments.
Sewing zippers looks scary and difficult. What do I use for alternative closures?
Every professional has run into the zipper that makes them rethink their career. If you aren’t comfortable with your sewing skills, don’t attempt putting it. Most fabric stores sell snap tape, so you don’t have to hand-sew male and female sides on to close the back of a costume; just machine-sew the snap tape directly on the garment. The same type of tape is also available with hooks and eyes.
This fabric won’t stop fraying!
Use fray check or clear nail polish on the fraying edge. You can also burn the edges with a lighter, which will create an interesting distressed effect.
Do I really have to hem these pants?
Although I firmly believe in taking the time to sew hem, there is also hem tape. You iron it on. No sewing involved.
How do I know what fabrics to use?
Do your research. Buy fabric in person rather than online; you need to feel the texture and mobility of the fabric. Will it be sturdy enough to support those wire wings? Will it be sheer enough? The only way to know is to physically touch it. If you aren’t good with your fabric vocabulary, ask for help. Tell them what you’re looking for and what you want to do with it. Use words such as sheer, opaque, sturdy, flowy, shiny, stretchy.
Any alternatives to using fabric dyes?
If you’re going for an aged/vintage look, use tea bags and a good old pot of boiling water! When it comes to color, there’s a spray called Design Master, sold at some craft stores; it doesn’t harden the fabric like spray paint does.
What kind of craft glue should I use?
It depends on what you’re trying to glue to which kind of surface or what you’re trying to attach it to. Quick Grip is a good general craft glue to have. Hot glue works well, but not when gluing leathers and metals to one another.
Places to Shop
Thrift your way
Bloomin’Deals Thrift Store. 4645 Freret St., 891-1289
Salvation Army. 4526 S. Claiborne Ave., 899-4569
Goodwill. 3400 Tulane Ave., 456-2622; 123 Robert E. Lee Blvd., 286-1858; 9323 Jefferson Highway, 737-7838
Bridge House. 1160 Camp St., 522-4476 extension 16; 7901 Airline Drive, Metairie, 737-4752
Fabrics & Feathers
Jefferson Variety. 239 Iris Ave., Jefferson, 834-5222, (800) 474-7407, JeffersonVariety.com
Hancock Fabrics. 4310 Waverly St., Metairie, 455-911; Westside Shopping Center North, Suite 21, Gretna, 367-5761; 195 W. Gause Blvd., Slidell, (985) 641-4103
Promenade Fine Fabrics. 1520 St. Charles Ave., 522-1488
Costumes – from bits and pieces to the full-fledged
Buffalo Exchange. 3312 Magazine St., 891-7443
Funky Monkey. 3127 Magazine St., 899-5581
Miss Claudia’s. 4204 Magazine St., 897-6310, MissClaudias.com
Fifi Mahony’s. 934 Royal St., 525-4343, FifiMahony.com
Ragin’ Daisy. 901 Chartres St., 544-5482, RaginDaisy.com
Uptown Costume. 4326 Magazine St., 895-7969
New Orleans Party & Costume. 705 Camp St., 525-4744, PartyandCostume.com
Southern Costume Company. 951 Lafayette St., 523-4333
Decatur Clothing Exchange. 1305 Decatur St., 259-3255
Reservoir. 2045 Magazine St., 250-6762