All around Albuquerque, parents who are missing the Martha Stewart gene are panicking. Me? I’m grateful that those years are mostly behind me, and that my contributions these days are limited to hemming, driving teens to thrift stores and fabric stores, and identifying where things are stored in the attic. (The latter is the most challenging task by far).
That’s right. It is time to start thinking about Halloween costumes, if you haven’t already done so.
My favorite Halloween costume was a Tinkerbell costume of heavy moss green double-faced silk satin made by Grandma Sophie. It had a fitted bodice with a proper lining of moss green cotton flannel; layers of individual satin petals, each with a perfect point that was cut and trimmed by hand; and hand sewn wings constructed out of cardstock, gold peau de soie, and ribbon trim. The costume itself was jointly designed by my grandmother and her father, my great-grandfather, a retired clothing designer and pattern maker; the elaborate trim on the bodice and straps were hand sewn by my great-grandmother.
I loved this costume.
To complete my look, I insisted on wearing a silly looking blonde wig made from something akin to spun fiberglass. I pouted when my mother told me that it didn't matter how warm the night was, I had to wear a white turtleneck and tights under my costume. (I knew even at that young age that adding utilitarian white cotton to satin was a fashion no-no).
Looking back, I think I was the girl that mothers hated on Halloween.
It wasn't my fault that my grandmother was a seamstress par excellence whose parents were fashion designers - Mart and Marge's Smart Frocks of Los Angeles, California. My Grandma Sophie counted among her friends several women who did costuming for the Hollywood studios, including one who sewed “outfits” for California's most famous strippers. (I'm pretty sure I was the only 8 year old in my school who associated the name Carol Doda
with outstanding sewing craft).
And it wasn't my fault that for 13 years I was the only granddaughter on that side of the family. And that by this time the family had a fabric and notions store that was the source of copious raw material for my grandmother's creative costuming, including exotic Polynesian fabric and every possible trim option you could imagine.
With more than a twinge of embarrassment, I remember seeing my best friend from third grade show up for trick-or-treating wearing a white terrycloth bathrobe that belonged to her father and a white pillowcase with cut out eyeholes, and asking her why her mother did not sew her a costume. (I still wince at my thoughtless 8 year old self).
And I'm old enough to remember that elaborate costumes for children were absolutely the exception, and not the norm, as they are today.
When I became a parent, the first few Halloweens were easy to handle sans sewing machine. I was living in a remote part of Wyoming where our nearest neighbors were figured in terms of miles, not feet. Instead of Halloween, we held a Fall Festival for the children of the valley at the one room schoolhouse they attended - my son was too young to fully participate, but I vividly recall the sensation of feeling transported to a different era. It was as old-fashioned as it gets, with apple-bobbing, pumpkin carving, and even a sing-along.
My son got by with being a cowboy for his first few Halloweens - an easy and safe choice in that part of the country. Years later we experienced a similar community celebration in Albuquerque's South Valley, complete with bonfire, hay rides, and bobbing for apples freshly picked from the orchard we were standing in. By that time my son had moved to a more sophisticated cowboy concept better fitting New Mexico - Zorro.
After my daughter was born and we moved to Barelas, I started itching to sew her a real Halloween costume. I’m no Martha Stewart, but I will confess to a harboring a secret desire to chuck my career as an academic philosopher and become a seamstress. I dream of beautifully constructed French fell seams
and hand bound buttonholes
- the amount of time I have spent finishing the interior (hidden) seams of my children’s Halloween costumes is embarrassing, to say the least. I'm a purist - I do not use a serger and believe in doing things the old fashioned way.
Since my 26 month old daughter was fascinated by ducks, I designed and sewed a little yellow flannel duck tunic, complete with wings and a hood, plus a beak of orange duckcloth
. (I don't know if anyone else caught that inside joke, but it amused me greatly at the time).
As I measured, drew the pattern, sewed and fitted her costume, I couldn’t help but experience a flood of memories of being at my grandparents’ store and watching relatives draw patterns, adjust patterns for sizing, cut fabric, measure for alterations, and sew using ready-made patterns as well as those designed by family and friends.
As my children grew older and more creative, Halloween costumes became more challenging.
One year my daughter told me in early October that she wanted to be a disco ball for Halloween. After sewing duckling, snow leopard, tiger, and bunny costumes using vintage and contemporary McCall's and Butterick patterns, this request took me by surprise, especially since our earlier discussions that season had focused on flamingos. While I was keeping my eye out for feathery pink fabric on sale, she was dreaming of millions of shiny mirrors.
Just as I figured out how to design a disco ball costume - East Indian mirrored fabric sewn over a sphere and a hidden cassette recorder blaring Donna Summer – my son came to me with a request. He wanted to be the Turtle Man
from the movie Master of Disguise
. (At this point I began to yearn for his cowboy and firefighter days, which required much less creative initiative on my part).
So we headed to the nearest thrift store, found a large green tweed sports coat, added a patchwork quilt turtle shell with some crazy quilt
elements, stuffed it with batting, and (as part of the whole costuming effort) watched the Master of Disguise a minimum of 3 times a day until the costume was finished.
My days of being Chief Costume Designer are long gone. Now my children are in charge of costuming. This year my adult son is going as one of the Blues Brothers, and my teenage daughter has finally decided that being the Cheshire Cat better suits her than going as a Harujuku Girl
Yet I’ve still got my sewing machine at the ready for any last minute requests and folks in Barelas know where to find the “Las Posadas angel costume lady” just in case there’s a last minute Halloween crisis. I’m even considering hanging out a shingle.
I’d love to hear your memories of Halloween costumes – what was your favorite costume?