Halloween used to be my favorite holiday. You get to dress up in a costume and eat Reese’s!
But those very same things make it (by my estimation) the second most wasteful and polluting holiday there is, right after Christmas. I wouldn’t say Halloween is completely ruined for me, but now I find myself rolling my eyes my eyes or just shocked at the crass commercialism of it.
Millions of tiny, plastic-wrapped, high-fructose-corn-syrup-laden candies are being handed out, many of them doomed never to be eaten at all. (Looking at you, purple Jolly Rancher.) And then there are the costumes: cheap, polyester, throw-away things that are made who knows where by who knows who. You think Forever 21 has supply chain problems? I can guarantee you that Nameless Brand at the pop-up Halloween store downtown most certainly does, especially since most costumes are imported from Vietnam, Bangladesh, and China. (MTV did a deep dive into this last year, and it’s worth a read.)
Oh, and then there is the whole issue of white guys putting on sombreros and mustaches and calling that a funny costume. It’s not. It’s boorish and offensive.
Still, I’m not going to sit out Halloween in protest. There are some amazing parties happening that weekend! Instead, I’m going to get creative.
I could sit here and come up with a bunch of different sustainable costume ideas for you. But honestly, I know you probably have your own ideas about what to wear. Besides, you know what they say – give a woman a costume idea, dress her for a party. Teach a woman how to build a costume, dress her for a lifetime of spooky parties. Or something.
The point is: I’ve been coming up with costume ideas for a while with an eye toward sustainability. Here’s are my tips:
1. Use what you already have.
Step one to a sustainable life: make do. Rummage around see what you can put together from what you already own in your closet. You can get a cowgirl out of there, a Coachella Instagram influencer, a Brooklyn hipster, or any number of other outfits, especially if you cleverly reference what is going on in pop culture.
2. Rent it.
Renting your costume guarantees it will be worn more than once, thus using fewer resources. It’s like #30wears for Halloween! Instead of stuffing it in your closet, you send it back when you’re done and get it out of your apartment (#minimalism) knowing it will be taken good care of. If you were to buy the same thing and try to “donate” it right after Halloween, it probably wouldn’t find a new home, and be shipped off to be trashed, shredded, or resold in a developing country.
Plus, renting is more cost effective. For example, if you wanted to be Jessica Rabbit, you could buy the costume for $90, rent it for $45, or buy a used costume for $63.
If you’re in New York, StyleLend has a library of upscale Halloween costume building blocks you can choose from, straight from the closet of other stylish New Yorkers. I’m especially into the Queen of Hearts.
3. Buy it from an ethical retailer.
A couple years ago I decided to be the pink My Little Pony character. She’s my favorite, because she’s the party pony, always bouncing around and shooting off a cannon of confetti. I mean, she basically is me. How did I make this happen? I went shopping at American Apparel. This is their jam. They actually do more business at Halloween than Christmas season! It’s the place to go to get affordable items in crazy colors that you know are made in the U.S. by fairly paid workers. (And now with a new female CEO who doesn’t sexually harass people, hooray!)
You could also look through my Shopping Guide to find sustainable and ethical retailers, or Etsy for an interesting, handmade item. The point is, you don’t have to pick out something with human rights abuses attached.
4. Swap it.
Dig into your closet and bring out all those old wigs, tutus, tiaras, and bunny ears and set up a costume swap party with some of your friends after work. You’ll have the best time trying things on, and with your friends coming up with ideas, too, you’ll come out with an amazingly creative new costume.
Oh, and if you’re in New York, the Ethical Writer’s coalition is having our seasonal swap on Saturday, October 29th, and we’ll have a special section for Halloween costumes. More info and tickets here!
5. Buy something you will wear again.
Our good friend told us that when I jump on my fiancé and shimmy up (he’s skinny and 6’5″) I look like a koala on a tree. So last year I decided to be a koala! I bought one of those cozy and cute animal onesies by a Japanese company. I actually didn’t know much about its sustainability. It’s fleece. It’s made in China. But I knew that I wouldn’t be able to find an organic or recycled, adult-sized koala onesie. And I don’t feel bad about my purchase, because I wear that thing all the time. During the winter I pull it on to work from home – the drop crotch makes a great cat bed when I cross my legs. I wear it to camping festivals for when it gets cold at night. (A lot of people do; it’s a thing.)
It doesn’t have to be an animal onesie. It could be cowboy boots, a striped tee for a sailor costume, a graceful tutu skirt that you could wear in a real outfit with heels, anything from Reformation for a 90s costume – whatever! As long as you know you’ll wear it more than 10 times (a lower bar than a capsule wardrobe, but higher than a typical Halloween costume), you’ve got a winner. (By the way, my friend in that picture is wearing a Forever 21 coat… but she’s had it for years and has worn it over and over again. I give her a pass.)
6. Buy used or vintage.
Last year, I wanted to take my koala costume to the next level, so I went into a secondhand store and found used gloves with grey fur cuffs. I cut the cuffs off and sewed them on the onesie hood to give it big fluffy ears, and I felt great about not buying the fur new. If you’re really stymied for ideas, just walk into any used or vintage clothing store, and grab whatever tickles your fancy. You could be the member of an 80s hair band in a tee and shiny leggings, a 50s housewife, a hippie, Carrie in a bloody prom dress…go crazy. (But not, like, actually crazy. No method acting with the Carrie costume, OK?) Etsy is also great for this!
7. Use natural materials.
Along with that koala costume, I made my fiancé into a eucalyptus tree with fresh branches. He smelled amazing. When I wasn’t around, he had a sign that said, “Free hugs.” Get it?
Eco-friendly fashion gets a bad rap for being weird and ugly. That’s not quite true anymore, but this is the day of the year when you’re supposed to be weird. So think about how to use super natural materials in a costume. You could literally wrap burlap around yourself and pin a coffee mug to your head and be a cup of coffee. You could cover yourself in flowers and suck on a pacifier, and be a “flower child.” You could pile fruit on top of your head and wear a yellow dress, and be a Chiquita banana. I’m sure you can think of better ideas than this, but you get the point.
8. Stick to non-toxic makeup.
Something important to keep in mind: If your costume requires makeup, try to avoid the cheap, toxic stuff. Besides its toxicity, I know if you’re reading this that you’ll probably wear it for one night, then toss it, because you would never regularly put that kind of stuff on your face.
Bonus: Avoid appropriation.
Those are all my ideas, but before I go, I need to give you one final tip: Do not dress up like an existing minority or a culture that Americans have or still do insult, belittle, harm, subjugate, and steal from. That includes Mexicans, Native Americans, Asians, Inuits (a.k.a. “Eskimos”) and anything involving black face. I wrote a whole article for Refinery29 on this last year, if you would like to learn more.