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How I Made This: Modifying Store-Bought Costumes


Growing up, my dad always made my and my brother’s costumes. He wasn’t a seamstress by any means, but he became quite the expert at modifying store-bought costumes to suit the very specific visions we demanded each year.

It was a slow progression at first. I was a Ninja Turtle for at least five years in a row, and by the end of the run, my Leonardo costume was high class. My dad carved and sanded wooden swords that we painted together. I had a custom leather harness to hold them against my turtle-shell back, a cardboard chest piece, and a spectacularly dated green sweats set to wear underneath it all.

But the base costume was a turtle. It was a basic turtle body with a stuffed shell and a little headpiece that was kind of like a baby’s bonnet. It was solid green, entirely cotton, and totally boring. I’m unsure if there were full Ninja Turtle costumes out for purchase in 1987, but I did, at one point, have an “authentic” Ninja Turtle set of arm bands, knee pads, and a face mask. The original set only came in red, much to my dismay, so my father had to get creative.

Costumes nowadays are much more flimsy than the ones available to children in the 80’s, but they are also so much more accessible. Costumes now come out alongside movie premieres, and they no longer have the logo of the character emblazoned on the front of the outfit. I hated Disney princess costumes as a child; not necessarily because I hated princesses, but because I hated that the costume didn’t look exactly like the movie: it had a picture of the princess’ face in the middle of the dress top. Like wearing a red, yellow, and blue princess dress could be anyone other than Snow White…

If you don’t have a lot of time, or you don’t have a sewing machine, or you don’t know how to sew a whole outfit, modifying a store-bought costume is a great way to make a costume that’s unique without taking too much time out of your schedule to do it. It can be as easy or as difficult as you want it to be, since you’re just adding small bits of improvements.

Purchasing the Costume

Prices range from $ to $315 (right). Images from
Prices range from $29 (left) to $315 (right). Images from

When you’re at the Halloween store looking at costumes (or online), check out the main part of the costume. This is the body suit, the dress, the jacket, whatever is the “iconic” part of the outfit, since chances are, it’s also the most complicated part and you don’t want to waste your time re-making it.

These days, most character costumes have a few options for purchasing, in varying price ranges. The cheapest costumes are, of course, the least complicated. This isn’t always a bad decision, as if nothing else, it gives you the opportunity to really build onto the costume and make it your own, but it is potentially more of a commitment. Do some Googling, or hunting around at the store, to compare the different options you have available to you for your costume of choice.

Once you’ve made your choice, decide how much time you’re willing to invest in modifying it. Do you want to just add a couple of things? Are you looking at remaking part of it? There’s a lot of ways you can make your costume more unique, it’s just up to you how much time you’re looking at spending doing it.

Make It Fit Only You
Level of Difficulty: moderate to hard
Tools you’ll need: pins or safety pins, stitch witchery or hot glue, hand-sewing needle and thread

Costumes are often a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. Even if they do have a size range, they’re not actual sizes and are built in a very generalized fashion. For something like Chewbacca or a fluffy bunny, the bagginess of the costume isn’t necessarily an issue. But if you’re trying to be The Flash or Captain America, the fit can be more important.

If you have someone to help you, the easiest way to make a costume fit you is to put it on inside out. This is especially easy with something like a spandex suit, or a pair of pants, etc. It might not be possible with something with a lot of layers built onto it, and so you’ll have to put it on as you would normally.

For sleeves and pant legs, if they are too long, you can simply fold it back to where they’re laying at the right length. If you have an iron, you can use stitch witchery to hold the hem in place; if not, you can use small dabs of hot glue. You can also tack the seams in place with a few hand stitched knots, or straight stitch it by hand or machine, if you’re crafty enough.

For parts that are too big, it’s kind of the same idea. If the torso is too baggy, look at the seams. In the same way you folded the fabric back on the sleeves and legs, you can kind of do the same thing here. Pull at the seams and pinch the fabric so it looks like a little fan is sticking out from the side of your body. Put a pin there to hold it in place.

You’ll have to hand-sew this. Stitch witchery and hot glue are probably not strong enough to hold this (unless your outfit isn’t completely fitted to your body).

The key here is not to take in TOO much. Costumes, like all clothes, need to have enough room for ease of movement; if you take in too much, you’ll find your movements restricted – and then sitting will be a bit uncomfortable!

Props & Accessories
Level of Difficulty: easy
Tools you’ll need: superior shopping sleuthing!

Store-bought costume “sets” come with what they say is everything you need to wear the complete costume, often from literal head to toe. Even the poorly constructed ones are often more expensive than anyone can justify, especially if you’re not even going to look worth the dollar.

Companies shirk on quality to save money in two ways: fabric choices, and accessories. They use plastic over more authentic (and therefore expensive) materials, like wood and metal, and include things like boot covers and thin hair extensions instead of actual shoes and full wigs. And, of course, velcro is the closure of choice.

One way to save money is to look for just the main outfit, instead of the full kit. Sometimes they don’t sell these, but often they do, or they’ll sell discounted sets because pieces are missing because someone opened the packaging and they weren’t supposed to.

Either way, it’s pretty easy to swap out items for those of a higher quality. Buy actual boots for your pirate costume (goodwill has so many inexpensive options). Look for gloves that aren’t made out of that cheap costume satin. A belt of real leather instead of that thin vinyl. An actual hat instead of the flocked plastic thing that came with the kit, or a real corset instead of the flimsy one that is included with your Poison Ivy costume.

A lot of costumes include everyday items with their sets – shirts or pants that you might have or be able to acquire, but it’s just quicker and easier to buy the whole thing in one fell swoop. If you have to buy the set for that one iconic piece – like Elizabeth’s corset from Bioshock Infinite, for example – go for it, and replace everything you can with actual clothes. They won’t be made with cheap fabrics and, since they’re made to be worn more than once, will be durable and better fitting.

It takes more time than just picking a costume from a bag at the Halloween pop-up shop, but if you’re willing to put the time in to shop and hunt around, it’ll pay off when your costume looks much closer to the actual outfit than anyone else’s!

Replace One Thing
Level of Difficulty: varies depending on your interest, time, and what you’re replacing.

Off Amazon, Rubie's offers a Superman costume for around $32, and a more fuller cape separately for $30. Easy way to upscale your costume!
Off Amazon, Rubie’s offers a Superman costume for around $32, and a more fuller cape separately for $30. Easy way to upscale your costume!

There are a few items that are generally really poorly made and just replacing them – and doing nothing else – can really change the visual of your costume.

The most simple of these is the cape. Capes included in “costume sets” are rarely anything worth wearing. The fabric is light and flimsy and kind of wrinkle clings to your back defying gravity instead of draping pleasantly across your shoulders and moving when you walk.

Capes are really easy to make – there are a lot of tutorials online for ones that don’t even require a sewing machine – and if you buy capes by themselves, they tend to be of a heavier fabric and therefore, more solid.

Something else you can do with a cape is add a heavier trim, or magnets, to the bottom of the cape, to add some weight to the flimsy fabric and force it to have some kind of drape, instead of static cling.

The key is that most of these costumes are made with the same bad fabric and any opportunity you have to buy something (or make) that isn’t that fabric will look better, even if it’s not 100% an exact match. It gives the costume more credibility because you’re wearing an actual piece of clothing, instead of cheap-o knitwear.

Replace the Mask
Level of Difficulty: moderate
tools you’ll need: make-up kit, sponges, brushes, etc

Some costumes come with masks that, for the most part, are acceptable. Things like Jason’s hockey mask, stuff that is actually a mask, but for a lot of the face masks, the latex is too large to fit on the average person successfully.

This is when make-up can come in handy. Instead of buying that generic Joker mask, take a day to practice putting on some clown make-up. There are a lot of YouTube channels with tutorials on everything from the very basics to all-out prosthetics. Make-up can be expensive, but it’s well worth the time and money to experiment beforehand, so you’re not panicking on Halloween.

Modifying Props
Level of Difficulty: easy to moderate
tools you’ll need: acrylics or spray paint, brushes, silver sharpie, sandpaper, dirt, fake blood, fabric bits.. whatever you want on the item

Adventure Time sword repaint by Johnson Arms Props. Sword retains $9.99 at Spirit Halloween.
Adventure Time sword repaint by Johnson Arms Props. Sword retains $9.99 at Spirit Halloween.

Halloween weapons are a total crap shot, in my opinion. They’re lightweight, hollow plastic with a clear seam down the entirety of the thing, and they’re either completely clean and singularly colored, or so weirdly “aged” they look like what they are: fake aged and put in a store. BUT they are the perfect base to start on your own objects, if you don’t have time to mold or craft your own.

It’s really, really easy to aged weapons. At the Halloween store, buy your weapon of choice. Look more at the shape of the weapon than the colors, since that can be modified later on.

Quick DIY paintjob on a knife from user GhostCinderella. Wrapping fabric around the handle can hide the cheap plastic really well.
Quick DIY paintjob on a knife from user GhostCinderella. Wrapping fabric around the handle can hide the cheap plastic really well.

Let’s take a knife for example. It’s just a piece of plastic but it’s supposed to be multiple different materials, right?

The first thing you can do is sand down the seam a little so it doesn’t stick out so obviously, and any little knobs that take away from making it look realistic (like the loop at the end of the handle on the knife above).

Then, using spray-paint or acrylics, you can start to shade in areas of the blade. There might be scratches on the blade itself and this is where the silver sharpie comes in handy. You can use the sharpie along the edges to look like scratches and chips.

The handle can be painted with some browns and if you wanted, you could mix some dirt into the paint so it has more of a texture. You could also wrap fabric scraps around the handle, and age it with dirt and paint. The key is to be very uneven about it – don’t try to make a pattern or remain symmetrical. Also, build slowly – it’s much easier to add more to something than tone something down.

This can be applied to anything that is plastic and should be a different material – such as a 300 warrior helmet, or a breastplate, or arm guards. It can be as simple as adding wood grain to a plastic witch’s broom or as complicated as re-doing the paint job on Jaime Lannister’s armor. And the best part is – if you mess up, you can always repaint, or sand it off and start over! If you’re having trouble finding tips for your specific weapon, look up tutorials for modifying Nerf Guns; there are dozens of techniques people have used on the guns, and some of them are very simple and don’t require you to take the gun apart! Here’s a good starting tutorial, if you’re curious.

Obviously, not all of these options are applicable for all costumes. Some costumes might not fit into any of these categories, and you’ll have to come up with your own ideas on how to improve them. If you do – please let me know in the comments below. I’d love to hear about what you’ve done this year for Halloween!

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