Adventures in Costuming; No, I Won’t Sew your Halloween Costume

As the air begins to get a little cooler, the days shorter, and the leaves turn to hues of gold, orange, and red, we welcome in a season that drives many costumers batshit. Despite my self professed Gothic tendencies, Halloween is a holiday that does little for me. There’s a certain nostalgia to the Halloweens of past spent with my friend, Crystal, wearing whatever pieced together costumes we’d constructed for the evening, watching Bram Stoker’s Dracula while drinking red Kool-Aid, the Buffy: The Vampire Slayer Halloween Special, the fact that I could wear vampire fangs to class and no one would judge me for it.

These days, the Halloween kitsch is something I avoid, the stench of cheap plastic and polyester costumes coupled with rubber corpses and ghouls that permeates Halloween stores is nauseating. Using the holiday as an excuse in which to dress up no longer holds much appeal in the wake of conventions. It also marks that time of year where people who I’ve never talked to who found me through random internet searches or my now closed Etsy store approach me in hastily written messages, inquiring about sewing them and their daughter and their daughter’s best friend’s Halloween costumes.

This is a topic that is sometimes difficult to address. After all, shouldn’t we as costumers be flattered, honoured that someone would approach us to sew their Halloween costume? In a way, yes. I truly do appreciate every compliment and kind word anyone sends my way about my costuming work, however compliments are not monetary funds, nor will they suddenly give me the additional time, drive, or motivation to make a costume two weeks before Halloween.

I have a full-time career outside of costuming. This is my hobby, something that I do for myself, on my own time, with my own funds. The fact that I own a sewing machine and can sew two pieces of fabric together does not mean that I am willing or able to sew something for someone else. The amount of time, effort, and research that goes into each costume I make is immeasurable. I cannot put a monetary figure on it, but I can tell you that it’s going to be more than that under $100 price range you’re hoping I’ll quote you. While not impossible, as I have made costumes for under $100, it is not feasible when requesting a custom costume.

People underestimate the value of having something custom made to their measurements. In the world of fast and cheap disposable fashion, bagged Halloween costumes, and mass produced Chinese cosplay, it is extremely difficult to convince someone that your work is actually worth the price you’re quoting them, and even then many costumers undersell themselves.

Fabric is not cheap. Not by a long shot.

But what about Halloween fabrics at Joann Fabrics?

Even these will cost you a bit. You’re not going to get $3 a yard fabric that’s above the super shiniest synthetic that would go up in flames if it even came near a candlelit jack-o-lantern. Say you need 8 yards of fabric for that Sofia Coppola Marie Antoinette costume you plan on wearing to your friend’s Halloween party, your satin is $12 a yard. You’re looking at $100+ with taxes on that fabric alone, add in steel boning, interfacing, lining fabric, lace, rhinestones, it begins to seriously add up.

But you’d said yourself you’ve made costumes for under $100.

I have. For myself, years ago when I was on a budget. My Queen Gorgo cost me all of $15 for two yards of a coarse ivory voile and a pack of brown quilt binding. The wig was borrowed, and jewelry and sandals were things I already owned. This was the exception, and not the norm. And I would never use quilt binding instead of leather these days.

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Maria Renard cost me $75-$100, but required two yards of silk dupioni, half a yard of duchess satin, and is lined in muslin. These were both made in 2007. Fabric costs, like everything, have increased.

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Fabrics aside, my labour, my time put into creating this costume is billable. Most of what I make is painstakingly researched. Again, say you’re asking for Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, I’m going to need to research the fabrics, find what best replicates the costume. This is as much a part of the work that goes into a costume as the physical labour itself. As stated in my previous blog entry, Sibylla took me a decade to find the appropriate fabrics.

But I need this by Halloween, certainly there’s enough time.

Not really. The fact that I have a full-time career outside of costuming plays a huge factor in just what time I am able to dedicate to sewing. Back in February I took upon the rather daunting, ill advised task of making two intricate costumes from Castlevania: Lament of Innocence for my friend, Crystal and I.

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I made these costumes in less than a month while working 8 hour work days only to come home and spend 6 to 8 hours working on costumes. I finished them the night before we left for the convention. It resulted in me being horribly sick from a combination of inhaling fabric fiber, heated Worbla, spray paint, super glue coupled with a lingering illness, and lack of sleep. I went to the convention looking appropriately dead. I only met this deadline because these costumes were important to me, personally.

Lack of hours in the day isn’t the only time constraint. I do not keep fabrics on hand, trim, rhinestones, embellishments, all these have to be ordered, often from retailers who are overseas. Sometimes a specific item is out of stock, which adds additional wait time.

Concerning the hours spent working to create a costume, according to Glassdoor the average wage of a seamstress working at David’s Bridal is $11.71. This is making alterations and the like, not sewing, sourcing, researching any entire garment. Other sources cite $15 as the average wage for seamstresses. So, say it takes me 40 hours over the course of 3 weeks to create a costume, you’re looking at potentially $600+ in labour.

Suddenly, it’s becoming far less appealing to ask someone to sew your Halloween costume.

So you haggle, you argue, you plead that it would mean so much to this child who I’ve never met who was going to dress as little Marie-Therese with you, you cite that Halloween Express has a Marie Antoinette costume for $80.

Yes, it’s made out of plastic and comes in three sizes. Small, Medium, and Large. And yes, you would be better off buying it for Halloween because the costumes I create are not designed to be worn on Halloween. I don’t wear them on Halloween. If by chance I go out to a club in costume, I’m wearing something that I know might get trodden on, damaged, stained. I’m not using $60 a yard silk duchess satin for a costume that some inebriated pirate might accidentally spill his entire vodka Red Bull on. It pains me every year that I have costumes that could possibly win local costume contests, but the costume I would enter in probably has a greater value than the prize and it’s not worth the risk of damaging it in a poorly lit club.

All that said, the main reason I won’t sew your Halloween costume is that my ability to sew is not a public commodity. It is a hobby, a passion, something that I do for myself, and a very select group of close friends. And so if we have no prior relationship, I will not be valued only for my ability to sew. I am always willing and happy to help others with their questions when it comes to costuming, sewing tips, encouragement, but will not sew your Halloween costume.

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Photography courtesy of PhotoNinja, Orobouros.net, David Ng, and Joseph Chi Lin.

2 thoughts on “Adventures in Costuming; No, I Won’t Sew your Halloween Costume

  1. Hear, hear! It’s right up there with “well, you have a sewing machine, can you hem these pants for me/alter this bridesmaid dress for me/sew me one teeny tiny costume?” Answers like “no, I don’t have time,” or “no, I don’t feel comfortable doing that” are met with “oh, it’s okay, I don’t mind!” But I DO. (sigh)

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  2. Unlike you, I do sew for a living, and keep fabrics on hand when I find things on sale, but that still doesn’t make it cheap. I spend a lot of money stocking up on fabrics that sometimes won’t get used for a couple years, and there’s a cost associated with renting a larger place so I have space to store it all.

    It never ceases to amaze me how, every single year, people will contact me two weeks ahead of Halloween and want something within a week and a half, for less than a bagged costume, and then get upset when I either tell them no, I can’t, or sure, with a hefty rush fee. Some years I have my schedule booked to 18 hours a day, and other years, I may be booked to 12 hours a day, and in those years, sure, I can fit in a couple small things…if I sacrifice sleep and time with my daughter (I also homeschool). But as long as I can fit things in at all, no one wants to pay rush fees. After all, I have the time, right? Those same people would complain if they didn’t get overtime for every second over 8 hours a day, yet expect that of me. Those are also the same people who think only the time spent in front of a sewing machine should be billable. One now-ex friend said to me, “But that research you’re going can be used when you make this again. So why should that count?” Over a decade later, I still haven’t had as much as an inquiry for another replica of what I made for her. She also balked at my universal fee that covers wear and tear and needles and such because I’d “have to buy those anyway.”

    Worse are the people who think that custom is supposed to cost less. In 2009, when I was planning my wedding, advice given to brides everywhere from wedding forums to Off-Beat Brides was to look into having custom-made because seamstresses cost less. Brides were finding gowns they liked in David’s Bridal, then seeking custom seamstresses to do it for less, because they were told that’s the cheaper way to go. In the next couple years, that mindset took over Halloween, and people started expecting us to make custom things for less than mass-produced, sometimes trying to guilt us into going down in price, whining, “But it’s just going to be worn one night!” I guess that makes my time worthless. Or trying the line, “But I’ll be at a party with a lot of people, and I’ll be promoting your work!” Yeah, because I care about being promoted to other people who are just the same.

    I’ve got a lot of amazing clients. I’m very lucky. Some of my clients are now former clients because they’re now some of my real-life best friends. But my god, those ones who want me to work for free, or work free and donate the fabrics to them, or expect me to work around the clock…

    One of these days I’ll post my own rant about this, and will include the people who want me to share all my research notes and such with them, or to research for them for free. I don’t mind sharing in groups where several people are working together to research something. It’s give and take there. But there are people who aren’t even prospective clients, just people who don’t want to use their own time researching. These days, I no longer share my sources, especially when I spend months or more to find the one person in the entire world who still sells a certain supply.

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