Creating Great Fancy Dress Costumes Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Creating Great Fancy Dress Costumes

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Folk in fancy dress.
You look neat
Talk about a treat
You look dapper from your napper to you feet
Dressed in style, brand new tile
And your father's old green tie on...

- 'Any Old Iron', Charles Collins

At some point, you will more than likely receive an invite to a fancy dress party, and whatever the chosen guise or theme, the onus will be on you to look convincing. It's no good turning up thinking you're Joan Collins when everyone else at the party points at you saying 'Hey! It's Alice Cooper!' now is it?

Well, if you've got pots of cash you can always go to a professional costumiers. But that's the really boring option. The best thing is to try and make the costume yourself and for as little money as possible. Here then, is a veritable virtual wardrobe-full of cracking costume ideas brought to you by the sartorially-inspired h2g2 Community.

Mr Bean

Mmmm... what does this say about a certain Researcher's father?

Anyway, the costume for this Rowan Atkinson character can all be pinched from my dad's wardrobe.

Nativity Costumes

Here's a gentle Nativity reminiscence...

My first ever acting role was in the Nativity play at school where I played an angel. No expense was spared for my costume. The teacher took white pillowcases and cut holes in the top and sides for our heads and arms to go through. The finishing touch was a circle of tinsel for a halo.
Still, we looked better than those shepherds. All smug in their dressing gowns with tea towels on their heads - no class at all.

Last Minute Costumes

Not unlike the Nativity get up, there's a general rule that if you have no idea whatsoever what to dress up as, wear a sheet and a bit of ivy round the head and hey presto! you're a random Roman in toga!

Guys also have the get-out option of a black suit, black tie and dark sunglasses. This is a costume you can walk to the party in and not feel like a prat. Endless suggestions of 'Men in Black' 'Blues Brothers' 'CIA' will keep people busy for hours. And if you're accused of being too boring, remain emotionless and claim you're the bouncer.

Black catsuits for girls are quite adaptable for fancy dress too. You can pretty much be any action movie female!

Go as a Country/State

This Researcher's in a right state...

Seriously - when I went to Texas in the summer I bought a Stetson (I know) a huge Lone Star Flag and a Lone Star bandanna. Now, my costume is very simple: I wrap the large flag around my waist like a sarong, wear a white t-shirt, the bandanna around my neck and my hat on my head. Hey-Ho I'm Texas!

Chain Gang (Convict) - Female

This one may require some dressmaking skills...

Get together some black and white striped material, and make a very simple top and skirt out of it. The style doesn't really matter, although I made a very short skirt, and a peasant/gypsy type top. Get a square of plain white material and a permanent marker pen and write a number on it (I used my h2g2 User number) and sew or safety pin it to the front of the top. Make a small convict style hat (or cover an old baseball cap) to make it look authentic, black boots, and I used some leather cuffs and chains, rather than handcuffs, as you get to use your hands to drink with, rather than staggering around not being able to do anything...

Another alternative for women...

Go to a charity shop and buy a wedding dress for about £3. Put on a pair of nice shoes, a bit of old net curtain for a veil - held on with a hair band - and make a bouquet with flowers from the garden, or from coloured tissues.

Sci-fi Armour

This fancy dress costume combines art, high fashion and huge shoulder pads!

For an art project, I made a suit of stormtrooper-type armour with chest carapace, helmet, shoulder pads, lower arm sections, upper leg and lower leg sections. I stuffed some old clothes with crumpled newspaper, and then covered large strips of newspaper with wallpaper paste and laid them over the clothes so that they would take the shape. It took a great many hours to lay enough layers, but 40 layers of newspaper is enough to form a really rigid shell. It'll take 1-2 weeks to dry completely (depending on the thickness of paper used and the temperature of the room), and waterproof automobile spray paints will give the best finish (as well as protecting it from rain and accidental spillages).
In total, the suit cost approx £50 to make, and took 3 months, although much of that time was spent experimenting with various techniques and designs. Once I had established the correct technique and design, it progressed quite smoothly, and I could now make another one in a week or less (excluding drying time, which stretches it out to 5 weeks, since you have to dry the top side before you can start working on the underside. If you try to do the underside while the top side is still wet, it all just slides off). You'll have to cut up one side of the carapace to allow yourself to squeeze in, but the leg and arm sections shouldn't pose a problem. You'll also need help to get the shoulder pads on (you can attach them to your upper arms by use of string loops).
I've devised a way of creating a much more durable, more authentic looking and feeling model using the same stuff they use for people with broken limbs, but it's more expensive and requires that somebody sit still for hours at a time while it's applied. Once the sections have dried, they're then cut through very carefully so that you end up with two halves of each section, which can then be re attached with webbing and buckles to make it possible to get them on and off. This allows for a much tighter, more comfortable fit.


This one's cheap and easy to put together.


  • Bra and panties
  • Elastic
  • Fabric
  • Rhinestones, braiding, glitter, fringe, etc.
  • Hot glue gun/ spray adhesive/needle and thread
  • Sandals

Start with a bra and bikini panties... something opaque, preferably satiny, black or coloured, not so tiny that you risk bouncing out or are uncomfortable being seen in it. Decorate the bra with rhinestones, glitter, fringe, braiding, etc. Be creative. It's good to use a hot glue gun; it's quick and it'll hold well enough for an evening, though it doesn't launder well. One thing to note, though: when pressing decorations into the hot glue, use cardboard! Hot glue blisters on your fingertips are not sexy.

Buy enough 1/4"- 1/2" flat elastic to fit around your hips. Sew or safety pin together, so it's tight enough to stay up without sliding, even if you do accidentally step on a hem. Buy enough lightweight gauzy or silky fabric (it needn't be very wide) to make it from your hips to ankles 4 times. Add an extra foot if you need to make a veil. Cut the fabric in half. Decorate 1/2 of each piece of fabric so it works with the bra, and fold over hip elastic with decorated side out, one panel to the front and one to the rear. If you're likely to get tiddly, it's not a bad idea to stitch the elastic in place, so you don't inadvertently lose your skirt if you (or someone else) steps on your hem.

Cheap rubber flip-flops (beach sandals) can be decorated same as the bra and skirt. Make a veil from a scarf or an extra 8-12 inches of fabric to cover the bottom half of your face. Use loads of black kohl eyeliner to paint on cat eyes. Let your hair go wild. Wear lots of bangle bracelets, rings, a jingly ankle bracelet, or toe ring. Remember that you're an exotic, treasured, object of desire, so play the part.


Make a toga from an old white sheet. Wear flat sandals. Use white body makeup and/or the kind of spray paint that is made for hair and paint everything that shows, including the toga. Let yourself dry thoroughly before sitting. Don't get wet or you'll start to streak. (Be very careful about sitting on fabric or other materials which don't wipe off easily. Depending on the paint you use, it can be a bit of a messy costume.) And don't move. Or speak.


  • Collect the netting that fruit is sold in, crochet, staple or tie together, fasten to the sleeves and outside leg of (preferably goo coloured) clothing and decorate with signs giving URLs. Hey presto you're on the Net.

  • If one of the party goers is known to have a problem with wind, take a large cardboard box, cover the outside with labels from baked bean tins, leaving room for some comments gathered from a certain 'adult' comic published in the North East of England, 'parp!', 'thruuuup!' etc, and go as that person's weekly shopping.

  • Take a large amount of bright green carrier bags and fasten together to make a tube large enough to fit from neck to ankle, fasten green balloons down the front, make two and two peas in a pod.

  • Take a large tube, the type that posters are sent through the mail in, bend it in the middle and fasten to grey coloured cardboard to make an elephant mask, add floppy ears (made from old grey tights, stuffed with newspaper or more old tights), wear grey tights on legs and arms, tutu and tiara, Fairy Elephant!

Why Not Dress up as Your Very Own Mates

This one's an excellent idea...

I must confess to being rather wary of fancy dress parties; too much prat-fall potential for my liking. However, a group of my college friends had a knack for throwing particularly good themed parties, of which dressing up was an inevitable part. Their best effort was towards the very end of our five year course - a 'Come as someone else from the year' party. As we were a reasonably small group, and had spent quite a while getting to know each other well, the opportunity to dress up as each other was a stroke of genius. Well known characters from the year had their behaviours, body image and fashion sense blown up to caricature proportions, sometimes with permission, often (and most amusingly) without. It was all quite cheap to do, as clothes could be borrowed or adapted to suit as could make up and hair. It worked as we knew each other so well, and got a kick out of poking some gentle fun at ourselves.

Alan Whickers

This used to be an easy one - suit, glasses, clipboard and stuck on moustache. Particularly effective if you can persuade five or six mates to all do a Whicker and repeat the Monty Python sketch about there being too many Whickers and not enough people left to interview.

Have also gone as a surgeon before (kids stethoscope and white lab coat liberally dotted with tomato ketchup) but requires the addition of a bucket and offal from the local butcher to reach full effectiveness.

Dead Ballerina

Oh dear; this one's a bit Marilyn Manson-esque...

No, honestly, I pulled this one off, and it worked well. What you need:
  • A really great little black dress

  • White face paint (if you aren't naturally white enough, that is), and dark eyeliner

  • Comfortable shoes that conform to your feet. (Don't do real ballet shoes; you'll be miserable. Get something like them. They're sometimes called 'China Slippers' here in the States.)

  • Stockings (Preferably ones that all ready have runs in them)

  • A bit of mud or dirt and some fallen leaves (which makes it a perfect costume for those autumn parties you didn't know about until half an hour before you were to arrive....oh, never mind.)

Put it all together about like you would expect: don the stockings, dress, and slippers. Add white face paint and dark eyeliner for lips, the hollow of your cheeks, and lips. If you have long hair, the classic 'ballerina' bun works well. Now - go get dirty, and be convincing about it. Take some straight pins and attach leaves to your dress, stockings and hair.
It's a bit obscure, I know, but great fun to watch people try and guess. And don't think it's just for the ladies, either. One of my male friends did beautifully with it.

A Bunch of Grapes

Now this is a stroke of genius:

  • Wear green.
  • Blow up lots of green balloons.
  • With help from a friend, use masking tape to attach the balloons all over your body.

You are now a bunch of grapes. This outfit is extremely silly, but that's the whole point of it.

Oh, and make sure your partner isn't going as a porcupine.

Miss Print

This one's for the media-savvy party goer...

When I was a child my family had a yearly ritual of entering me into various fancy dress competitions. The most commonly used costume was Miss Print. It was an extremely simple costume, very cheap and could be made anywhere. I wore my black leotard as a base. Newspaper was folded into pleats to make a skirt, collar, cuffs and hat. A sash worn over the top declared 'Miss Print'. The finishing touch was an umbrella covered in newsprint and held as a parasol.
Parents can be cruel.

Worst Party Outfit Ever

This poor chap got invited to a Star Wars-themed party not long ago and made the mistake of going as Jarr Jarr Binks. Oh dear...

The costume was easy: a pair of ping pong balls with pupils drawn on them attached to the top of my head and a pair of socks over my ears and regular clothes - voila! George Lucas couldn't have done better.
However, having never seen The Phantom Menace I had no idea about how unpopular the character is. I got to the party, got sneered at and got ignored. Even the 'Rebel Alliance vs Evil Empire' football match which someone started almost became an 'Everybody vs Jarr Jarr Binks' match - this wouldn't be so bad, but I'm not very good at football.
Made friends with a very tall bloke in a motorcycle helmet and goggles though. Called himself Anakin...


No, not just an attention-grabbing headline. The type of bum that hangs around on street corners, providing local colour. Perhaps there's some PC term for them; the 'inebriated unemployables'. Anyway, just get a tatty old hat (preferably a bowler), some kind of grubby shirt and waistcoat and scuffed old boots. The object is to make you look like the Little Tramp (a cross between Napoleon and Courtney Love). Now get an empty cider bottle, label ripped off and stagger into the party late. If you're lucky, people will talk for weeks about your sparkling wit and acuity. If not, they may think you are actually a bum. If this happens, take advantage of it; steal some cutlery and booze before you're thrown out.
A bitter side note; the year is 1990 and I have entered a fancy dress competition as a robot. I had a costume meticulously made from two boxes and reams of silver foil. You should have seen me. And who won? You guessed. The bum. Some guy who just put on a few old clothes. That's proof that this costume works. Thank you for giving me a forum to air my grievances. And I have nothing against Ms. Love, she was just an example.

80s Icon - New Romantic Male

For this you will need:

  • Spiky hair (natural)/hair stuck up with hair cream


  • Eyes-plenty of eyeliner, preferably not in eyeball. At all.

  • Lips-dazzling or dark lipstick. Not pantomime dame stylee.

  • Cheeks-several stripes of varying colour lipstick. Alternatively one big white stripe Adam Ant style via Aussie cricketers.


  • Frilly white blouse with long white cuffs (an extravagant dress suit shirt).

  • Tight jeans-which could be ripped although just tight does the job.

  • Immaculately patterned, old waistcoat previously used with a dinner jacket

  • Big black boots/DM's.(Note do not dance on wet floor especially with steel toe caps. It will hurt and one will look like a prat.)

  • Attitude

  • Guts

  • Come hither look. Optional - depends on previous two and quantity of alcohol consumed before leaving.

  • Know at least one other person at the party you are going to, even if every body else has neglected to follow '80s fancy dress' code on invite .

Alternative Haircut 100

  • Get a big blond wig into a coiffure.

  • Wear that Arran sweater that your gran knitted for you when you were ten and is still far to big.

  • Add a pork pie hat.

  • Tight trousers and deck shoes.

Hey presto, Nick Heyward!

Alternative Madness

This is a group tribute to those funny-loving 80's musical rascals, Madness. First of all, get a group of mates together and all wear the following:

  • Shades
  • Pork Pie hats
  • Black suits; if a size too small, even better
  • White Shirt
  • Tight Black Trousers1
  • White Socks
  • Black shoes
  • A black keyboard tie, (or other colour leather tie). Easily available at a local charity shop
  • Get some kiddies plastic instrument - sax, trumpet, guitar, etc

Walk into the party in a straight line very close together, and not only do you have a great custom but also a grand entrance.


This is only for the truly daring, but.... you could do 'the emperor's new clothes'/a nudist/a streaker/'the nekkid Truth'/Baby New Year.

Gosh. I say...

1Even though they sang 'Baggy Trousers' don't get confused.

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