Friday, October 5, 2012

Halloween Horror Stories (or, how much would it cost...)

It's that time of year....Halloween. Definitely one of my favorite holidays because I love to dress up. And I love that my kids love to dress up.

It's also that time when I start getting requests to "help" with other peoples costumes. Most of the time it's a question of "how much would you charge me" but occasionally it's "could you..." and then it puts me in that awkward position of ok, do they want me to work for free or should I discuss a price...etc.

I should be clear that I get requests a wide variety of people - friends, family, acquaintances  friends of friends and strangers. I should also be clear that I am a professional costumer - it's my main source of income. Some people are dr's, lawyers, sales people, HR people, CEO's - I'm a costumer.

I would say that 9 out of 10 times that someone asks me what it would cost to create a specific costume for them, I never hear back from them. Not even a "thank you for taking the time to research the fabrics and pattern and then contemplating how you would go about building this in the most economical way" response, or even just letting me know that they received my email. I really appreciate when people at least just let me know they got the information as it can take a few minutes to many hours to just come up with a quote!

I'm sure that the reason I don't hear back 90% of the time is because the cost is much more than they anticipate. And I understand that. I mean, you look at a costume at the Halloween store and it's $30 - 80 on average, right? Surely it can't cost more than that to make it from scratch? Allow me to educate you on the cost of building from scratch.

First of all, Halloween costumes are crap. They are meant to last one night. They are made of the cheapest fabrics and trims that exist. They have little construction for your shape. It would literally kill me to produce a costume at that level. There are some higher quality costumes, but even those don't hold a candle to the costumes I create. For example, here's a cheap Cinderella costume.

It retails for about $60. It won't look like that on you. It's a one size fits all. They tailor these to the models in the photos. The back is probably a super thin, super cheap polyester that velcros closed.  This is what it will probably look like on you:

Shapeless and silly. So you think, it can't cost much more to make something like this from scratch, right?

I stole this from my friend Valinda's site...she bought Once Upon a Costume from me many years ago and this is one of her custom made Cinderella gowns. It's the same pattern (with some of her upgrades) that I started with. I just don't have any pictures of my "standard" Cinderella dresses, but mine looked pretty much identical! I would quote you $450 for this. What? WHY SO MUCH!

First, fabric! The base fabric of this dress is about a medium weight, good quality satin.  While we can get really good satin at Heddy's, a more boutique fabric shop, we want to be thrifty and you want us to be. So, we go to JoAnn's. The Casa Satin retails for $7.99 per yard and we need 6 yards of fabric for this dress - about $50 with tax. Suddenly, $60 for a whole dress, already made - not so bad!

Then there's sparkle organza. We need 3 yards and it's on sale for $6.99, so there's already another $20. Then you need about 1.5 yards of sparkle trim - another $8.00. The separating zipper will set you back $3, the lining is another $10 - because I use medium weight twill so the costume will hold up. Then the headband, ribbon for the necklace, snaps, thread, glue - we'll just lump those in a $9 because I like even numbers

So our grand total - just for fabric, which is a better quality than the cheapy halloween costume, but that's why you want me to make it, right? - is $100. So we've already spent more than the wanna-be. Almost double, and we haven't even picked up a needle!

So - $350 for labor? That seems like a lot. How many hours do you think it takes to put this gown together? Look at the bodice - there are 12 pieces just for the bodice! And then each of those have a lining - 12 more. So 24 pieces that all have to be sewn together, in the proper order and navigating some tricky curves. The sleeves also have about 6 panels each - for a total of 12 that have the be sewn together before the sleeve is gathered along the top, a casing made along the bottom for elastic and then attached. The skirt is made very full with a 3 godet insert in the front to add beautiful shape and detailing. So, for numbers sake, that's 8 long seams. Then it has to be gathered into a waistband. The bodice gets a separating zipper and the skirt gets a snap. Then the necklace and headband have to be made and the trim attached to the neckline -  usually by hand. And I have to make sure it all fits!

And before any of the sewing starts, all of those dozens of pieces have to be cut out. Which is also a process - first the proper pattern is selected, then pinned to the fabric and each piece cut out by hand.

Then there's all of my tools - my sewing machine ($500), overlock ($500), cutting and ironing tables - ($100 ea), scissors ($30 or more ea), rotary blades ($4 each - and I usually use 1 per project) plus everything else like seam rippers, bias tape, thimbles, needles...all the little things. Then I have tables and chairs in my sewing room, all those necessities. I have a studio in my home - a whole room dedicated to the construction of costumes that has to be paid for as well.

I would say all in all - including research and shopping time, I would easily put in about 20 hours on just this one Cinderella gown.  At $350 for labor, that comes out to $17.50 per hour. I like to earn $20 per hour. So hopefully I can sew quickly and make up that $3 per hour.

I don't mind helping a friend out on something simple and if they are going to pay me, I tend to cut them a break. But not too much because THIS IS WORK for me! I don't wake up in the morning and wander into my sewing room and think...oh, yay! what shall I sew today for fun and free?

And I tend to stay clear of projects that are just busy work. I like to be challenged and I like projects that spark my interest. I'm not a seamstress, I'm a costumer. I do more than sew, I build. I often pattern my own pieces and have to figure out - how can I do that? My least favorite thing in the world is to make duplicates of the same costumes. In fact, that's why I sold Once Upon a Costume. I was going crazy doing the same thing over and over and was getting behind on deadlines. I work best when I'm inspired. Which is why my house is always a mess, but I digress.

My motto is, if you can buy it - BUY IT! I was asked a few years back to look at making some Bridesmaids dresses. I was shown a very elaborately draped gown in a David's Bridal catalogue. I asked how much they charged for the dress and she said $120. I said - BUY THEM! The fabric alone will be at least half that, and there's now way I can do intricate draping for anywhere near that! I told them that I would have to charge about $300 each to make them worth my time. They were shocked to hear that, but grateful for the advice.

I generally think the only time it's CHEAPER to have something made is if you can make it yourself. And there are seamstresses who will charge less than I do. Again, costuming is my profession - how I earn money to pay bills and eat and have a place to sleep. I don't do it for fun. Even my kids' halloween costumes this year are thrift store finds that I'm putting my magic touch to. I don't have the time or money to make them all from scratch. And one of them is coming straight from Target because frankly, I can't even conceive of how to do a Batman costume for anywhere near $20.

I was asked to bid a prom gown - again, an elaborate 1950's style gown with a corseted top and a lot of draping in a dupioni satin. Dupioni starts at $20 a yard! I think I quoted $400 or so. Again, I never even received a response, but I'm assuming that the price made them dizzy.

Oh, and I get dozens of blog hits a day on this photo from a post from 2 years ago:

I charged $500 for this costume - it was a last minute order so it was extra do get it done so fast. I once had someone ask me to make five of them for $150 each. Um, no. The bodice is corseted with spiral steel boning! Most of the candy is hand made or at least hand painted. Between my husband and I, there are well over 30 hours in this costume. Because I already have the materials, I would do one more for $400, but no less! It's too much work otherwise.

And finally, you may be do you costume entire shows? Like this, you mean?

To be honest - I really don't know. I never remember because I never get much sleep. I built the (from l to right - the Yellow one (Velma), the pink one (Tracy), the green one (Motormouth), the orange one (Little Inze) and the brown one (Penny's mother) I also finished Edna's gown (the red one), made Pinky's plaid pants and altered Penny's dress.

I'm grateful for all of the show building experiences that I've had so far. However, I make very, very little, if any, money off of these endeavors and I don't even get to keep the costumes. So I am at a point, now, where I will no longer be doing full shows unless I get to keep the costumes or I can make a fair wage. That's the only way to make it economically possible for me keep doing it. As we speak, I'm gearing up to costume The Music Man for our own production company - Huntsman Entertainment! I'm excited to be my own boss. And bring the costumes back to my closet on closing night.

I hope you found this informative and know where I'm coming from when I give you halloween sticker shock.

PS - I wanted to add...

There have been many occasions when I have done a costume for a friend or family member free of charge and it gives me great satisfaction and joy to do so. What's the point of having a skill if you can't use it as a gift from time to time. I am so often blessed by those in my life and nothing makes me happier than to share a kindness with someone who has done the same for me.


  1. I can totally relate. I love making costumes and I always try to convince my kids to let me make their costumes... They're not always as into it as I am. ;) So anyway my friends always notice that my family has the best costumes and I get at least 10 " Can you help me make my costume? " requests a year. I don't think that my non sewing friends realize how much effort actually goes into. Good for you for letting people know that your time is valuable. I still have trouble saying no and end up doing a lot of work for free.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Julie! It took me a long time to get to that point. But now when I do a project for someone as a gift, it's even better. Good luck to you!