The start of October is when the Halloween countdown begins. And for many parents, including myself, the thought of the holiday sends a shiver down the spine. No, it’s not the creepy store decorations or scary movies on cable getting us spooked: It’s the thought of disappointing your 2-year-old by not creating the perfect Halloween.
On the checklist: Decking out the lawn in decorations, stocking up on candy, and most importantly, getting the costume ready. And in an unfortunate trend sweeping the country, many parents are trying to make their kid’s Halloween getup from scratch. Over the last two years, parenting blogs and lifestyle magazines have been packed with ideas for handmade costumes. And even projects marked “easy” are anything but. The DIY Network’s “easy” ice cream cone costume un-ironically requires half a day’s work, plus 16 separate items, including 1 roll of pink tulle, 4 brown paper bags, white acrylic paint, and a large inflatable exercise ball.
The idea seems to be to give children the kind of folksy, homemade holiday experience that many adults had when they were little, before stores were flooded with cheap, polyester costumes designed to be chucked in the trash on November 1st. The trend seems to be emanating from family-friendly neighborhoods in New York and San Francisco, but it’s spreading fast. The other day, when I was taking a walk around my Boston neighborhood, I overheard two moms talking about how they were going to sew their daughter’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Princess Leia costumes. (Sew! With a sewing machine!) And for a second, I thought, “How wonderful would it be if Ella went trick-or-treating in a handmade outfit?”
Then reality set in. I’m truly terrible at arts and crafts. And also: I, like, have a job. When in the world would I have time to buy materials for a costume and then put it together? “It’s a common worry,” says Angela Goleme, the chief creative officer at Primary.com, a kids clothing startup cofounded by former Amazon executives Galyn Bernard and Christina Carbonell. “We’d noticed parents trying to jerry-rig costumes together using basics from our collection. But many of them seemed to be struggling to put something together, so we decided we could help with that.”
Primary’s solution was simple: The company launched a Halloween Costume Concierge for desperate parents who want to make a DIY costume but have no idea what to do. Customers can call the Primary helpline (1-800-DIYEASY), send an email (DIYEASY@primary.com), or reach out on Instagram, and the company’s staff will walk them through the costume-making process. Goleme says that Primary’s customer service representatives have all been trained to help with some basic advice, like where to go to buy fabric or how to glue felt onto a T-shirt. But if the request is more complicated, a more senior design expert will get involved, including Goleme herself, who went to art school and has almost two decades of experience as a designer.
For Primary, this effort doesn’t cost much: It just involves having staff members on hand to answer questions. But over the last few years, the brand has found that it receives a spike in traffic to the website, which translates into more sales and also more loyal customers. “People call in with all kinds of questions,” she says. “Some people just want simple costume ideas. But other people are trying to do pretty complex things, like create characters from storybooks. We really need to rise to the occasion to help them.”
The idea for leaning into the pre-Halloween anxious parent market came from customers themselves, Goleme says. Primary focuses on creating kid’s basics that are generally monochromatic. But T-shirts and leggings in primary colors are also the ideal foundation for a simple costume. If your kid wanted to be a pineapple, for instance, you might put her in a yellow dress with a leafy green hat. If he wanted to be a jack-o’-lantern, you could dress him head to toe in pumpkin orange, then put black felt cutouts of the mouth and eyes on the front. Families started posting pictures of their kids on Instagram, tagging Primary. “It makes a lot of sense to find easy ways to turn clothes into Halloween costumes,” says Goleme. “In most cases, you can just take off the decorations and reuse the clothes. That’s a lot less wasteful than most store-bought Halloween costumes, which you can only wear once.”
Three years ago, Primary started reposting these images on the brand’s website and social media channels. A year later, it created a section of its website where parents could check out other people’s costumes. Then, the company began including simple instructions about how to make the costumes. Primary tries to select costumes that are incredibly easy to put together. A grape costume, for instance, simply involves a purple T-shirt and pants, plus some purple balloons that you stick on the outfit with safety pins. A bunny face outfit requires a blue dress with a few felt pieces and pom-poms for the face. None of these costumes look particularly polished, or like they should be part of a movie set, but that’s part of the charm. They’re supposed to look homemade. And more importantly, they’re so basic that even someone as inept as myself could put it together.
It began the phone and email concierge service last year, and this year, word seems to have gotten out about it. Primary has gotten more requests than ever for Halloween costume advice. It’s a month out, and it gets dozens of calls a day.
Gender neutrality is something Primary has made a focus–while the company sells dresses and skirts, it doesn’t organize its website based on “boys” and “girls” clothing. It has applied this logic to its Halloween section as well, and the company has found that this is a valuable draw to parents. Many kids aren’t thinking about gender yet. Some girls want to be Batman, and some boys want to be Aretha Franklin. Since most Halloween costume retailers tend to be organized by gender, it can make kids feel like they can’t be a character that is of a different gender. This is one reason some parents decide to make outfits from scratch.
“One little boy wanted to be Wonder Woman,” says Goleme. “His mom called in to see how to make him the costume. Other parents don’t want their kids to feel that because they’re black, they can’t be a white character, or vice versa.” These days, Primary’s Halloween tagline is “Where Kids Can Become Anything,” to reinforce the fact that this holiday should allow kids to wear costumes that they love, even if it means embodying someone of a different gender or ethnicity.
For her part, my 2-year-old has decided she wants to be a strawberry. I briefly contemplated making her outfit from scratch. But in the end, I decided not to give in to the handmade Halloween costume one-upmanship and just buy her a costume from Amazon. I just don’t have the time, or the temperament, to spend an evening cutting out tiny black felt seeds to attach to a red dress. And for right now, my daughter has no idea what the difference is between a homemade and a store-bought costume. But perhaps when she’s a little older, making a costume together might be a fun thing we do.
But either way, Goleme wants to make it clear that Primary doesn’t judge. “We want to be a resource for parents who want to make their kid’s Halloween costume,” says Goleme. “But we realize that not everybody has the time to make something from scratch.”
Yup. She’s talking about me. Parenting is hard and some of us would rather use that costume-making time to get a few more hours of sleep.