“In this post, I’m going to tell you exactly how to cast yourselves as Dia de los Muertos figures, from costumes to makeup.”
Costumes started so simply. My son wanted to be a young Anakin Skywalker for Halloween at his elementary school, and I wasn’t going to spend $50.00 on a costume he would wear once. So I transformed him into Anakin by fashioning a half yard of black knit fabric into a vest and a $3.99 gold tee shirt I repurposed into a glove. Anakin’s “braid” was just a hair clip with dark brown embroidery floss braided onto the clip. The gears and fittings on his cybernetic arm were simply drawn on with sharpie marker after I put it on my arm and drew, checking my work next to a cartoon of Anakin. He LOVED it because he could wear his own comfortable shirt, shorts, and black boots. I loved it because he loved it. And I loved that he told everyone his mom made it just for him.
But to tell the truth, my disenchantment with the costume industry had already begun. I couldn’t stand the Halloween costumes on the market for zaftig women, so each year I found myself figuring out how to fit myself (no pun intended) into the theme my guys had chosen from their Halloween costumes. I figured out how to be a pirate with a $.99 eyepatch and clothes I already owned. The next year, I bought costumes for the guys, but I made my kimono by taking a pattern from an antique kimono I had purchased at a second-hand store in my teens. (Every plus-sized woman in my audience just sighed.) Every year, I made more and more of our costumes because once the guys saw how comfortable I was, they wanted purchased costumes less and less.
Finally, my son applied to an arts-focused middle school, and we decided that auditioning for the school musicals might help him develop friendships. All the years of 4-H lessons in sewing and crocheting, and crafting, all the years of being more-Martha-than-Martha morphed into costume design. Today, on the back of my business card, along with writing tutor, is the notation that I am a freelance costume designer. I’ve outfitted middle schoolers for fairy tales (Sondheim’s Into the Woods); 50s fandom (Bye, Bye Birdie); and Romeo and Juliet (Renaissance simplicity for an all-male, middle school cast, no less). And hey, I can now say that I know how to make a true circle skirt from inexpensive felt, a Tin man hat out of an old metal funnel on top of a baseball hat covered with strips of silver lamè, as well as a Medieval wimple for a beefy 8th grader who played Juliet’s nurse while threatening to faint every time he got overheated! Whew! Who knows what this year will bring!?!
Along the way, my son has been a steward to Cinderella’s Prince, Harvey Johnson, Ed Sullivan, and the Tin Man. And our family Halloween costumes have ranged from Pirates, to a Roman family, from Ghost Busters, to the characters of the wizard of Oz, and finally this year — Dia de los Muertos figures.
You might say we take Halloween very seriously in this family. Every year, we head to Walt Disney World in Florida for Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party. Every year, we use Halloween as a second celebration of my son’s October 28th birthday. And every year, we grow increasingly disenchanted with purchased costumes. They’re hot, they’re polyester, or worse, they have plastic masks that off-gas chemical fumes. No way. In this post, I’m going to tell you exactly how to cast yourselves as Dia de los Muertos figures, from costumes to makeup.
For men: black and white formal wear is the norm with touch of vibrant color, especially red. So we used tuxedo vests, ties, and white shirts my guys already owned, and black khakis or jeans already in their closets. My son’s bowler is a “fun” hat he found years ago at a Disney park: in it he’s played Charlie Chaplin (for his performing arts class), and Thomas Nast, the “Father of the American [editorial] Cartoon” (for his history class). This year, I folded up a scarf I already owned, tied it on, and bought a couple of feathers at M&J Trimming in New York to jazz it up. I attached a couple of glass bead skulls with huge basting stitches for good measure. The fedora my husband is wearing is an old fedora that I will soon strip of its Halloween finery and take to J.J. Hat Center for reconditioning. But before I do, I re-worked it for this year’s Halloween.
Besides going to M&J Trimming, we hit a couple of the discount bead stores in the fashion district in NYC, and my husband spotted some inexpensive glass skull beads: we purchased three strands in blue and beige. I used them, plus a couple of $3.00 shell circle strands for his hat. Then I decided to make earrings that Deirdre and I could wear. Each of us had skulls for a different accessory — all strung on inexpensive wire I already had in my jewelry kit.
For women: Ok. I’ll confess. My family had been on a trip to Chiapas in central Mexico in the last year. There, I found some of the most amazing textiles made by local Mayan women: natural materials, richly colored and unbelievably inexpensive. I bought a chawl (their adaptation of the word shawl) for myself, several belts, and a blouse for my BFF, Deirdre — our not-related-by-blood, but related-by-heartfelt-choice friend/sister/daughter. These textiles were the inspiration for our entire Halloween regalia. Knowing that the contemporary Mayan women in Chiapas wear black wool skirts and white blouses with colorful shawls or sweaters, I adapted what we already had to suit that purpose. Any light colored or richly colored peasant blouse over a black skirt will work; if you have one that is embroidered, even better. Then I added flower wreaths for our hair; the green one Deirdre wears has already had several lives in plays I’ve costumed, and now serves Deirdre with the addition of a few lavender flowers. I purchased the burgundy wreath for me from a seller on Etsy once I realized that I could buy it for less already made than I could purchase the flowers and materials. Mama didn’t raise no fools: there are lots of boho wreath bargains out there in stores and on Etsy for this year.
Yes, it’s serious. Yes, try it in advance so you work out any problems with design or equipment. I started with sketches of my ideas, then we did a practice run on everyone’s makeup.
Leave at least 45 minutes to an hour for each face, depending upon how proficient you are at makeup. But the basic steps don’t take that long if you have the right materials. Use pictures here as models, or surf Pinterest under “sugar skulls” or “Dia de los Muertos.” The makeup is all about the layering of color and details. These steps will help you layer in the details that you like from the examples you pull up.
Triangle makeup sponges — for applying clown white makeup
Makeup Q-tips — the pointed Q-tips are super helpful for defining lines that have strayed and for applying rhinestones or pearls.
Assorted makeup brushes
Small bowl of water — for soaking your triangle sponges to apply clown white makeup
Primer — any number of makeup lines have primer. Pick one.
Clown white makeup
Crayon black eyeliner pencils — indispensable for drawing lines and shapes. By this I mean a soft, thick black liner pencil
Crayon white pencil. See note above.
Soft eyeliner pencils in colors like black or purple — for finer lines or larger dots
Liquid eyeliner: in black and whatever other colors you desire for dots: navy blue, green, purple. These can also be used to “sharpen” lines on leaves and flowers
Rhinestones or pearls — optional, but they add dimension
Powder eyeshadow — for eye sockets and highlighting cheekbones or any other areas of the face where you want color. I would suggest, black, navy blue and purple
A super bright blush — for outlining the cheek area (AKA the skull division from the jaw)
False eyelashes — optional
Note: I kept the guys’ makeup more monochromatic, so if you’re only doing guys, you may want to focus on black and navy blue.
1. PRIMER. Don’t start without priming your face. It really helps the heavy clown white makeup go on more smoothly and easily. Get a good primer and use it first. Do not be tempted to skip this step; it makes your life a LOT easier.
2. Get out your black eyeliner, and outline the eye sockets, nose “holes” and any other areas of your face that you will make solid black. No use covering up the areas that will be a solid dark color with white makeup. If you are doing your eyes in dark blue or purple or green, use a soft liner in that color to outline these areas.
3. Wet down your triangle sponge and squeeze out any excess water. Put a little pancake clown makeup on the sponge and begin spreading it out over your face, avoiding the outlined eye sockets and nose “holes.” Don’t worry too much about getting the “right” amount of makeup on your sponge: you’ll discover that thicker patches blend with a little effort. Use the white “crayon” liner to cover any areas close to the eye sockets or nose that are too small to cover with the triangle sponge. Blend everything well.
4. Powder your face with white setting powder.
5. Fill in the eye sockets with eyeliner and powder shadow. For example, I had purple around my eyes so I used a purple liner, then filled in most of the area with iridescent purple eyeshadow. If desired, apply liner around the eye and false eyelashes. Apply mascara to blend false eyelashes into yours. Deirdre is wearing eyelashes and mascara; I am not. So you can see which effect you like most.
6. Add any forehead design with liner pencils before you do nose or cheeks to avoid smudging.
7. Fill in the nose holes with black liner and/or black eyeshadow.
8. Now, add cheek color to the underside of your cheekbones to highlight the separation between skull and jaw –OR — add cheek color to the apple of your cheek if you want a softer, more feminine, less scary look. Then draw in the line between the skull and the jaw, extend it from the edges of your mouth back toward your ear, adding any twirls or embellishments.
9. Draw in “blackened mouth” or “teeth.” If you blacken your lips, be sure to use lipstick or clown white makeup first. If you opt to draw on teeth, be sure to whiten lips first.
10. Add any chin design.
10. Go back in and add dots or pearls and rhinestones (with eyelash glue). I simply bought stones and pearls with a flat side at M&J Trimming, but bead stores will also have rhinestones with a flat side.
11. Use the liquid liner in colors to add fine lines or dots to any of the designs. Wait until they dry, then . . .
11. Use setting powder again.
Now — go enjoy Halloween, and all the compliments you’ll get on your costume!