Tricks and tips for scaring up a treat-worthy costume

Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 22, 2010

Next Saturday night, local bars and lounges will be overrun with people in costumes. Some get-ups will be funny and topical. Some will be creepy and bloody. Some will be . . . well, let's just say if you're out of college, please reconsider the "Sexy Disney Princess" outfit.

But while showing off your carefully planned or hastily thrown together outfit can be fun, it can also be rewarding. Three-thousand-big-ones rewarding. That's the top prize at DC101's annual costume contest, where in recent years winners have included a perfectly coiffed McLovin look-alike and an elaborate (and homemade) Optimus Prime outfit with glowing headlights and taillights.

So maybe you're not going to go that hard, but there are still plenty of contests waiting to be won, and we're not talking about a $50 bar tab and a liquor company T-shirt from your local hangout - try $500 gift certificates or a trip to Mexico.

If you have a good idea for a costume, or are still tossing ideas around, here's a guide from the brainstorming to the how-to. We've talked to the organizers of some of these big-ticket contests to find out what they're looking for (and what's done well in previous years) and persuaded some of the area's most inventive costume designers to share tricks of the trade. (You can even watch a tutorial on making your makeup believable.)

So don't hold back. Dig through that closet, hit the thrift stores, get creative. We won't even ask for a cut of the profits.

Step 1: What to wear

The winners of most contests -- at least those with big prizes -- are selected by audience applause, not by a panel of judges, though every party has judges roaming the club to find a group of semifinalists or finalists for the crowd to choose from.

"You need something truly unique," says Rick Shea of HiBall Events, who runs the annual Monster Bash party, which will be at the State Theatre this year. "Sometimes you have a costume that's truly creative and kind of chintzy. Sometimes you see something that's not so creative but it's a really good costume and they've put it together really well. It has to be something that stands out."

Shea had crowds in the 2,000 to 3,000 range at his events at Clarendon Ballroom in recent years, and there were always memorable outfits. "We had a guy last year who dressed up as a green plastic army man," he says. "That doesn't sound all that exciting, but if you saw him, he was exactly the right shade of green, and he really looked like an army man." The clincher: "He was doing poses that were just like the army men you had when you were a kid. I was surprised he didn't win."

Greg Bland, chief executive of the young professionals group Things to Do D.C., started throwing annual Halloween parties in 1996, and the annual Graveyard Jam -- now held at the Hard Rock Cafe -- brings in more than 1,000 revelers every year, so he has seen trends come and go.

"Two years ago, it was pirates," he says. "This year I'm guessing we're going to see a lot of vampires, with 'Twilight' and the other movies that have been out. I bet we're also going to see some takeoffs on the Tea Party." (Hey, this is Washington after all - Bland has seen more than a few Sarah Palins in the past two years.)

Things to Do traditionally gives away prizes in three categories -- Scariest, Prettiest and Most Original -- and then the audience votes for the top overall costume. The prize is a weekend getaway. Previous destinations have included Iceland and Jamaica; this year's winner gets a trip for two to a Mexican city of his or her choice.

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