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DIY Fashion: How to Create Costumes Through the Decades

Updated on September 4, 2015

Vintage costumes are timeless! If you're trying to create an authentic, old-school costume, you've come to the right place. I'll show you how to dress and accessorize using your grandma's old duds and a few new pieces!

The 1920s

The outcome!
The outcome!

Everyone recognizes the 1920s flapper style. It's a classic look and often emulated for Halloween costumes. Draw some inspiration from The Great Gatsby as we take a closer look at the 1920s style. Here are a few basics:

  • Sheath dresses - These dresses are often just below knee-length. The waistline should sit low on your hips. These dresses aren't form-fitting! Sheaths are cut relatively straight and just hang off of your body.
  • Fishnet tights - For extra authenticity, find nylons with seams running up the back.
  • Low heels - You've got to be able to dance!
  • Long beaded necklaces - Necklaces are often worn tied in a knot, and they hang down low!
  • Fur Wraps - Typically, shoulders are bare (except for the straps on your dress). But a fur wrap or shawl looks great draped on your arms!
  • Gloves - If you're going to wear gloves, opt for a solid-colored, silky looking fabric.

So what about hair and makeup? The '20's were a time when women started "breaking the rules"! They chopped off their hair, wearing it close to their faces. If you're looking for something to do for '20s hair, try out finger waves. If your hair is long, you can always throw it in a low bun and wear a beaded headband.

As for makeup, go for a smokey eye and dark red lips.

1920s Gallery of Historic Fashion

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The goal for a 1920s costume!Alice Joyce, 1926 by Bain News Service. Library of Congress digital ID: ggbain.38932. "Flapper," Saturday Evening Post cover 4 February 1922 by Ellen Bernard Thompson Pyle.Joan Crawford, 1927 by Bain News Service. Library of Congress digital ID: ggbain.24590.Publicity photo of Louise Brooks from short biographical sketch-book Stars of the Photoplay, 1930 (public domain).Norma Talmadge c. early 1920s by Bain News Service. Library of Congress digital ID: ggbain.35550.Norma Shearer, 1927 by Bain News Service. Library of Congress digital ID: ggbain.18348.
The goal for a 1920s costume!
The goal for a 1920s costume! | Source
Alice Joyce, 1926 by Bain News Service. Library of Congress digital ID: ggbain.38932.
Alice Joyce, 1926 by Bain News Service. Library of Congress digital ID: ggbain.38932. | Source
 "Flapper," Saturday Evening Post cover 4 February 1922 by Ellen Bernard Thompson Pyle.
"Flapper," Saturday Evening Post cover 4 February 1922 by Ellen Bernard Thompson Pyle. | Source
Joan Crawford, 1927 by Bain News Service. Library of Congress digital ID: ggbain.24590.
Joan Crawford, 1927 by Bain News Service. Library of Congress digital ID: ggbain.24590. | Source
Publicity photo of Louise Brooks from short biographical sketch-book Stars of the Photoplay, 1930 (public domain).
Publicity photo of Louise Brooks from short biographical sketch-book Stars of the Photoplay, 1930 (public domain).
Norma Talmadge c. early 1920s by Bain News Service. Library of Congress digital ID: ggbain.35550.
Norma Talmadge c. early 1920s by Bain News Service. Library of Congress digital ID: ggbain.35550. | Source
Norma Shearer, 1927 by Bain News Service. Library of Congress digital ID: ggbain.18348.
Norma Shearer, 1927 by Bain News Service. Library of Congress digital ID: ggbain.18348. | Source

The 1930s

When you think of old Hollywood glamour, you're probably thinking of the 1930s. Ladies like Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, and Greta Garbo graced this decade with class. This is definitely the fanciest style I'll be covering, so if you're looking for something more casual, jump up a few decades! Here are some things to remember for the 1930s:

  • Floor-length dresses - Like I said, glam it up!
  • Luxurious fabrics - More so silk than lace. Lots of shine and dazzle!
  • Fitted waists - In the 1920's the style was a drop-waist. In the '30s, they brought it back up to the natural waistline. Accentuate your figure!
  • Big, bouncy curls - You can use hot rollers to achieve these glamorous curls.
  • Minimal accessories - You don't see too many necklaces or accessories on the ladies of the 1930s. If anything, go for some sparkly earrings.

For makeup, think matte foundation, thin arched eyebrows, false eyelashes, and dramatic dark lipstick.

1930s Gallery

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Loretta Young, studio portrait (public domain).Carole Lombard (public domain).Jean HarlowJean Harlow, close up of face (public domain).
Loretta Young, studio portrait (public domain).
Loretta Young, studio portrait (public domain).
Carole Lombard (public domain).
Carole Lombard (public domain).
Jean Harlow
Jean Harlow | Source
Jean Harlow, close up of face (public domain).
Jean Harlow, close up of face (public domain).

The 1940s

The outcome!
The outcome!

1940s wartime fashion has got to be my favorite. This is when the pinup style you're used to seeing started! Here are some things to remember for the 1940s:

  • Knee-length, A-line skirts - Skirts were usually not too full - there wasn't much poof until the '50s!
  • Sleeves - One of my favorite parts: the sleeves! Blazers were very common, but even day dresses had sleeves.
  • Buttons - As women started entering the workforce during the war effort, fashion started to get more professional-looking. Lots of button-down skirt suits in this era!
  • Oxfords and Mary Jane Pumps - Mostly closed-toed, professional looking shoes here.
  • Hats - "Doll" hats that perch on the top of your head work very well, as well as 40s style bonnet-style hats and halo hats.

Hair of the 1940s was fabulous: get ready to pin-curl! This era is when those wonderful pinup styles of voluminous waves and victory rolls started to emerge. For makeup, eyeshadow is minimal, but a red lip suits this decade well.

40's style sleeves and hair!
40's style sleeves and hair!

1940s Gallery

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Woman standing in front of 1942 Ford Woodie during World War II.1940s women.Women of the US Navy Nurse Corps during World War II.  A model wearing a black woollen Utility Atrima dress in 1943 (public domain)1940s red linen dress.
Woman standing in front of 1942 Ford Woodie during World War II.
Woman standing in front of 1942 Ford Woodie during World War II. | Source
1940s women.
1940s women. | Source
Women of the US Navy Nurse Corps during World War II.
Women of the US Navy Nurse Corps during World War II. | Source
 A model wearing a black woollen Utility Atrima dress in 1943 (public domain)
A model wearing a black woollen Utility Atrima dress in 1943 (public domain)
1940s red linen dress.
1940s red linen dress. | Source

The 1950s

My 1950s party dress.
My 1950s party dress.

Christian Dior created the "New Look" in 1947, and it launched a whole new silhouette for women's fashion. Tiny waists, full skirts, and pointed busts became the hot new look. Here are some things to keep in mind for '50s costuming:

  • Bright colors/patterns - Go bold! The '50s were a color explosion.
  • Full skirts or narrow skirts - There really was no in between. Skirts went mid-calf, and were either super fitted or super full!
  • Halter dresses - Necklines got lower, and halter dresses became quite popular. You can find a lot of these around today!
  • Short shorts - High-waisted, of course. No muffin top!
  • Peplum tops - These shirts followed with the trends, highlighting a narrow waist.
  • Stilletos - The magic of high heels was born! If you don't have any low heels of the 1920s, '30s, or '40s, I'd go with a '50's era costume.
  • Oxfords - Always a more casual option, the oxford was quite popular in the footwear world.

Typical '50s makeup includes the cat eye and bright lipstick. Hair was typically short and curled, with a hat for nearly every occasion. The late '50s saw more straight hair and ponytails.

This decade is much fun to replicate, and gives you so many options by way of costume. You could go the poodle skirt route, or full-on pinup glamour. You could also pull out your best housewife, or go in the complete opposite direction with retro futuristic space-age stuff.

1950s Gallery

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Dior's "New Look"Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, 1953 (public domain).Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in 1953 (public domain) Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall in the trailer for the film How to Marry a Millionaire, 1953.
Dior's "New Look"
Dior's "New Look" | Source
Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, 1953 (public domain).
Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, 1953 (public domain).
Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in 1953 (public domain)
Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in 1953 (public domain)
 Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall in the trailer for the film How to Marry a Millionaire, 1953.
Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall in the trailer for the film How to Marry a Millionaire, 1953.
Pinup hair!
Pinup hair!

The 1960s

I've been going retro for years.
I've been going retro for years.

Fashion evolved quickly in the '60s, after a lot of social change. There are a few options for '60s costumes, including mod and hippie. If you're going for a mod '60s costume, check out these trends:

  • Bright color blocking/geometric patterns
  • Sleeveless tops
  • Capri pants
  • Box dresses
  • Mini skirts
  • Go-go boots
  • Big sunglasses and chunky jewelry

Mod makeup usually consists of defined lashes and sharp cat eyes with nude lipstick. Hair trends of the time were pixie cuts, or long hair that was flipped out at the bottoms with bangs.

If you're aiming for the late '60s hippie look, here are some tips:

  • Bell bottom jeans - Need I say more? You saw this style re-emerge in the '90s.
  • Long Beads - Long strands of beads were often worn in the hippie era.
  • Headbands - Headbands were worn across the forehead, over your hair.
  • Sandals - Or no shoes at all!
  • Vests - Look for vests with fringe.
  • Tye-Dye - Shirts, head bands, bags, whatever.

Hippie hair was worn very long, and very straight. Probably not brushed.

1960s Gallery

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Alice Ormsby Gore"Swinging London": Teenagers in London's Carnaby Street in the 1960s. Colleen Corby in the 1960s (public domain).Joost Evers/Anefo, Jean Shrimpton 1965.Hippie woman.
Alice Ormsby Gore
Alice Ormsby Gore | Source
"Swinging London": Teenagers in London's Carnaby Street in the 1960s.
"Swinging London": Teenagers in London's Carnaby Street in the 1960s. | Source
Colleen Corby in the 1960s (public domain).
Colleen Corby in the 1960s (public domain).
Joost Evers/Anefo, Jean Shrimpton 1965.
Joost Evers/Anefo, Jean Shrimpton 1965. | Source
Hippie woman.
Hippie woman. | Source

The 1970s

Vintage disco dress!
Vintage disco dress!

The 1970s were basically like the late 60s and early 80s in terms of fashion. It changed dramatically throughout the decade, but there are a lot of good costume pieces to be had:

  • Bell bottoms
  • Tight t-shirts - Think That '70s Show: you would always see Kelso and Fez in super-tight shirts with flared pants.
  • Platform shoes - Like, 2 inches or more.
  • Revealing dresses - Disco dresses often featured open backs and plunging necklines.
  • Suits - Suits, everywhere! Pants suits, jumpsuits, track suits, you name it.
  • Flower power - Still rocking those super bright patterns in this decade.

Hair and makeup was pretty diverse. On one side, there were the feminists who opted for the natural look. On the other side, there was disco: The bigger, brighter, and flashier, the better!

1970s Gallery

Click thumbnail to view full-size
1970s fashions, anonymous man with Loretta Bezzini & Lars Jacob in clothing by Gul & Blå (public domain).On a Kensington Hotel roof terrace, 1971.Girl in floral dress, c. 1973.
Source
1970s fashions, anonymous man with Loretta Bezzini & Lars Jacob in clothing by Gul & Blå (public domain).
1970s fashions, anonymous man with Loretta Bezzini & Lars Jacob in clothing by Gul & Blå (public domain). | Source
On a Kensington Hotel roof terrace, 1971.
On a Kensington Hotel roof terrace, 1971. | Source
Girl in floral dress, c. 1973.
Girl in floral dress, c. 1973. | Source

The 1980s

Rocker!
Rocker!

1980's

The 1980s saw a vast array of fashion developments, many of which were completely awful. That's why it's so fun to dress up from this era! Workout clothes, tacky sweaters, and the iconic '80s rock and pop stars will inspire exciting costume ideas for years to come. Check out some of these ideas:

The Athlete

  • Jordans
  • Track suits - Swishy fabric, bright colors, and geometric patterns.
  • Sweat bands - They were put to good use. Wear with the track suit or a dance aerobics outfit.
  • Cutoff sweatshirts - Think Flashdance. Throw this on over a leotard and some tights!

The Rocker

  • Headbands - Grab a long piece of fabric and tie it around your head, leaving the tie hanging down on one side, or opt for a bandana.
  • Leather and stone washed pants - The pant of choice for rockers.
  • Layers - Layer up. Jacket on vest, vest on tank top, and layered necklaces.
  • Cutoff sleeves - Cut the sleeves off of a t-shirt to easily achieve a rock-star shirt.
  • Jackets - Leather jackets, stone-washed jackets, or vests work great; especially if they're studded, fringed, or frayed.
  • Studs - Sport some studded jewelry, like arm bands and chokers. Think Billy Idol.

The Pop Star

  • Leggings or leg warmers - Madonna and Cyndi Lauper popularized this look, one that is often associated with '80s style.
  • Horizontal strips - Blondie and others often wore horizontally striped shirts on stage.
  • Fingerless gloves - You can find lace or fishnet fingerless gloves for very cheap!
  • Denim or acid-wash jackets - Do you remember the part in 13 Going on 30 when the six chicks all have brightly-colored denim acid-washed jackets? Just like that.
  • Shoulder pads - A regrettable trend from the past.
  • Tutu skirts - Madonna often rocked tutus over her leg warmers.

The Cosby

  • Printed, old man sweater - Something so horribly unfashionable, a hipster would wear it.
  • High-waisted jeans - Fitted, but with a very high waist.
  • Loafers - Call it the grandpa look.

Granny Chic

  • Floral dresses - You know, like a granny would wear.
  • Oversized, knit sweaters - Emphasis on the oversized. Wear these over your floral dress.
  • Granny boots - This is a thing, I promise. Just look them up; they are lace-up boots with a low, square heel and a pointed toe.
  • Brooches - Pin them onto your granny sweater!
  • Lace socks - These peeked out over boots, coming to about mid-calf.

All throughout, the '80s were a maximalist time, featuring big hair and lots of brightly-colored makeup. Go overboard!

1980s Gallery

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Molly Ringwald's granny chic! A contemporary model showing off Madonna's early fashion style from the mid-1980s.
Molly Ringwald's granny chic!
Molly Ringwald's granny chic! | Source
Source
A contemporary model showing off Madonna's early fashion style from the mid-1980s.
A contemporary model showing off Madonna's early fashion style from the mid-1980s. | Source

The 1990s

Jonathan Brandis Dec.1993 in Los Angeles, shopping on Ventura Blvd. Flannel shirt, t-shirt, and curtained hair.
Jonathan Brandis Dec.1993 in Los Angeles, shopping on Ventura Blvd. Flannel shirt, t-shirt, and curtained hair. | Source

The '90s were a pretty embarrassing time for fashion, but that can make for some great costumes, as we learned in the '80s. Go for these things when making a '90s costume:

  • Plaid flannel - Grunge hit in full force. Pair this with some baggy jeans and you've captured the look.
  • Sweats - The '90s look was pretty relaxed.
  • Baseball caps - Pretty much everyone was wearing a ball cap, any which way a ball cap can go.
  • Sneakers - Opt for some Jordans!
  • T-shirts - Oversized, like three sizes too big.
  • Crop tops - Let your belly button be free!

Hair in the 1990s usually featured bangs, mini ponytails, tons of little clips, or scrunchies. You would also see the occasional mullet or bowl cut. Makeup was mostly neutral tones, with blush and dark lips.

80 Years of Costumes

There you have it—nearly a century's worth of costume ideas, all in one place. Next time you're in need of a last-minute costume, look here! Even if you're planning months in advance, these costumes are fun and fairly easy to replicate with a few key pieces. You probably already have something to make at least one of these happen.

Which decade of costumes is your favorite?

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    • WiccanSage profile image

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 3 years ago

      Wow, these are cool. Some of them are a blast from my past, it makes me feel old to think of some of these fashions as so old they qualify as costumes, lol. Great ideas here. I love how each decade in the 20th century had such a distinct look. Nice hub, I enjoyed it very much and am going to keep your ideas in mind for parties.

    • profile image

      Martine 23 months ago

      One thing ALL those eras had in common is a higher rise. The jeggings that allow for a low rise fit is something that happened in the late 90's, and is only starting to leave now. I would say that to embrace any of those looks, you needs to make sure that waist is at the waist, except for the drop waist dresses of the 1920's/30's. Personally, I don't think any fashion era is "tacky". I think most of the things from the 80's look very modern to me, but people differ.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 4 months ago

      Thank you for the trip down memory lane.

    • Sunshyne1975 profile image

      Sunshyne1975 2 months ago from California, US

      Wow, great article. I have always liked to up-cycle old clothing to create costumes rather than purchase a pre made costume. Thanks for the ideas and tips.

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