Ah, an opportunity to delve into the deepest depths of my quirky knowledge of pop-culture, as well as express my creativity and ingenuity!
I have never been a fan of store-bought costumes. The last one I remember having is a $6 million man costume (cellophane topped box, cheap plastic rubber sting, polyurethane pajamas, suffocating mask and all) in 1st grade. After suffering through the sweat, peripheral blindness, and near asphyxiation of that, I decided to make my own costumes from then on. I always used primarily materials lying in scrap piles in the house. Old clothes, beat-up cardboard boxes, tin cans, near dried-up paint - whatever I could find. I almost never bought materials that cost me more than $20, and usually kept the cash outlay to less than $5. That made my white-trash level income parents happy.
However, as I had no athletic talent, low popularity, and was quite fat, I knew I'd have to make a mark through other means. The best option was to come up with costumes not offered in stores and made impressively out of few materials, creative thinking, and little or no cost. My first idea in 4th grade was to by a pair of red long-johns and make a Greatest American Hero costume. That would require buying them, painting a reasonable insignia for the chest, and regardless, would look cheap and hokey, if it was even recognized. Besides which, since the show was canceled by then and I had no good pictures of the costume, it wouldn't be accurate. Okay, idea tabled pending future research.
In my early days, I did the low-budget standards, using clothes either in or on their way out of mine or my parents' wardrobes - Hobo, B-level Vampire, etc.. By 6th grade or so, I decided to make a real project out of it. After making my own costumes and props to perform comedy routines in grade school talent shows, I found I was really good at turning garbage into gold. I lip-synched "Like a Surgeon" and recruited a couple friends to play my assistant and patient. I made reasonable facsimiles of stethoscopes, surgical gowns and masks, handsaws, hammers, and other implements of destruction to open my 'patient', and withdrew from him every odd-looking thing I found in the house (that wasn't in my parents nightstand, anyway). I received quite a few compliments on my performance AND props.
I decided to extend this foray to Halloween. In 6th grade (or thereabouts), after spelunking the nether regions of our basement, I found a remnant of aging carpet padding. Being the chubby, couch-potato, junk food junkie I was, inspiration came quickly. French Fries! I embarked upon a journey that led to cries of frustration, cuts, scrapes, tears, late night trips to the store, and several adjustments to my ultimate plan. I fashioned the frame from 1"x1" strips of wood, the exterior of cardboard covered in tacky print contact paper, and wrote "French Fries" in permanent marker on the front to dissuade the inevitable question (no mater how obvious the costume), "And what are YOU suppose to be?" In the end, I had made a replica of a typical fast-food fry box with strips of carpet padding for fries.
I was elated, despite how hokey the costume was, at the compliments I got for ingenuity and creativity. I won 2nd prize at the church costume contest, being beaten by a parent assisted (or more likely store-bought) pizza slice costume worn by the girl I had a major crush on. Romantically emasculated and creatively crushed, I walked the 2 miles home with my "major award", determined not to be outdone again.
In 8th grade I undertook a similar project with a Heinz Ketchup bottle costume. Using my standard materials of small strips of wood, cardboard, duct tape, and paint, I made an impressive costume. There were problems, however. I could only take tiny steps as the wood frame went past my knees. It also weighed in excess of 30 lbs and measured an unyielding 5'x3', making it incredibly difficult to transport. This awkward transport of the costume led to me being late for school and the judging for the contest. I was disappointed, but reveled in the continued compliments, and took solace in the fact that I had 2 pics of it in the yearbook. Trick-or-treating was a mess, however. Given my constricted strides, I averaged about 2 blocks ever 30 minutes. I finally gave up and took of the costume, plopping the bottle cap on my head and loot-filled pillowcase over my shoulder. Trudging for the last hour in my red flannel shirt, red-painted face and odd-looking cap, I was mistaken for a sailor on leave and only occasionally took the time to explain my true costume. After all, I had a lot of ground to make up!
From there, I went more mainstream. I went as Freddy Krueger a time or 2, using my near trademark fedora, a cheap sweater from Kmart, and spending most of my time fashioning a jointed, working slasher glove from paper rivets, a worn-out band uniform glove, cardboard and tin foil. It looked great!
Since then, I have only occasionally gotten costume pieces from a store. When I worked at Gags 'N Gifts for a brief period, I grabbed a few things with my generous store discount after the Halloween rush: an ill-fitting peasant shirt, cheap moccasin style boots, theater-quality custom fit fangs, a 2-piece, glue-on, paint-it-yourself skull mask, and a helmet-like cap suitable for a wizard. I still have and use those on occasion for quickly thrown-together costumes. I also made a fantastic black crushed-velvet cloak from a store-bought pattern, all tolled, costing me about $25. I finished it at 12:30am on November 1st '97. Determined not to let it go to waste that year, I headed to my fraternity's Halloween party, letting the sorority girls admire it and making sure to let them know how domestic I was by saying I made it myself. That cloak has gotten a LOT of use as a wizard (with the helmet and staff fashioned our of a tree limb and quartz crystals), Grim Reaper (with the skull mask), Vampire (with the fangs), and I drag it out for the Renaissance festival (with the peasant shirt), marveling at how much heavier and better it is than the $200+ cloaks offered there.
With my kids taking a priority now, I have often resorted to those standard costumes. I have also, however, learned to use my (currently decreasing) girth to my advantage, pairing up with my friend Leigh as Mimi Bobeck to go as Drew Carey (using only a suit and black glasses frames) and Silent Bob (using only my trench coat, standard clothing, dark makeup for my beard and long hair brunette wig).
As you can guess by my profile pic, the original idea for the Greatest American Hero costume was finally, after 20+ years, resurrected. Last year, after hearing about the release of the series on DVD and with the help of the previously non-existent internet, I was able to get some good pics of the costume. With the added assets of my own means of transportation, materials acquisition (i.e. budget), inkjet iron-on t-shirt transfers, a decent sewing machine (thanks Val!), and a bit more experience, I was able to fashion a very convincing (if increasingly obscure) costume I had waited almost a quarter century to make!
Now, unfortunately, I have discovered that the costume is available online for about $40. It's nowhere near as nice as mine and certainly not as ingenious, but somehow detracts a bit from the novelty of my costume, being available to the general public. Plus, the new deluxe edition of the series comes with a replica cape and iron-on transfer. Oh well, I DID IT FIRST! I'll likely break down and buy the new set sometime, however, as it comes with (get this) a full, working replica of the instruction book, complete with working lights!
I've re-made the costume almost entirely this year, giving it a bit of a better fit, a few more minor details, and replacing the over-worn shirt I continued to use after last Halloween.
Red Long-sleeve t-shirt - $5
pack of iron-on Inkjet transfers - $10
roll of duct tape (trim) - $.99
Red workout pants - $10 (clearance)
black satin fabric & red ribbon - $8
2" strip of gray pleather (belt) - $.89
Jelly Jar Lid (buckle) - $0
fulfilling a lifelong Halloween dream - priceless