What are you gonna be?
Now that question's harmless.
It's the follow-ups that get a bit scary: Where are you gonna buy that costume? How are you gonna pay for it? And when will you find the time to put it together?
Accept your home as a costume shop waiting to happen, and the answers may be easier than you think. Commit yourself to plundering it for all the buried possibilities it holds, and you may find a new Halloween look is as close as your own closet ... and has been for years.
To prove this, we turned to Tita Rutledge, owner of Rutledge Costume Co. Inc. in Baltimore, and her assistant Fred Collins, a performance artist and art teacher in Washington. Their mission: outfit Bonnie Legro, 44, her husband, John Timson, 45, daughter, Jessalyn, 12, and son, Trevor, 9, with basics that any family might already have around the house.
The results were frighteningly good. In less than two hours, the pros transformed this Bolton Hill clan into a foursome that could bring a costume party to its knees.
When Rutledge met with the family on a recent weeknight, one decision had already been made. Jessalyn, who attends Roland Park Public School, will be A. J. the Backstreet Boy. She made it easy for Rutledge, having already plucked a T-shirt, workout pants and a pair of slick shades from her room.
Rutledge surveys the rest of the family and makes her costume choices quickly. Dad's going to be a gangster (a little bit of a disappointment for the family, who wanted to see him as Austin Powers) and Bonnie will be his flapperesque moll. As for Trevor, a robot ... definitely.
Where to begin? Rutledge sends John upstairs to retrieve a pinstriped suit and dark shirt. Bonnie's task: Grab some retro dresses.
As for Trevor, a student at Grace and St. Peter's School, a simple cardboard box with silver spray paint will do for his spacesuit.
John, a director of the Jacobs Chuck Co., a tool corporation in Lancaster, Pa., finds an appropriate suit and dark turquoise shirt in no time.
Bonnie flies downstairs, arms weighed down with '70s-ish gowns. That flouncy pink number would be good for a Grecian goddess, Rutledge says, but not a gangster gal. That simple black shift is a perfect opportunity to play up accessories.
Rutledge accompanies Bonnie upstairs where they ravage drawers and Jessalyn's jewelry box, lifting out clusters of beads, gaudy clip-on earrings, brooches.
"We're going to have gold and silver together. Do we care?" asks Bonnie, a program officer for a Baltimore nonprofit organization.
Rutledge shakes her head. "She's tasteless. She's a moll," she replies.
Rutledge ties a striped scarf around Bonnie's head for a potential headpiece. "You look too '60s," she decides, removing the scarf. Got fishnets? Rutledge asks. As a matter of fact, Bonnie does. Bright red ones, left over from a long-forgotten costume.
Bring down everything, Rutledge encourages. You never know what might work. Who knew iridescent pantyhose clipped with a silver brooch would make the perfect headpiece for a flapper?
Downstairs, Trevor's robot box is ready for some kick.
Coils? Pipes? Trevor and John charge downstairs to the basement, where they find a dryer vent duct and elbow extension that Fred affixes to the front of the box.
Trevor scavenges through the kitchen every few minutes to get tinfoil and duct tape from the kitchen cabinets and plastic bottles out of the refrigerator. He empties Fresca and water bottles, cutting the mouths off the bottles for robot accessories.
At the kitchen table, the blossoming Backstreet Boy sits, sleeves rolled up, as Rutledge draws tattoos, sideburns and facial hair with Bonnie's eye pencils.
"She's looking badder by the minute," John says.
Bonnie gets into the act, thickening her husband's thug mustache with more makeup pencils.
"Think John Waters," Rutledge says.
John hesitates. "Not like Fu Man Chu. Don't get carried away. Don't make me look like Inspector Clouseau either."
Rutledge gives Bonnie a moll mole. Bonnie is rapidly becoming the picture of flapper chic, But something's missing. Gloves. Long black gloves. Soccer socks come to mind, and in minutes, she's got Trevor's pulled up to her elbows.
The moll is magnificent, but her gangster is still being finished. Rutledge spies a thick pen, and instructs John to wrap some brown paper around it for a politically correct stogie. The homemade trend continues with a paper lapel carnation.
Any musicians in the family? Rutledge wonders. More important, any instrument cases for the gangster? Soon, John has his old trumpet case hanging by his side.
"That would be my machine gun," he jokes.
And, of course, he has to flaunt his cash. "Trevor, do you have any fake money?" he asks. Monopoly bills soon materialize.
As for their space-age son? Trevor is a bit wobbly, but the found objects have made him one funky robot.
The nuclear Halloween family: a gangster, his moll, a robot and a Backstreet Boy.
If you've got it in you, you've probably got it in your house.
What Halloween helpers are hidden in your home? Tita Rutledge, of Rutledge Costume Co. Inc., can tell you:
1. Old bridesmaid dresses: Start here for a stunning Southern belle or other period gal.
2. Leotards: The perfect base for anything from a superhero to a unicorn.
3. Jeans and capris: The bottom line for a '50s inspired look.
4. Mop: An instant Raggedy Ann wig, ponytail. Or dye it bright for a clown coiffure.
5. Gray sweats: Understated undergarments for an astronaut, robot, etc.
And it never hurts to have:
1. Foam: Great for details like cuffs and collars.
2. Hologram wrapping paper: For sparkling wings or just to add a little shine.
3. Kids' makeup kit: Complement the costume with a fabulous face.
4. Character hats: A top hat, derby or fedora tops off the perfect period gentleman.
5. Feather boa: Wrap up a glam costume, from a flapper to a film star.