Thrift Store Costume Challenge

thrift-store-costume-challengeThe challenge? To costume as many literary characters as you can in 180 minutes. The catch? You can only use what you find on the racks of Nearly New consignment and thrift shop in Princeton.

nearly-new-clothing-rackFor those of you unfamiliar with Nearly New, it’s an independently-owned consignment and thrift store with tons of fantastic stuff. Toni Maher, the owner, is always helpful when I drop by looking for costume items for work (or, heh heh, just shopping).

nearly-newToni’s also extremely accommodating when it comes to more unusual requests, such as  borrowing a mannequin for this Cinderella dress design event, or hunting for teacups and saucers for this Victorian Tea program. She didn’t even bat an eye when I asked her if she’d be up for hosting the costume challenge.

The other major player was Princeton University sophomore James Jared. Last year, James designed and sewed the Mathamagician’s robes for our Day in Digitopolis program (seen here on our Instagram, and in more detail in this post). He also works in the costume shop at the Lewis Center for the Arts. James is incredibly talented, and was totally game for the challenge. There’s an interview with him at the end of the post!

The big day dawned and Marissa and I headed to Nearly New with photo equipment and a long list of possible characters (we went with female characters because, as James so astutely pointed out, the women’s sections of thrift stores are much bigger than the men’s sections). James and 4 Princeton University students who agreed to model met us at Nearly New. Then it was full steam ahead. In 180 minutes, James costumed 9 characters. Are you ready to see his results?


#1 NANCY DREW

nancy-drew-costume


#2 VERUCA SALT

veruca-salt-costume


#3 THE GRAND HIGH WITCH

the-grand-high-witch-costume


#4 MS. FRIZZLE

the-frizz


#5 PROFESSOR TRELAWNEY

professor-trelawney-costume


#6 MRS. COULTER

mrs-coulter-costume


#7 DOLORES UMBRIDGE

dolores-umbridge-costume


#8 MISS TRUNCHBULL

miss-trunchbull


#9 THE WHITE WITCH

the-white-witch


James’ costumes look fantastic, but they’re even more fun when you learn some of the behind-the-scenes facts. Nancy Drew, for example, is wearing a belt in her hair because we couldn’t find a headband. Miss Trunchbull is wearing men’s shoes, men’s socks, and little kid’s jacket to make her look bigger and bulkier. Dolores Umbridge’s sweater was overwhelming her dress, but James expertly pinned it to a better length. Professor Trelwaney is holding a fishbowl. And the White Witch’s crystal daggers? Those are salad forks that she’s holding handle-side-out.

The other thing I didn’t really appreciate until we got there was the volume of items and how fast James had to sift through them. To find the perfect belt, James had to dig through dozens and dozens of belts while simultaneously looking for earrings, dresses, and boots. He did this while expertly delegating the models to bring him possible shirts, skirts, sweaters, and hats. Also, James could find an awesome dress, but if it didn’t fit the model, or match the personality of the character, it was out. Finally, I learned that it’s not easy to make pieces from different decades work together without just the right vision.


JAMES JARED

james-jaredWhat’s your costuming background?

I’ve always loved making Halloween costumes, but I officially taught myself how to sew in high school when I started to cosplay (make costumes based on characters from movies, tv shows, books, etc).

What was the costume challenge like for you?

I was very nervous going into the challenge because I’ve never done anything of the like before, and I was worried that the time constraint would prove difficult to work under. In the end, though, I had a fantastic time and I’m very proud of the costumes that we were all able to make together.

Did you have an overwhelming favorite?
I think my favorite costume had to be Trelawney from Harry Potter. There were so many scarves and shirts that fit the character in the thrift store that her outfit almost seemed to show up without having to look for it. It almost became less of a question of which scarf would be best and more how many scarves we could get away with throwing on her.

Which was the toughest character to costume?
The hardest character to costume was the White Witch from The Chronicles of Narnia. Her character description includes a crown, which the shop didn’t have, so it took a while for us to come up with a way to mimic the crown. Eventually we found a circlet that suggested royalty, as well as some spiky earrings that were reminiscent of icicles to use as a necklace.

If you had more time, which character were you hoping to do?
I would have loved to costume someone as Kate Wetherall, as the Mysterious Benedict Society was one of my favorite books growing up. Unfortunately, her costume is fairly specific and there isn’t much room for leeway.

What’s your major at Princeton University?
I’m just starting out in the Electrical Engineering department.

Do you see any connections between your major and costuming?
Interestingly, I once told an employee in a fabric store I frequent at home about my major, and she said that she often thought of sewing as a type of engineering. Though I’d never have put the two together on my own, as soon as she said that I knew she was right, and I think it applies to costuming as well.

In both costuming and engineering you have to pull materials together using techniques you’ve learned to create a final product that’s more than the sum of its parts. I think I enjoy sewing and costuming so much for the same reason I like engineering, which is that it’s a great feeling to have created something new out of basic materials. And that’s something I think anyone can do.


A big, enthusiastic “Huzzah!” to James Jared, costumer extraordinaire, who aced the costume challenge with style and flair. Warm waves of gratitude to the Nearly New for letting us overrun your store and create chaos in your racks.

And finally, many thanks to models Amanda Blanco, Ailyn Brizo, Joani Etskovitz, Grace Turner, and Marissa Warren. It wasn’t easy to keep a straight face through it all, much less glower, growl, look haughty, or stare intensely into the camera wearing shoes that were at least one size too small for you.

outtake

Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

hello-darknessAfraid of the dark? Nah! With this fantastic, illuminating friend, you can discover how much fun the dark really is! And if you’re still not convinced, join us for a glowing balloon bounce bonanza!

We read Orion and The Dark by Emma Yarlett (Templar Books, 2015). Orion is scared of everything, but he’s especially scared of the dark. Imagine his surprise when one night, the dark comes alive and drop right into his room! It turns out the Dark is actually a fun and playful friend. Together, they explore Orion’s house and town and he learns that the things he was afraid of…aren’t that scary. They’re actually kind of cool! In the grand finale, Orion and the Dark endeavor to conquer Orion’s final fear – outer space. Far from scary, outer space is simply magical. The friends return to Orion’s house just as dawn breaks. The Dark must go, but he promises to never be far away. In fact, he’ll be back every night for a visit!

You’ll need:

  • 1 large oatmeal container
  • 2 toilet paper tubes
  • Some tagboard or strong cardboard
  • Blue construction paper
  • A selection of foil star stickers
  • A pair of wiggle eyes
  • A small piece of white pipe cleaner
  • Glow-in-the-dark paint or glue
  • 1 paintbrush
  • Scissors and tape for construction
  • Hot glue

project-viewed-in-light

Begin by wrapping a large oatmeal container and 2 toilet paper tubes with blue construction paper. Set them aside for a moment. Cut a pair of oval feet (our were approximately 2.25″ x 3.75″), then cover the tops of the ovals with blue construction paper. Hot glue the feet to the bottoms of the toilet paper tube legs, toggle the legs a bit to get the balance just right, then hot glue them to the bottom of the oatmeal container.

Finish by adding a circle of blue construction paper to the top of the oatmeal container, construction paper arms on the sides, and foil star stickers everywhere.

Now to add the glow! We had a bottle of this non-toxic glow pigment in the cabinet, so we went with glow glue. I’m sure you’d also get great results with glow-in-the-dark paint as well (it’s sold at Michael’s Craft Store for $3 – $5 a bottle). We covered our work tables with paper, gave each kid a little cup of glue and a paintbrush, and let them create a night sky on their projects.

painting-the-projectThe neat thing about the glow glue is that it dried semi-clear, so there’s a bit of a dramatic reveal when it illuminates:

project-viewed-in-light-and-darkNotice how the eyes and mouth of the project are glowing too? Those are glow-in-the-dark wiggle eyes (available through Oriental Trading Company – a pack of 100 is $3) and a snippet of white pipe cleaner painted with glow glue. We were dubious at first, but the glue stuck to the pipe cleaner very nicely and dried quickly. It also stuck to Katie’s hands, giving her awesome alien fingers.

glow-fingersWhile the kids’ projects were drying on the tables, we decided to capture the spirit of the book by having lots of fun in the dark. We blew up a bunch of LED balloons (which you first encountered in this post), turned out the lights, blasted some Enya, and had a big, glowing balloon bounce party.

glow-balloon-partyWe also had a little black light closet set up, so kids could get a preview of what their creations would look like later than night.

inside-glow-room

one-glow-designtwo-glow-designSome of the balloon revelers ended up in the black light closet too. Because why not?

balloon-in-black-light-room

Let’s Do The Numbers

lets-do-the-numbersWelcome to the number mines of Digitopolis, the famous kingdom from The Phantom Tollbooth! This fall, we hosted a table at Princeton University’s annual Community & Staff Day event. Big crowds meant that we needed something simple, but we wanted to be creative too. Since we had successfully offered the number mines at a massive math event last spring (you can read about it here and here), we decided to bring them back for more numerical fun.

Alas, the original number mine (which was artfully constructed by the Arts Council of Princeton) wasn’t salvaged after the math event. This meant that Katie and I had to build our number mine from scratch. The first part of this post describes how we ran the event table. The second part describes how we build the mine.

At the event, kids would reach into the number mine and pull out a plain wooden number. I bought the numbers online from Woodcrafter, where they range in size, thickness, price, and font. I got the 4″ numbers that were 1/8th of an inch thick. Each number cost 56¢.

wooden-numbersWe found that 4″ was a great size for decorating, but if 56¢ per piece is outside your budget, you can go smaller. A 1″ number of the same thickness, for example, costs 23¢. Or, if you want to go even cheaper, skip the wood and print your numbers on white card stock. We loaded the numbers into the mine, and the kids “dug” them out with their hands.

reaching-in-1Once kids found a number they liked (7 and 8 were very popular), they went over to the number decorating area, which was stocked with metallic makers, glitter markers, small gemstones, and glue. We had a relevant quote from the book on display too. Kids really got into decorating. One little girl spent 25 minutes working on her number!

decorating-the-numbersNote! If you use squeeze glue (as opposed to hot glue) make sure to have paper towels or small paper plates handy so families can safely transport their numbers home. Hand wipes are also a good idea for sticky fingers and tabletops. Katie and I dressed for the occasion in miner’s helmets and safety vests.

dr-dana-and-katie-number-minesSo, that’s our event table…now for constructing the mine! You certainly don’t have to get as elaborate as we did. You can create a mine by covering a box with grey paper. Cut a hole in the box’s lid, throw some numbers in there, and have kids reach into the box! Or you could skip the mine altogether and just do the number decorating part of the project. But if you do want to build a mine, here’s how we did it.


STEP 1

Find a big, flat box that isn’t too deep. You don’t want kids to have to reach too far down for the numbers – especially the little ones. We used a 34″ x 54″ inch box lid, and then attached 6 photo storage boxes to the bottom using hot glue and packing tape. This resulted in a mine that was 5″ deep. Here’s a shot of the underside.

number-mine-step-1Since the box lid didn’t reach all the way to the bottom of the photo storage boxes, we closed the gap by attaching big strips of corrugated cardboard to 3 sides of the mine. We left it the mine open in the back so we could restock numbers during the event.


STEP 2

Cut holes in the top of the box. We found it helpful to draw the holes before we started cutting. That way, we could be sure we weren’t cutting into any of the support boxes and we knew that the numbers would fit through the holes.

number-mine-step-2


STEP 3

Create the rocky, craggy landscape of your mine. We bunched up big pieces of black bulletin board paper and attached them to the box with masking tape (you might recognize that texture from this Instagram pic).

number-mine-step-3


STEP 4

Now for the really, really messy part. Papier-mâché. We don’t have a sink in our work space, and the nearest bathroom is far, far away. So we wanted to create the smallest mess possible. In other words, we didn’t want to cook, mix, or blend any sort of papier-mâché paste (or dilute any glue). After a little research, we settled on liquid starch.

Below are our tools – 2 enormous jugs of liquid starch, 2 plastic roller trays, and 4 paint brushes (the bristle brushes worked better than the foam ones). Oh, and we also put a plastic tarp under the mine so we wouldn’t ruin the table.

number-mine-toolsSince we had a lot of area to cover, we used big, 6″ x 16.5″ pieces of newspaper. Occasionally, we use a smaller strip for edges or crevices, but mostly we stuck with the big ones.

number-mine-step-4_1The liquid starch held up well! It did coat our hands with sticky residue that required multiple rounds of soap and scrubbing to remove, but it wasn’t too bad. Honestly, the worst thing about the liquid starch was the fact that it was scented. “Mountain Fresh” scent to be exact. Hoo boy. You could smell the mountains the minute you took the cap off. After a couple minutes, the fragrance was looming in the room like a big, ominous fog. Katie put together a little graphic to convey the overpowering Mountain Freshness.

mountain-fresh-freakoutWe left the first layer to dry overnight. For the second layer, we got a little experimental. While researching liquid starch, we learned that some people absolutely rave about using white paper towels and computer printer paper for papier-mâché projects, especially if the projects are going to be painted later. So we decided to give it a try. We papier-mâchéd the bottom of the mine with paper towels, and the top portion with computer printer paper.

number-mine-step-4_2Wow, did the paper towels suck up the liquid starch! The printer paper needed much less. But the printer paper was so stiff, it created unwanted gaps like this one:

stiff-gap-problemThe solution was to drape a liquid starch-soaked paper towel over it. Below is that same gap with the paper towel over it. As you can see, the soft paper towel completely obscures the gap. I didn’t officially test this, but I believe newspaper would obscure gaps as well, perhaps even better than the paper towels.

stiff-gap-problem-solvedI was a little worried the paper towels were too transparent. But overnight, they magically dried to solid white.

number-mine-step-4_3In the above photo, you can see there were still wet patches in crevices where the liquid starch had pooled. Katie hit those with a hair dryer, no problem. And we should add that, even now, things were still smelling quite Mountain Fresh.


STEP 5

Time to paint! We used this awesome textured-stone effects spray paint by Valspar. It’s fun, but pricey ($10 a can at Lowe’s). Our mine required 3 cans.

stone-spray-paintA cheaper option would be to use gray paint to cover the mine, then dab on darker gray  with a piece of sponge. This will get you a textured surface, without the hefty spray paint price. Once the spray paint had dried (which, we might add, finally dissipated the Mountain Fresh fragrance), we decorated some numbers and attached them to the mines with hot glue. We hot glued some large plastic gems on as well – purchased from the wedding favor aisle at Michaels Craft Store.

number-mine-step-5And this, dear readers, is when we discovered the fatal flaws in regards to paper towels:

  1. When dry and spray painted, paper towels become incredibly brittle. I poked a hole right thorough one section while merely tapping on it (we eventually covered the hole with the number 8).
  2. The texture of the paper towel absolutely comes through in the end. So if your paper towels have little hearts embossed on them, you’re going to see little hearts under the paint.
  3. The edges of the paper towels are clearly defined. Unlike the newspaper and the printer paper, you can definitely see the edges of the paper towel under the paint. So our rocky surface looked like, well, draped paper towels. You could even see the dotted perforations that separate the paper towels.

paper-towels-not-goodThe printer paper, on the other hand, was much sturdier and the edges were hidden under the paint. The lesson? DON’T use paper towels for papier-mâché projects. Use newspaper and printer paper instead. In fact, I highly recommend printer paper for the second layer of painted papier-mâché projects. Very sturdy, holds paint very well.

However, paper towels are what we used and their brittle weakness made me and Katie very, very nervous. We were positive that kids were going to put their hands right through the mine as they leaned in to select numbers.

reaching-in-2Anticipating trouble, we brought duct tape and a couple of step stools to the event. The stools elevated the kids right up to table level, allowing them to keep their weight mostly on the stools and not on their hands. So the paper towels held, but there were a couple time you could see them bending. Katie and I would brace ourselves for a tearing, crunching, breaking sound. Thankfully, it never happened. Whew!