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The List: Smithsonian-Inspired Halloween Costumes

For all you last-minute costume shoppers, here's this year's list of Smithsonian DIY ideas

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What if we could make masks to look like these models in the Natural History Museum's Hall of Human Origins? Artist: John Gurche. Photo by Chip Clark, NMNH.

In past years, our ATM team of bloggers has collectively pored over the Smithsonian’s collections to bring you museum-inspired costume ideas. Last year was a banner year for us, as we ginned up ideas for dressing as Carol Burnett in her curtain rod dress, from when she spoofed Gone With the Wind on her comedy show, and Abel the Monkey, who paved the way for human space flight. For a group costume, we went conceptual, suggesting you and six friends each wear a white t-shirt inscribed with one of the seven words in artist Lawrence Weiner’s “A RUBBER BALL THROWN ON THE SEA,” on display at the Hirshhorn.

This year, however, I decided to turn to the Institution’s resident experts—curators at the museums—for their insider’s insight. Here is what they suggest:

1. Man Ray’s Nut Girls

Melissa Ho, assistant curator at the Hirshhorn Museum, has had collage on the brain, as she has been busily working on an upcoming show of collage and assemblage works called “Over, Under, Next.” She suggests cobbling together a costume inspired by Man Ray’s 1941 photograph and mixed media collage, Nut Girls. In it, the American artist puts a walnut, in place of a head, on a cutout of one woman, and on another figure, the walnut covers the woman’s head and torso. “Carve a big walnut out of Styrofoam and slip on a romper,” says Ho.

Another idea for a costume party, she says, is to dress as Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely’s The Sorceress (1961). “This is one of his motorized kinetic sculptures,” says Ho. “When turned on, it shakes and vibrates until its bits and pieces start to fall off—so perfect outfit for dancing!”

2. Dracula

According to Thomas Lera, the Winton M. Blout Chair in Research at the National Postal Museum, Dracula is the Halloween character that postal administrations around the world have depicted the most on stamps. In 1997, the U.S. Postal Service issued a “Classic Movie Monsters” stamp set, featuring five villains from Universal Studio films. Dracula was one. “As a special security feature, a process called ‘scrambled indicia’ was used, which overlaps symbols and images that are not seen by the naked eye when printed,” says Lera. “The Dracula stamp has three vampire bats in the blue background, which can only be seen by a precision optical device using elongated lenses called lenticules.” Lera suggests modeling a Dracula costume after this or the many other portrayals—a Canadian stamp honoring the 100th anniversary of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula in 1997, a Samoan stamp from 2000 featuring the Sesame Street’s Count von Count and a British stamp from 2008 with actor Christopher Lee as Dracula commemorating the 50th anniversary of Hammer Horror Films.

3. Dr. John Jeffries

Seeking input from Smithsonian curators certainly brought some little-known characters to light. When I asked Tom Crouch, senior curator of aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum, who or what he might be inspired to dress up as for Halloween, he was quick to answer Dr. John Jeffries. Who, you might ask? Jeffries is not exactly a household name, but his story may be an interesting one to tell at a party. On January 7, 1785, Jeffries flew the English Channel in a balloon with Pierre Blanchard, making him the first American to make a free flight. “He wore a great costume, which included a leopard skin hat to keep his head warm, a cork jacket to keep him afloat in case of a channel landing and a Jerry Seinfeld style ‘puffy shirt,’ complete with frilled cuffs, so that, I suppose, he would look good in the post-flight interviews,” says Crouch. NASM has the large barometer and thermometer that Jeffries carried with him in its collection. As it would have it, some pieces of the outfit are at Harvard’s Houghton Library, where his papers are kept. “Fortunately, some years ago my friend and Smithsonian curator of costume, Claudia Kidwell, studied the Jeffries garments and prepared patterns for them, so sewing up my costume would not be all that difficult,” says Crouch. Over three decades, Crouch has researched the life of Jeffries. “I could step right into the good doctor’s shoes and answer any questions that might arise,” he says.

4. Empress Dowager Cixi

Although he does not think he would make a convincing Empress Dowager, David Hogge, head of the archives at the Freer and Sackler galleries, offers it up as a suggestion to others. Empress Cixi reigned as sovereign of China for 45 years in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Nineteen portraits of her are currently on display in the exhibition “Power | Play: China’s Empress Dowager,” which Hogge curated, at the Arther M. Sackler Gallery, if you are in need of some inspiration. Empress Cixi wore her fingernails about an inch long, and on her third and pinky fingers, notes Hogge, she wore elaborate jeweled, gold filigreed fingernail protectors. “Those seem to give people the creeps,” says Hogge.

5. An Early Human

Rick Potts, curator of anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History, is a self-described Halloween fanatic. “What could be better than to skulk around the neighborhood or delight party-goers on Halloween night by dressing up as a realistic early human?” he says. “I wish I could turn some of the amazing visages in our Hall of Human Origins into masks.”

6. Annie Oakley

In 2007, the National Portrait Gallery purchased a photograph at an auction of sharpshooter Annie Oakley taken in 1885. “She was a cowgirl, known as “little sure shot” for her extraordinary ability to hit a moving target, most famously a small coin, even on horseback, all while maintaining ‘lady-like’ composure and elegance,” says Anne Collins Goodyear, associate curator of prints and drawings at the museum. “Wonderful inspiration for the imagination!” In the photograph, Oakley holds a rifle and is wearing a hat, blouse and fringed skirt with embroidered flowers.

7. Bob Dylan

Gail Davidson, head of the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum’s department of drawings, prints and graphic design, considers Milton Glaser’s famous 1966 poster of singer Bob Dylan great costume fodder. Glaser, an artist and graphic designer, created the poster early in his career, to be included in the packaging of Dylan’s “Greatest Hits” LP. In terms of the poster’s composition, Glaser was influenced by a 1957 self-portrait by Marcel Duchamp. But, he gave it a psychedelic feel by adding bold colors to Dylan’s tousled hair. “I would dress up by dying my hair in wavelets of the different colors in the poster,” says Davidson.

8. A Zoo Animal…Take Your Pick

Cute baby animals born at the National Zoo are our bread and butter here at the ATM blog. But Craig Saffoe, the Zoo’s curator of Great Cats and Andean Bears, reminds us, “What’s cuter than an infant dressed as a full-maned lion?” Animals make fine costumes for adults too. Dressing as an endangered species gives one the opportunity to have an awesome costume and educate friends, notes Saffoe. There is also great potential for themed family costumes. “A mother and her infant could dress as a kangaroo and her joey, a banana and a monkey or a eucalyptus tree and a koala bear. A family could dress as a pride of lions, a gaggle of geese or a flock of flamingos. Whatever animal costume you choose, don’t forget you’ll need a zookeeper!” says the curator, whose son attended this year’s Boo at the Zoo event at the National Zoo in a zookeeper uniform.

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