Everyone sees the pictures online — a francaise dinner, a steampunk picnic, Costume College, a cosplay meetup, the Fête Galante, Venetian Carnevale. The idea is the same, it’s a bunch of friends in fabulous costumes having loads of fun! How can you get yourself some of that??? Sure, you can try to wrangle an invite to a private event, or you can buy a ticket to a public one.
But sometimes, you just have to run your own damn thing. Maybe you can’t travel to CoCo or Europe. Maybe you have a posse of friends nearby who are hankering for something cool to do in costume. Maybe you have a vision of an amazing event that only you can create. All you need is a little help on the logistics, so that’s why I’m here to help.
For the past 30 years, I’ve run events for the Greater Bay Area Costumer’s Guild, I’ve worked on sci-fi/fantasy conventions, I’ve autocratted events for the local Society for Creative Anachronism chapter, I’ve planned big-ass Halloween and private costume gatherings, and I’ve coordinated costumed house parties in the U.K. and France. So I know what I’m talking about, and I think you can do it too! Let’s dive in.
Costs of Planning a Costume Event
The first thing we have to talk about is money. Let’s face it, costuming is not a cheap hobby. There are ways to make it less expensive (we can’t all buy real silk and go to Versailles every year! heck no), but this is a privileged activity that requires a certain amount of investment in tools and materials simply to get started.
Creating spaces to wear our costumes will add to the cost, absolutely. Why make an amazing costume and just leave it hanging in the closet? The point of creating a costume is to wear it, and wearing it is ostensibly more fun with like-minded folks.
Costumed events don’t have to be insanely expensive, but there will be a price associated with them. The best way to account for this is by planning ahead and saving. Few things that are truly fabulous happen easily overnight. You’ll also want to set reasonable expectations for yourself and your guests.
Maybe you all can’t afford a sit-down catered feast with wait staff for 50 guests in a candlelit historical hall as your first event. But perhaps you can plan for something like that in a year, and have a potluck backyard picnic right now. Any excuse to dress up in costume is worth doing!
Guest List for Your Costumed Event
First, you have to find your posse. Who’s in? Who do you know that wants to swan about in costume with you? The number of folks invited will help determine the size of event, so nail this down first.
Also, can any of these people help you plan the event? Do you have a co-organizer? Someone who can make food or drink? Make or source decorations or run activities such as games or music? Does someone you know have a big house or backyard to host the event in? Think through your friend group for what resources are available. Many hands make light work.
Deciding the guest list also impacts your costs. Unless you have a completely free venue and each guest brings their own food and entertainment, you will have some expenses. If you’re feeling generous, you could pay for this yourself. But the bigger the event, the more likely it is you’ll want to split the cost across everyone attending.
So, always figure out the minimum number of people you’ll need to attend to break even with your costs! This is crucial for running an event. Your total costs will include the venue, food and drink, decorations (including tableware), and activities (including entertainment).
Decide if you’ll ask for reimbursements by just splitting the costs or if you’ll sell tickets. Reimbursements tend to work well with small groups of friends. Selling tickets is often appropriate for larger groups, but unless you’re running something that’s truly open to the public, be aware of when and where you distribute the advance information. Some venues dislike ticket sales by people who’re renting out their spaces, so keep it low-key.
Type of Costumes for Your Event
The theme for your event is essentially determined by the costumes you want to wear. For your first event, I’d suggest going with a broad theme or time period — such as generally “18th century” or “renaissance and medieval” instead of “1770s” or “1550s.” That makes it easier and more welcoming for people to get costumes together when they may not be as familiar with this group or your events.
As you run more events, you may want to get more specific and narrow down the type of costume. You’ll get to know your group and how the events go, and it’ll be easier to gauge people’s comfort level. Depending on your invitees, you could get creative and do mashups like Victorian superheroes or 1920s Halloween.
Date & Time of Your Costumed Event
When to hold your event will be dependent on your guests and your venue’s availability. Canvas your guests as early as possible to find out what dates work for them, keeping in mind that no one date will be perfect for everyone. Daytime and evening events each have their own appeal and may offer different costume costume possibilities too.
Always give your guests enough time in advance! Costumed events require RSVPs so you can plan and so attendees can figure out their costumes (as well as travel, if necessary). One month in advance should be the minimum for a casual picnic event, but three months is necessary for a dinner or anything more formal.
Venue for Your Costumed Event
This is the biggie! Finding places to hold costume events is something I am forever doing because there are so many variables that go into getting an appropriate venue. And I’m super picky, LOL. But you don’t have to be, especially at first! There’s a whole range of venues to consider for all kinds of costumed events. Here are the aspects I look for:
- Cost: Personal homes and parks may be free, while restaurants and hotels charge for room rental, food, service, tax, gratuity, and more. Depending on the cost of living in your area, it can run anywhere from $20 to $200+ per person to rent a venue that includes food service.
- Size: Personal homes are often small, restaurants and hotels might be larger, parks and outdoor sites may accommodate big groups.
- Ambiance: For historical events, we strive for non-modern settings. The neutral background of a green park can work well for historical events, while finding indoor historical ambiance (whether a home, restaurant, or hotel) can be challenging.
Now for my specific advice, sorted by general price of venue…
Free (ish) Venues
Parks can be great for picnics, but make sure to check local regulations because groups over a certain size may be required to pay a reservation fee. Some parks may restrict alcohol, setting up tables and chairs, or amplified music. These details can often be found online. Cemeteries can be lovely for picnics and photo sessions, but be respectful and check out any regulations first.
The biggest problem with parks is that they are not always private, so you may have the general public asking questions about your group and your costumes. While they’re usually harmless, they can interfere with you enjoying your event. Make sure to scope out the possible event location at day of the week and time of day you want to hold your event, plus check out any civic calendars for local conflicting events. It would be unfortunate to discover that every third Saturday afternoon the park you want to use hosts a soccer tournament!
People’s homes and backyards are obviously good choices as free venues, if large enough for a group. Do plan for parking in the neighborhood, and noise if the event is outside. For indoor events, do make considerations for household pets and guests with allergies.
Venues for Rent
Restaurants, hotels, B&Bs, wineries, church halls, school/university halls, community centers, historic houses, wineries, and country clubs are just some of the venues you might consider for your costumed event. Any place that can be rented is fair game!
Look for places that rent out for private parties and weddings. In fact, I often search through online lists of wedding reception venues and rehearsal dinner sites for inspiration, then weed out anything that looks too modern.
Visit the venue and tour all parts of the space you intend to use, including restrooms and parking. Is there a changing area for people who are traveling a distance and need to put on their costumes at the site? Is there room for whatever entertainment you want at your event? If you want music, is amplified sound allowed and is there a curfew? Think about how people will move around in large costumes, such as hoop skirts or panniers. Consider how the place will look at different times of day or night.
Are you renting a place that does or does not serve food and drink? Renting only a room or hall is less expensive, but then you will have to arrange for food and drink yourself, while working within the venue’s regulations (such as alcohol might have to be served by a licensed bartender). Ask questions and read contracts carefully so you can plan ahead for additional costs.
Venues that serve food and drink may often require that you only use what they provide, so you can’t bring your own cake or bottles of wine without paying a fee.
When you rent a venue, you’ll have to sign a contract and pay a deposit to secure the event date. Then closer to the event, such as a month or two weeks in advance, you’ll pay the balance of the cost. As the organizer, be prepared to front the money for this, and then collect repayment from your guests.
Food & Drink at Your Costumed Event
Bring-your-own meal or picnic events are easy, of course. Potluck events require a little bit of arranging, such as asking those with last names A through F, bring a main course; G through N bring a salad; O through U bring a vegetable dish; V through Z bring a dessert.
If the event is being run at someone’s private home, maybe one or several people will volunteer to cook the entire meal. Unless they are exceedingly generous, it’s a good idea to compensate them for the food costs, if not for their time, so factor that in. At the very least, give them a special favor or gift of thanks.
You can also arrange to have the food delivered or have someone pick up food made at a restaurant and brought to the house. This saves cooking prep time and advance mess. You’ll have to organize taking guests’ orders, payment, and pick up. Then someone has to plate the meals onto dishes at the house, so there will be some washing up at the end of the night.
No matter how the food and drink are prepared, if you’re holding an event at someone’s house, you’ll want to plan for how the food and drink are served. Who will be doing this? Even if it’s buffet-style and guests are expected to serve themselves, someone has to setup a buffet, so plan for it. Who will pour and refill drinks? Where will guests find them if they serve themselves?
If you want to create a historical (or at least non-modern) atmosphere, it can be awkward to have costumed people going in and out of the kitchen. Is there a staging area that can be setup to help with this? Will you have some people acting as servants? Will they be compensated for their work and time? All things to consider.
Events held at restaurants, hotels, and other venues that serve food and drink require you plan a menu for your guests in advance, sometimes getting their entree selections. If the venue has a cash bar, make sure to let guests know in advance.
Decorations for Your Costumed Event
The more ambiance your venue has built-in, the less you’ll need to consider decorating it. But most any costumed gathering can stand a little something to dress it up (after all, you’re dressed up!). At a minimum, you’ll want tableware for eating and drinking from that doesn’t look super-modern, so hit up your favorite thrift store for some china and crystal.
For a picnic, ask each guest to bring their own not-modern-looking place setting (plate, cup/wine glass, utensils, cloth napkin). For an event at a personal home, you may need to borrow or thrift-shop for more place settings, and plain white will blend in just fine
Other things that you may want on hand for hosting events, most of which can be found at thrift stores or discount stores:
- White tablecloths — cotton or linen is nice, but poly is fine!
- Extra cloths — plain or dark non-modern cloths to cover ice coolers and such.
- Folding tables — plastic ones are OK when covered with tablecloths.
- Wood folding chairs — look at Target, Amazon, World Market, Pier One, Wal-Mart, etc., especially during summer; a little bit of an investment, but they’re sturdy for picnics and provide extra seating at home.
Nice touches to consider at any venue:
- Use candlelight for evening events.
- Add fresh flowers anytime, anywhere.
- Make place cards on pretty paper for dinners.
- Give favor bags / goodie bags to each guest.
If you’re renting a venue, you can work with the staff to have them setup your decor. Most restaurants have plain white tableware, cloth napkins, and tablecloths that will be a fine background to whatever even you’re running.
Activities at Your Costumed Event
What will you do at the event? Planning a little bit of entertainment helps get things going. Period games or music can be fun to research and play. Card and board games have been popular since the Middle Ages, and many reproduction sets are available for purchase online. For outdoor events, try croquet, nine pins, bocce, and more.
If someone in your group plays music or sings, encourage them to perform. If a guest will be entertaining others for a significant portion of the event, consider reimbursing them for part of their cost to attend the event or give them a special favor or gift.
You can also discreetly place recorded period music nearby in the venue (a small Bluetooth speaker is great for this). Historical dancing can be great fun to watch, learn, and do, and recorded music is just fine. Whatever activity you have, plan for it and assign someone to get it started during the event.
These are just some of my tips and tricks for planning your own costumed event. Hopefully, you’ll be encouraged to give it a try — all you really need is a few people, a little time, and, of course, costumes! Keep at it, and each event will be better than the last.