'Modern Family,' 'Superstore' Costume Designers on Creating Looks for Halloween Episodes

Kevin Estrada/ABC
'Modern Family's' Halloween Special

When it comes to designing costumes for special themed episodes, it’s a mixed bag of tricks and treats.

It’s that time of year again — when Jack-o’-Lanterns appear on every porch, girls strive to make even the most blasé costumes “sexy” and a bundle of special Halloween episodes come to television.

From Claire and Phil Dunphy’s get-up as June and Beaver Cleaver (with Phil wearing a literal beaver costume) on ABC’s Modern Family to Jonah’s “Brexit” look on NBC’s Superstore to zombie Raggedy Ann and Andy’s on Disney Channel’s Best Friends Whenever, this year’s crop of costumes delivered on range, creativity and cultural relevance.

As we’re trying to come up with our own costumes, we got to wondering about costume designers' best tricks. So, we asked the wardrobe wizards behind Modern Family, SuperstoreBest Friends Whenever and Girl Meets World about their styling processes for the specials. 

When it comes to designing costumes for a Halloween episode, the challenges and rewards far exceed the normal responsibilities of day-to-day work on a television show. “I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily more demanding because it’s lots of fun to be that creative,” said Superstore designer Alix Hester.

All three costume designers also expressed that the time crunch inherent to TV was one of the biggest challenges of the job. Pam Chilton of Modern Family reflected on the frustration of costuming a Halloween episode out of season: “When we are doing Halloween, Halloween’s not quite out yet ... and then right when we finish shooting, it’s Halloween everywhere, and it’s like, ‘Oh no, I just missed it.’”

Another issue that average consumers do not have to consider is copyright concerns. Best Friends Whenever and Girl Meets World’s Nicole Gorsuch said she’s had to make last-minute changes to avoid copyright infringement when the rights didn’t come through.

The designers added that their process involves a mix of creating costumes from scratch and pulling items from costume houses, thrift stores and online outlets.

For example, America Ferrera’s Cleopatra on Superstore was created from a pre-existing gown, to which Hester added a newly constructed cape and headdress. For Nichole Bloom’s Pikachu costume, Hester purchased white jeans and a white top which she dyed yellow; she also purchased a vintage belt and created the headpiece from scratch.

Added Gorsuch, “I end up making most costumes just because I’m not satisfied with anything you can buy out there. It’s usually really, really cheap, throwaway stuff that people are only going to wear one time.”

Another concern is that store-bought, ready-made costumes are too sexy for the type of children’s programming for which Gorsuch designs. “You can’t be too revealing, can’t be too sexy," she said. "For Disney Channel, you don’t want it to be too scary, too bloody, because you don’t know how little the kids are that are watching, so you have to keep that in mind.”

Chilton faced a similar issue costuming extras for a Halloween party on Modern Family, noting, “You want to be topical, you want to be timely, but you want to fit into the limitations of what you can do on TV.”


A photo posted by Nicole Gorsuch (@nicolegorsuch) on

This was her first Halloween episode with Modern Family, and her previous experience had revolved primarily around costuming kids. “That does add a different element when you’re doing teenagers,” she said.

While Gorsuch said children’s television tends to stick with more traditional, old-fashioned costumes like werewolves, cowboys and princesses, adult programming like Superstore and Modern Family look to include an element of newsworthiness and relevance in their costumes, like with Jonah’s “Brexit” costume. 

Though most of the costumes are script- and story-driven, with the writers determining what the main characters will be, the designers ultimately describe the process as a collaborative one, with a lot of back and forth between the wardrobe department and the writer’s room. “I actually put together some research boards with different Halloween costume ideas and took it and left it in the writers' room, so that when they were writing they had those images to look at,” said Hester.

Finding and fitting costumes for extras is where designers particularly feel the strain of television’s demands, and designers say they typically bring in extra staff to assist with that for Halloween episodes. After years of doing Halloween-themed stories, Gorsuch has collected and kept a myriad of complete costumes which she simply pulls out and assigns to extras. This saves valuable time visiting costume houses to piece together clothing, accessories and more.

For Hester, believability dominated her process. “These are working people, in the middle of the country, and I think it’s really important that it be something that they could’ve pulled off,” she said. “A lot of it looks homemade, which we sort of did on purpose. ... I think it’s about thinking outside of the box and not necessarily going to what a package costume is.”

Gorsuch, on the other hand, takes the exact opposite tact with her Disney Channel costumes. “I don’t think about making it real, I just try to make it beautiful,” she said. “I have to be honest. All of the costumes I do ... they are way above and beyond what realistically could be done by our kids. We’re definitely going for the wow factor.”