Putting together a post-apocalypse costume requires imagination, a bit of sci-fi or steampunk, leather or khaki clothes, sturdy boots and accessories. A dirty face, fake blood and fangs are all optional, as are a bow and arrow, a plastic machine gun or a ray gun. Start with a quick run to the thrift store to locate army surplus, faded and torn denim, well-worn leathers, a hat and/or other essentials for your Halloween costume.
Here's our tutorial for a DIY post-apocalypse costume.
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Determining dystopia, apocalypse & post-apocalypse
When putting together a post-apocalypse costume for Halloween or cosplay, first sort out which of the three basic types of disaster scenarios best suit your costume ideas:
- Dystopia assumes a semi-functioning society. Examples of dystopian worlds in books and film like 1984 by George Orwell, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury or the movie Soylent Green (1973).
- Apocalypse assumes the disaster is ongoing, whether it's Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham or the movies 2012 (2009) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004).
- Post-apocalypse is after the disaster and might include vampires, zombies and mutants; think I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, Alas Babylon by Pat Frank, the television show The Walking Dead (2010-2022) or the movie Mad Max (1979).
There's plenty of overlap between the genres, so don't let it hold you back when putting together your post-apocalyptic costume. From a steampunk dirigible pilot to a survivor of nuclear war to a gruesome zombie apocalypse victim, you can make it work.
Dressing for the world’s end
Start by deciding on the post-apocalyptic world on which to base your costume. Are you an avid anime fan, or do you prefer the gadgets and mad scientists of steampunk, futuristic vampires or brain-eating zombies—the hero or the villain?
Begin gathering your outfit by checking your own closet and your parents' or siblings' closets. An oversized duster or vintage raincoat, khaki or denim pants that have seen better days, a plaid shirt or men's white dress shirt, torn leggings—any of these can provide the basis of your costume.
Take a trip to the local thrift store for more post-apocalyptic clothes and accessories, which might include:
- Cargo shorts
- Fatigue pants
- Long "hippie" skirt
- Long jacket
- Wide or long studded belt
- Silver chains and jewelry
- Battered work boots
If you're going for a sexy woman look, seek out a black, lacy or glittering camisole or tank top. Don't forget the toy section for a gun, plastic knife or sword.
When it's time to dress in your DIY apocalyptic outfit, think layers. Put on jeans or fatigue pants or shorts and a skirt over torn leggings, the camisole with a man's shirt over the top and then add the duster over everything. If you're dressing as a disaster victim or zombie, be sure to shred some of the old clothes and fray the bottoms of your jeans.
Pulling it together with accessories
Put on that '80s-style wide belt or wrap the extra-long studded belt around your waist twice or around your waist and one leg. Add protective bracers, or arm guards, over your forearms. Tall, sexy boots or steel-toe workman boots protect your feet even if you're only walking from the car to the venue.
If you're going with a steampunk theme, add goggles, a clockwork medallion on a chunky chain around your neck and an aviator cap. An alchemist-style pocket watch and a top hat dress up the steampunk theme. A gas mask works with nearly every post-apoc or sci-fi outfit.
Prop Post-Apocalyptic Weapons
Sling the bow and arrows or plastic machine gun over your shoulder. If they look a little too clean and shiny and need weathering, spray them with matte black paint formulated for plastic, dribble some sand over the wet paint and then spray again to give your gear a grungy appearance.
If you spray paint a plastic gun, leave the tip orange, which indicates it’s a toy gun.
Add an eye patch left over from last Halloween.
Putting on your makeup
Apply moisturizer and then makeup to fit your post-apocalypse persona.
- Zombies may have a pale greenish-gray complexion with fake blood dribbling down the chin and over a stained shirt.
- Vampires might be pale white with made-up dark purple around the eyes, black lashes, bright red lips and fangs.
- Radiation victims could be partially wrapped in stained bandages with black edges of burns peeking out.
Don't forget your hands and any other exposed skin. Do your nails, beautifully pointed and painted red to match the vampire lips and blood, or go with black-rimmed nails and cuticles for zombies and burn victims. Steampunk characters and warriors should wear gloves that match the outfit. Color and spike short hair or braid long hair for your wasteland weekend.
If you have to go to work the day after the party, be sure to use water-based makeup so it’s easy to remove with soap and water. Cold cream takes off oil-based Halloween makeup, and baby oil helps remove stubborn stains.