Let Artist Ilona Szwarc Show You How to Get Lots of Creep on the Cheap

All this fright for under $25, wow.

To celebrate the start of the most terrifying #SPOOKYSZN in living history, VICE asked a few of our favorite artists and photographers to create costumes based on prompts forged from the depths of our brains. Armed with nothing but $25 and their own wild imaginations, the artists were tasked with building cheap Halloween costumes and sharing their scary good savings tips. Supported by GEICO.

One of the most iconic and classic Halloween costumes is, of course, the monster. There’s something quintessentially fun about dressing up as that thing that lives underneath the bed and the stuff that nightmares are made of. Los Angeles-based photographer and artist Ilona Szwarc took that monster prompt and used it as inspiration to bring to life one that has haunted her since her childhood in Poland: the folklore of Baba Yaga. Baba Yaga is an elderly, cannibalistic witch parents have used to scare kids straight across Eastern Europe for generations. Szwarc explains how she brought Baba Yaga to life—with some American pop culture flair—in this DIY Halloween costume for just $25.


You were given the costume prompt of “monster.” How did you come up with this costume idea?
At the time, I was quarantining after a trip I had taken back home to Warsaw, Poland. Having spent the summer at my childhood home, I immediately thought of this recurring nightmare I had as a child, in which a Baba Yaga ripped out my heart. To this day, it’s a vivid image in my head. I wanted to channel parts of this character specific to my culture into the costume I was making.

What was your ideation process?
My initial idea was to recreate the old Eastern European witch Baba Yaga from my nightmares. As I was refining the idea, I decided to combine references from both Eastern European and American cultures. It points directly to my cultural identity as both Polish and American and I wanted for this to be evident in the costume. My Baba Yaga is dressed in a rugged dress made up of traditional Polish fabrics. She is cloaked and her head is covered, but she is also wearing striped tights and red glittery shoes that are iconic of The Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz.


How did you go about creating the costume?
The creation process was really just about getting in my studio and gathering all the props and fabrics I had at hand—both at my house and in the studio. I decided on the color scheme first and went from there. I went with shades of green for the costume and blush tones for the backdrop. I wanted to bring in a bit of Halloween darkness to the image, so I decided to use my black scarves to frame the portrait. The idea from the beginning was for the photograph to be busy and kitschy; clashing different patterns and colors.


I took my Halloween costume from last year and used it as a base and then took another piece of fabric, folded it in four, and cut a triangle in the middle to become the base of the skirt. Later, I pinned pieces of fabric, layer over a layer, to that skirt.

Then, I took a pair of shoes that I have not worn in ages and glued red glitter to them to mimic the iconic shoes from The Wizard of Oz.

Baba Yaga, the witch from the Slavic folklore, is an old woman and is often depicted cloaked. I gave myself a grey wig, which I made out of a mop, and then covered my head with several layers of scarves. The veil over my head is a piece of tulle I bought. At first, I was going to pin to the other head scarves but in the process of making the portrait, it gave me a more ghostly and ghoulish look draped over my head.


How did you do the makeup?
I used cotton combined with liquid latex to give myself bags under the eyes and then I used eyeliner and eyeshadow to accentuate the lines on my face. This is a very simple technique, where you highlight one side of the line and darken the other part. Underneath the wrinkles I covered my face with green paint just as The Wicked Witch of the West.


What inspired the backdrop?
For the backdrop I used scarfs—traditional Polish wool scarfs I often wear—and bedsheets. Traditional Polish bedsheets are also heavily patterned. Those became the first layer of the backdrop. On top of those, I hung flat sheets and then started out with the costume.


You were given a $25 budget. How did you source materials for this price?
I set out to use everything I already own. The only things I have bought were tights for $9.81, liquid latex for $8.30, red glitter for $5.49 and a piece of tulle for $1.39. The total of what I spent was $24.99.


Do you have any savings tips for DIY costumes?
I’d suggest getting creative with what you might already have in the house. To recreate my look, people could situate themselves against a window and start playing with the curtains. Create a backdrop by draping the window panels, keep adding to it—bedsheets, towels, pieces of clothing, fabrics, plush toys, whatever you can find. The more, the better! Pick a specific color and find everything in the house that might work together.

My second suggestion would be to build on an old dress or another piece of clothing you’re not using anymore or to redo your last year’s Halloween costume. No need to have sewing skills, you could start adding to an existing piece of clothing by attaching layers with safety pins. Another way to go about it would be to pick a piece of fabric, fold it in four, then cut a triangle (measure your waist and add a couple of inches for safety) and this could become the basis of the skirt. Then start adding to it. The same goes for the top—you could wear tights on the top and add elements to it, or you could use an existing top you already have in your closet.


Any surprising/unexpected materials or places where people can source materials this Halloween?
You can make a dramatic dress by getting a hoop skirt and attach layers to it. I saw hoop skirts online for $15. Use dish gloves and some construction paper for the dramatic, witchy hands. Use old shoes and cover them with glitter and use an old mop to make an old witchy wig. Or, you could use an old toothbrush and some toothpaste to put in your hair to make it white.  You can use hand soap (we all have so much of it these days), or dish soap to fill your cauldron with green gooey liquid. I’d also suggest substituting a cauldron with some vases or pots you might already have available in your house.

For makeup, get creative! Use eyeliner to draw wrinkles, use eyeshadow to contour your face in a scary way. Another very simple makeup technique is using cotton or Kleenex or even crushed cereal with liquid latex to create a dramatic surface on the face, deep wrinkles and baggy eyes. Just layer the cotton on your face and cover it with liquid latex, it will do the job.

Supported by GEICO.