A cartoonish illustration of a dress-your-doll-style cut-out, with a witch in the centre and jack-o-lanterns and brooms around her

The best Halloween costume ideas from books

Whether you're dressing yourself, your kids or the whole family, we have the easy, literature-inspired idea for you.

Halloween is approaching, and you’re starting to feel that familiar terror: you haven’t got a costume, and that big event is looming like a shadow, a monster draining the very life from – well, you get the picture, don’t you?

Fear not. Below, we’ve assembled a host of inspired ideas for book lovers of all stripes: the classics connoisseurs; the illustration aficionados; the modern lit buffs; and, of course, the well-intended but now-frenzied procrastinators.

The Raven (from The Raven)

Worried about coming up with the perfect bookish Halloween costume? Never more. A smashing success upon its release in 1845, Edgar Allan Poe’s narrative poem ‘The Raven’ is one of the most famous poems of all time – and, may we suggest, perfect Halloween costume fodder too. Don a beak, dress in head-to-toe black and, if you’ve the time and resources, glue black feathers to the outfit to give fellow Halloweeners the impression that you could come soaring into somebody’s oversized chamber window at any moment.

'Worried about coming up with the perfect bookish Halloween costume? Quoth the raven: never more'

Little Women (from Little Women)

Do you strongly identify with impetuous, artistic Amy, quiet pianist Beth, maternal big sister Meg or determined tomboy Jo? Do you happen to have a long skirt, a waistcoat or a bustle to hand? Congratulations, you can be a little woman! Louisa May Alcott’s coming-of-age classic got a chic reinvention at the hands of Greta Gerwig, Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh et al a couple of years ago, but embodying spirited girlhood in 19th-century get-up has arguably never gone out of style. Much of the March sisters’ get-up could be thrifted, if you’re not a vintage Laura Ashley fan; if in doubt, a long-sleeved white blouse, some kind of cape and props – books, ribbons, paintbrushes, even a copy of Little Women to tip off onlookers who just haven’t a clue – will sort you right out. For extra literary credit, add a moustache and dress as Jo March in the guise of one of her fictional theatrical characters.

Offred (from The Handmaid’s Tale)

Since the Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel exploded onto our screens a few years ago, you may well have attended a Halloween party with a Handmaid already. But that’s fine! It’s basically canon now! Nobody ever rolls their eyes at yet another witch, or a lazily pulled-together Dracula (arguably also literary). There’s an undeniable creepiness to the modern understanding of Offred and pals from Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, with her full bonnet (cereal box, scissors, poster paint: job’s a good’un) and long red cape, but don’t be afraid to delve into earlier printings. The original 1986 American cover, for instance, saw Handmaids with white, rabbit-like hoods, while a 2015 French edition features a 1960s futurist take, with a kind of red face-painted beard. Offred: but not as we know her.

'If people can't deduce who you are right away, walk around all night uttering that things are “Elementary!” and they'll get the gist'

Sherlock Holmes (from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes)

We know, we know – this one’s a bit obvious. But it’s a classic for a reason, too: for almost a century and a half, Sherlock Holmes has been one of the most iconic and visibly recognisable characters in the entire world of literature, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales of his exploits have been read by millions. Plus, the costume is fairly easy to pull off – as long as you can scrounge up a calabash pipe and deerstalker hat, people will be able to, erm, deduce who you are right away. And if not, you can walk around all night uttering that things are “Elementary!” and people will get the gist. Make it a double-costume by grabbing a friend or loved one to be your Dr Watson.

Romeo and Juliet (from Romeo and Juliet)

It’s the week before Halloween, and you and your significant other are desperate for a good couples costume idea (and, naturally, you went as Holmes and Watson already). What to do? Tell you what: find yourself a frock with big puffy sleeves and a shirt with – you guessed it – big puffy sleeves, and possibly a ruff (the ‘Shakespeare neck thing’, for the uninitiated), and you’re laughing. You two are Romeo and Juliet, literature’s legendarily doomed lovers, and you’re going to look longingly at each other from across the room at whatever party you go to. You don’t necessarily need to drink poison to sell it, but if you do, a nice gin and tonic would probably do the trick.

Beloved (from Beloved)

Arguably Toni Morrison’s most haunting character, Beloved’s shapeshifting presence in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name could occupy many forms. The easiest to replicate, however, would be as the young woman who arrives in Baby Suggs’ home and slowly begins to wreak devastation on her mother Sethe and her sister Denver. Aim for mid-19th-century clothing – nothing too fancy – and the long, tell-tale scar beneath your chin. As for the debate as to who or what Beloved actually represents? Well, that’s your party banter sorted.

A Thursday Murder Club member (from The Thursday Murder Club)

Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron might be unlikely household names, but with more than a million copies sold of Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club, you’re likely to meet at least a few people familiar with the characters from the record-breaking bestseller at a Halloween party. How much dressing-up is involved will depend on how close in age you are to our crime-solving octogenarians, but in any case aim for retirement chic (cardigans, beige) as well as trappings of Cooper’s Chase (a Waitrose bag for life will do it). If you’re going to be Ron, don’t forget the West Ham neck tattoo, while Joyce’s main giveaway is her fondness for lilac.

'As for the debate as to who or what Beloved actually represents? Well, that’s your party banter sorted.'

A Hobbit (from The Hobbit)

Few fictional universes offer as much fancy dress inspiration at JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth. There are the pugnacious trolls; the elegant elves; the inexplicably appealing Gandalf; Gollum, if you really fancy. But in terms of costumes that are hoiked together at the last moment, you can’t really beat a hobbit. There’s a certain humility about Bilbo Baggins that easily accompanies turning up at your friends’ house in a pair of novelty bear-feet slippers. Failing that, thick socks, anything made of velvet and a scarf will do the trick. Grab a walking stick (really, any stick will suffice), stick a ring on a chain/bit of string around your neck and be amenable to beer and you’re basically in The Shire.

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse (from The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse)

Okay, hear us out. You’ve got a family, and you want to do something fun for Halloween. There are four of you, maybe. You love books, and especially Charlie Mackesy’s new illustrated classic. Are you following us? This one’s a tall order, but it would be a huge crowd-pleaser, and if one of your family is a ‘boy’, you’re a quarter of the way there already: the rest of you can no doubt find a mole costume, a fox costume and a horse costume. For added effect, the lucky mole can carry around a sizeable slice of cake the whole night.

Next to Sherlock Holmes, this is easily the most instantly recognisable of the costume ideas here, but you have to do it right: for Alice, a blue dress, white frilly tulle petticoat, a white apron and white tights, to begin with. For the ‘Wonderland’ bit you can get creative, adding playing cards, teacups and saucers, hearts and the like, maybe popping off your outfit with wires. To top it all off perfectly, stand a small ‘EAT ME’ card next to the snacks at whatever do you’re attending, and gorge yourself on cakes and candy – down the rabbit hole they go.

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

Image: Alexandra Francis for Penguin

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