We've all been there; an event comes up and you decide last minute that you want to go in costume. Be it the new movie debut, the Ren Faire that creeps up on you unexpectedly, or the fancy-dress party you knew about 3 weeks ago but you've just been so busy... You're running short on time and cash, and you have to come up with something quick.
When you want to play a character and need a costume in a pinch, what you do is think of the two or three things that make that character stand out. Think of Indiana Jones, for instance. You have his picture in your head, right? What makes Harrison Ford look like Indiana Jones? Easy: the hat, the whip, and the brown leather jacket that looks like it's been dragged behind a semi (probably because it has:) ). Fine: go out and find those three things, put on a khaki shirt and pants underneath, then pull out some catch phrases about snakes and rats and have some fun with it. You may have a friend who has a suitable hat, you can find the jacket at a thrift store, and novelty shops or halloween stores carry short whips.
When you do this excercise, don't go running to Google Images and find a picture. One of the big secrets to costumes is to figure out what most people think a character looks like. Your average person on the street won't pull out their phone and start looking for detailed pictures of the character you're playing on the internet, and most won't be able to think of all the picky little details of the costume. Well, ok, reenactors and rabid sci-fi fans might, but most people won't, because they don't usually study a character's costume for long periods of time, and the picture they get in their head has few details. For most people, an approximation and the right attitude will do.
Here's another; take Alice, from Alice in Wonderland, the Disney version. In your mind's eye, what does she look like? Blue dress with short sleeves, maybe a white Peter Pan collar, blonde hair, maybe a blue hair bow, blue shoes, and a white apron. Ok, so can you find a blue dress with short sleeves and a white apron? If you can find those in your own or your friends' wardrobes, or at a thrift store, then go around singing "I'm painting the roses red", people won't doubt that you are playing Alice.
So, the basics of budget costumes are:
-Half of the costume is Attitude. Have fun with your character!!!!
-Keep it simple. Two or three specific items will usually do the trick. The rest of the items you'll want to wear with it should not detract from your main items. Just have them quietly harmonize and play their appropriate background parts.
-Don't be too picky. You may never find the exact costume piece you desire, so be willing to look for things that could work in it's place. Heck, Harrison Ford had an 18 foot bullwhip to do the Indiana Jones movies, but if you learn to crack it right, a 6 foot whip can be just as fearsome! Or you can even get yourself a length of dark rope and just leave it coiled at your belt.
-Look for stuff you might already have in yours or your friends' closets. You might not find a dress for Alice, but if you come across a funky jacket and tophat, you could go as the Mad Hatter instead.