Updated: January 23rd, 2019
I’ve been captivated by Day of the Dead/Día de los Muertos for as long as I can remember. The colors! The skulls! The flowers! Plus, if you’ve ever seen me apply makeup in the morning, you’ll understand why I’ve been waiting my whole life to celebrate a holiday where I can look like death on purpose.
Last year I decided to do some damage to my bucket list and finally booked a trip to Mexico to experience Día de los Muertos in person, face that already looks tragic and all! I spent most of my time in Mexico City but bussed it down to Oaxaca for the actual celebrations. It was so. thrilling. The colors! The skulls! The Flowers! I had two men apply my makeup for me! It was glorious!
But don’t let me give you the impression that preparing for this travel milestone was no big deal. Obviously I had to do so much research on how to dress for Day of the Dead for both women and men – what to wear, how to do so respectfully, and how, for the love of lucha, to do my makeup so that I can look dead but also sexy because I’m still a woman with feelings. So yeah, I’m basically redefining what it means to be “dead sexy” here.
HOW TO DRESS FOR DAY OF THE DEAD
I’m sure at this point in your life you know the basics of celebrating Day of the Dead / Día de los Muertos:
- Mexican holiday celebrated from October 31st – November 2nd
- Centers around remembering loved ones who have passed
- Colors, skulls, flowers
- Need a more colorful description than that? Watch the movie Coco. Ugly cry throughout. Then watch it again.
Obviously you know the gist or you wouldn’t be dressing up for it, right? But do you know why people dress the way they do during Day of the Dead? Let me introduce to you: La Catrina.
La Calavera Catrina (the lovely not-so-broad above) began as an image drawn by Jose Guadalupe Posada around 1910 as a sort of political satire. (Amazing article on her origins, here.) The image of the fancy lady skeleton in a fancy lady’s hat poked fun at the upper class, letting them know that they, too, will die. That we’re all equals in the end. Mix in some dictators, some Mexican Revolution, some Aztec-isms, and some Diego Rivera, and you have La Catrina today: the principal symbol of Mexico’s Day of the Dead.
La Catrina is the basis of your goal for how to dress for Day of the Dead. She’s why we paint our faces into skulls and cover ourselves in ruffles and flowers. Her image is what we’re after. La Catrina is the original dead sexy.
HOW TO DRESS FOR DAY OF THE DEAD // TIPS
01 | The most important thing you need to know about how to dress for Day of the Dead: this is not Halloween. Nor is it “Mexican Halloween”. Despite being celebrated around the same time, Día de los Muertos couldn’t be further from Halloween, in fact. (It actually used to be celebrated at the beginning of summer, until the Christians showed up with their All Hallows’ Eve and decided to combine them.) While we Americans regard Halloween as a holiday of fear, torture, death, candy, and being a hoochie mama, Mexicans celebrate Day of the Dead as a happy holiday focused on loved ones, keeping their memories alive, and celebrating the continuation of life beyond the one we live here on Earth. (Seriously, watch Coco.)
While the two do have similarities—being the brief time when the line between the living and the dead is believed to be the thinnest—they differ in that:
- for Día de los Muertos, the dead return to visit their families and indulge in their favorite food/drink/etc. from their living days (Aunt Sally looooved her tequila.)
- and for Halloween, they come back to haunt us and chase us with chainsaws and for some reason they all look like little twin girls with crooked necks. And they eat brains. Seriously, WTF AMERICA!!! This is why we can’t have nice things.
02 | Which brings me to how to dress for Day of the Dead Tip #2: don’t be scary. Day of the Dead is a relatively joyous holiday when families remember and celebrate their loved ones who have died (not that they’ve died, this isn’t a telenovela). They build altars in their homes (ofrendas) containing their loved ones’ favorite food and drink items and decorate them with flowers, bright colors, family photos, candles and banners called papel picado–the colorful tissue paper that represents how fragile life is. They play music and dance, hold parades through town, and tell stories of their loved ones. Oh lord. Guys, when I’m gone, can we leave out the one of that time I fell off the stage at that dance club? Kthanksbye.
When you’re deciding how to dress for Day of the Dead, remember to leave behind the fake blood, the weaponry, the creepy contact lenses, the hockey mask, the vampire teeth, and anything even remotely resembling a clown costume. *shiver*
03 | How to dress for Day of the Dead Tip #3: don’t be a hoochie. I know, I know. You wanna shake what ya momma gave ya. You wanna flaunt what you’ve got. In that case, stay here in America where sexy cops, hot nurses, and slutty… pizza rats (?? OMFG they made a slutty costume out of that rat in New York City that dragged the pizza slice through the subway) are the (very f*cked up) norm. Día de los Muertos is a holiday of showing quiet respect, not your badunkadunk to passersby. You will stick out like a sore thumb a girl dressed as a slutty pizza rat.
04 | In fact, stay out of the costume shop altogether. The fastest and easiest way to look inauthentic (and like an offensive a*hole) at any event is to wear a “costume” based on said event and related culture. I preach about this when discussing how to dress for Oktoberfest (no “beer wenches” puh-lease!) and the same goes here. When figuring out how to dress for Day of the Dead, it’s simple enough that you can come up with an ensemble all on your own. I believe in you.
Costumes look cheap, inauthentic, and as if you view the holiday as a mere gimmick (and not the deeply personal cultural experience that it is). Don’t get me wrong, there are certain costume pieces you’ll need, but buying an all-in-one set that comes in a plastic bag is not a great option. Plus, they tend to be the usual amount of slutty. Not to mention the fact that you may just show up wearing the same thing as someone else which, even when dead, is awwwwkwarrrrdddd. Day of the Dead is a very personal holiday and your image should be as unique as you.
DO YOU HAVE TO DRESS UP FOR DAY OF THE DEAD?
No, absolutely not. This isn’t like Oktoberfest where you’ll feel totally out of place being the only person not dressed accordingly. (#dirndlpusher) However, I personally always opt for dressing the part and here’s why you should too:
Don’t be a spectator. In the case of Día de los Muertos, this celebration is of a deeply personal and religious nature. You’re more than welcome to partake in the festivities when done so in an understanding and considerate way. In other words, get to know what the holiday is about and be a part of it in your own way. Don’t, on the other hand, show up with your camera and treat the festivities (a lot of which take place inside people’s homes and in cemeteries) as a tourist attraction put on for your benefit.
It’s way more fun. I’ve always been the first person to dress up for whatever event I’m attending. (Yes, sometimes I’m the ONLY person but that’s what makes me, me and no, I don’t feel any shame.) In my opinion, it’s always more fun to be a part of something rather than simply watch something happen. I will never show up to a sporting event without the proper colors and/or pom-poms; I will never show up at Disney World without mouse ears; and I’ll never show up to a Halloween party sans costume. Even if nobody knows wtf I am because everyone else at the party is younger than me. (Hello!? One of the guitarist/dancers from the Robert Palmer music videos anyone? It was epic. And no one got it.)
HOW TO DRESS FOR DAY OF THE DEAD // WOMEN
In start contrast to Halloween and our overall view of death, Day of the Dead celebrations incorporate bright, cheerful colors and lots of them. And therefore, so should you. The colors you’ll see most are yellow, pink, red, purple, orange, and white (and yeah, some black too) and of course they each have their own symbolism.
Yellow & Orange | Represent the sun, light, and life. These colors are most commonly seen in the marigolds found everywhere during Día de los Muertos. The petals of marigolds are used to create a path to the ofrendas that the family members can follow. I imagine death can be a wee bit disorienting.
Pink | Represents the happiness and celebration associated with Día de los Muertos.
Red | Represents blood, appropriately.
Purple | Represents pain, suffering, grief, and mourning and to use this color is to acknowledge the loss of loved ones.
White | Represents purity, hope, and renewal of the spirit after death.
Black | Represents death, obvs, but more so, the land of the dead.
WHAT TO WEAR
For starters, a dress. La Catrina and El Catrín are a fancy duo and so must you be, m’lady. When deciding how to dress for Day of the Dead, choose a dress that satisfies a combination of these:
- Long | Preferably floor length – no one in the cemetery wants to see your culo.
- Flowy | aka not skin tight, aka skeleton catsuits are a no-go despite what Party City tells you
- Ruffly, embellished, Victorian, lacy | Remember the fancy lady *curtsies to her laptop*
- Vibrant and colorful, or at least part of the Day of the Dead color scheme | yellow, orange, pink, red, white, black, purple
- Floral | Just tons of flowers everywhere — Think you have enough flowers? Nope. Keep going.
- Of a traditional Mexican style | such as a Puebla dress – simple, embroidered, comfortable as all get-out, or a campesina – off the shoulder, cinched at the waist (example of both, below)
A more specific route you could take: Because Día de los Muertos is a holiday honoring your loved ones who have passed, some choose to dress up specifically as the skeletons of their deceased relatives, basing their entire look around his/her style. This, to me, sounds like an incredibly moving direction to take. And even more fun if crazy Aunt Sally also had a penchant for Lady Gaga garage sales.
For my dress I decided to keep it simple and understated. Last year was my first Día de los Muertos experience in Mexico and, unsure of protocol, I wanted to be able to fade into the background if necessary. And, because I’m budget friendly and try to only make purchases I can wear over and over again—not just for one specific day of the year.
Now, if you decide to go with a typical Puebla-style dress, I highly recommend purchasing a handmade one in Mexico from a vendor at a local market. Help out local artisans and the community, take home a unique and authentic souvenir, and score something of higher quality. These are everywhere, so don’t worry about having to search high and low. However, I, too, am aggressively Type-A so I understand the importance of pre-planning and pre-purchasing. In that case, here are some other options:
My dress: the Oyanus Womens Off the Shoulder Ruffles Pockets Dress Side Split Maxi Dress (seriously, Amazon with the descriptions?) This dress is so unbelievably comfortable and I’d wear it every single day if it wouldn’t draw the attention of everyone who already thinks I belong in an asylum. Plus, POCKETS. You can also wear it off-the-shoulder, one-shoulder, tube top style with no shoulders, tank top style, whatever. Even if you don’t wear it for Day of the Dead, you should totally own this dress just because.
- Liliana Cruz Embroided Puebla Dress | Comes in so many colors!
- CHOiES Bohemian Deep V Neck Floral Long Dress | The black one and the blue one = 👌🏼
- Anna-Kaci Renaissance Peasant Maiden Boho Inspired Cap Sleeve Lace Trim | (I can’t even handle these descriptions.) This one also comes in many colors and has that Victorian/lacy/”I’m obviously dead” feel to it.
Keeping the dress simple means you can accessorize the hell out of it. And that would make you… an accessorcist? When coming up with your accessories plan for how to dress for Day of the Dead, keep all the above rules in mind: big, bold, bright, floral, fancy, and/or traditionally Mexican. Some items to consider:
Big, chunky necklaces
- Kosmos-Li Acrylic Beads Statement Necklace (comes with matching earrings)
- Women’s Rose, Crystal Flower Statement Necklace (comes in many color combinations)
- Glass handmade long pearl necklace 55″ (so many colors, and I love long bead necklaces you can layer)
Flower pins – red roses, marigolds
- Rose hair clip / brooch (in many colors–use what works for you)
- Silk marigold hat decoration – 10-pack
A shawl – helps when the temperature drops
- Women’s large, soft, cashmere-feel pashmina | This basic red shawl (which, obviously, comes in other colors) is the one I went with but–pro tip–I found mine at a local thrift store.
- Lightweight rose lace shawl | Black (or red) lace for that Victorian look
- Embroidered floral linen pashmina
Comfortable shoes — just whatever works with what you choose to wear. (This goes for men as well.) I wore a pair of Converse because I didn’t want to pack an extra pair of shoes in my carry on. #fashionexpert
Big floppy hat, à la Catrina herself
- This large black one if you’re crafty | embellish with some flowers, some lace, some feathers = perfecto!
- This wide brim lacy one and this big lacy bow hat are perfect as-is!
A lacy veil
- Like this one | but wear yours with clothes, por favor.
And most importantly, a flower crown
This, this, and this one are good options but why not make your own? The materials are cheap, it’s a quick project, and you can make it as personal as you like. Plus, you’re dead so your lack of crafting ability will blend in seamlessly. I made a couple of my own then I made a video on how I did it. ⇣⇣⇣
So. I’ve given you some accessory ideas and some specific examples from Amazon but remember, Day of the Dead should be a personal experience, not a generic one. Be sure to choose items that reflect your loved ones and yourself! (What I mean is: leave Instagram out of the equation.)
There’s no denying that the makeup is the most recognizable aspect of Día de los Muertos. Somehow, looking like you did that time you had the flu has never seemed so beautiful. #itsallrelative
The tradition of painting your face for Day of the Dead has many purposes:
- decorating your face like that of a deceased relative (painting his/her name on your forehead is a common practice)
- to confront and overcome your fear of death, “head on”
- to embrace death as the great equalizer
Notice that “to be sexy on Instagram” wasn’t listed. This should come as a relief to you because how anyone could paint designs on their face perfectly and symmetrically is BEYOND ME. For the love of all that is good and pure, embrace the significance over the aesthetics!
To be honest, I was kind of dreading the makeup part when coming up with how to dress for Day of the Dead because, well, it’s a daily disaster I have to trudge through as it is. Then you tell me I have to be creative with it? Aw naw.
The good news is you don’t have to worry about this. Depending on where you’re celebrating, Mexico vs otherwise, there’s a good chance you can just throw money at the problem. In Oaxaca, where I celebrated, and throughout Mexico (so I’m told), local artists set up stands and will paint your face for you for a small fee. Pick a face painter (there will be plenty), then choose a design they clearly printed out from Pinterest, and voila! Save yourself some time, money, and stress and support the local community all at once. Look for them in the town’s zócalo around sundown.
However, again, I understand the need to be prepared and I understand the torture of being a perfectionist/overachiever. In that case, feel free to purchase your own makeup and face paint and work on your own designs. Bonus points if you can make it through without crying and/or throwing a tantrum.
Skip the clown makeup from the party store and go for better quality stuff: (Mehron is a trusted brand with healthy, natural ingredients and great reviews)
- Mehron Face and Body Paint, 8-color Palette
- Mehron 2.25 oz white face paint | Can you even go wrong with “the first choice of professional mimes”? Methinks not.
- Here’s a great YouTube tutorial in case you have the patience of a saint–just ignore all the times she says this look is perfect for Halloween. 🙄
HOW TO DRESS FOR DAY OF THE DEAD // MEN
As with everything else in life (fitting their hands into a can of Pringles aside), deciding how to dress for Day of the Dead is easier for men. Chances are, you already have most of this stuff balled up on the floor of your closet. Don’t worry, your wife knows where it is. For men, the look is of El Catrín, the male counterpart to La Calavera Catrina and the dapper-est dead guy you ever did see.
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WHAT TO WEAR
For men, the Day of the Dead look revolves around something dressy (can you use ‘dressy’ to describe men’s clothes? Moving on): a suit, a tuxedo, a charro suit (what mariachis wear), etc. There’s almost always a hat involved and whatever else you can use to make yourself look fancier than 100% of your fantasy football league. Now I get you may not have a tuxedo or a mariachi ensemble just lying around (you’re probably not Steve Martin after all…), but you can still achieve this look with just a few key pieces. I use phrases like “this look” and “key pieces” exclusively to give you the impression that I know things about fashion – you’ve been warned.
Dress shirt and pants | Unless you work on an oil rig, chances are you already own at least one set of these.
Suspenders | We’re going for dapper, remember? Besides, if you’re the kind of guy who wears costumes a lot—wait, what I meant to say was: If you’re the kind of guy who’s married to a woman who makes you wear costumes a lot, you can get many uses out of a pair of suspenders. These Dickies solid black suspenders should do the trick.
Tie | It’s your choice: a standard neck tie, a bolo, a bandana, a bow tie, etc. As long as there’s something around your neck with which to strangle yourself when your wife suggests you get your face painted, you’re good. Or just grab this set of suspenders + bow tie and call it a day.
Hat | There’s almost always a hat involved in dressing for Día de los Muertos. It can be a fancy sombrero, a bowler, a top hat, you name it. And if you’re concerned with trying to pack a top hat into a carry on just remember: you’re dead. It’s okay if your hat is a little beat up. #TheGentleman
A cane | Oh, you really fancy. Maybe this one? I feel kinda bad that that one is a legitimate health need and that there’s an elderly fellow on the page, but let’s face it–he’s pretty dashing.
Skeleton gloves | For that extra touch of my wife is so extra, pick up this set of gloves.
Day of the Dead makeup, like peeing outdoors, is easier for men. For starters, there’s almost zero chance you’ll be applying this to yourself, let’s be real here. And second, Day of the Dead makeup for men is just much simpler. Where we women require colors and flowers and swirlies and even glitter *jazz hands*, men’s faces typically utilize just black and white paint and a simple skull design. For this, I’d recommend the same products—Mehron white & Mehron black—but men, too, can get their faces painted by local artists.
As far as masks are concerned when deciding how to dress for Day of the Dead, for men and women, that’s tricky. “Day of the Dead” masks tend to look patronizing and goofy (plus, not buying into mass market cultural stereotypes is kinda the goal) while “skeleton” masks err on the side of nightmare-inducing (and you’re trying to not be scary, remember). However, if you must (skin allergies for instance), this one worn by James Bond in the movie Spectre isn’t terrible.
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