As a queer human living in Portland, I’m invited to a lot of themed parties. Several friends who do not live in Portland have told me that it often seems as though “all anyone does in Portland is go hiking or go to themed parties” and listen, they’re not entirely wrong. In the past couple of years I have attended many themed parties, including but not limited to: monthly Dapper Dinners, Deep Sea vs. Deep Space, Flora vs. Fauna, Muppets vs. Sesame Street, Candyland, Beach Birthday (in December), Topless Tapas, DIY Fire Cider Fall Fest, and a Blanket Fort Birthday Party. I’ve spent a lot of time crafting elaborate costumes and a lot of time pulling a look together at the last minute with random shit I have in my closet. There are many ways to be an active participant in a themed party world, ya know?
Being a participant at a themed party is often a job all by itself, but what about the brave and magical humans who host these themed parties? How do they do it? Perhaps this has got you thinking: Could I do it? And I’m here to tell you YES, yes my dear gentle queer, you sure as fuck can. I interviewed some Expert Themed Party Hosts and together we’re gonna walk you through the process of throwing the themed party of your dreams.
1. Choose a theme (and make it accessible!)
The first step is very exciting: you get to choose your theme! What do you want to focus on at this particular party? If coziness is important to you, maybe you want to make your event a pajama slumber party. If it’s Halloween, how can you elevate the party from a traditional Halloween costume affair to a cohesive themed extravaganza? If it’s your birthday, what’s your favorite thing in the world and how can you take that thing and make a whole theme out of it? (Example: Cats. Also: Candy. Also: Naked Queers Jello Wrestling. I’m just saying.)
This step might feel like it’s the most overwhelming part, because your options are limitless, and that’s fair. A good idea is to get out of your head and just grab a theme that feels good and fun to you and run with it, because you can always choose another theme for your next party.
Just make sure you don’t get too carried away – the one thing everyone I interviewed for this “How To” guide agreed upon was that you want your theme to be accessible to all party attendees. If your theme is too out there or too obscure or too high maintenance, your guests won’t feel like they can participate, and they may even skip your party rather than deal with preparing for it, Carly Usdin and Robin Roemer, Autostraddle Founding Members and Expert Themed Party Hosts based in Los Angeles, explained. “Pick a theme that is exciting, fun, and realistic for guests,” Carly said. “If you set expectations too high, no one will come.” You know your friends best – pick a theme that they are likely to be as excited about as you are, and go from there.
2. Send out invitations
Sometimes a Facebook invite is the way to go, sometimes you want to hand deliver the invitations you made using gel pens and glitter stickers. Carly and Robin have been known to make video invitations for their parties. “Or maybe you have ravens drop invitations off to your guests,” Carly suggested.
In lieu of trained ravens, Magda Janczak, another Expert Themed Party Host and Autostraddle Reader based in Los Angeles, threw an epic Harry Potter themed birthday party one year and sent her guests balloon owls with hand-crafted Hogwarts acceptance letters. A few of my friends have gone out of their way to send snail mail invitations for big birthday parties (like a 30th or a 50th) and while that can take a little bit of extra effort – tracking down each guest’s home address is a small chore – in a world of Facebook invites and e-cards, it is really exciting to receive an invitation in the mail.
Whatever you do, use your invitation as a means to introduce the theme. Don’t make your friends guess what the theme is – make it obvious and commit fully to it! “A good invitation sets the expectation that this is going to be a MAJOR party and a not-to-be-missed event,” Carly said, joking but also not joking.
3. Decorate your house
Decorations are a really good way to elevate the atmosphere of your party. The whole point of a themed party is to make people feel like they are in an entirely different world for just one night, and as the host, you are guiding them through this world.
If you feel overwhelmed by transforming your entire apartment into Hogwarts or a blanket fortress or the beach, don’t worry. “You don’t have to go all out,” Korin Noelle, an artist and educator living in Portland, OR and another Expert Themed Party Host, said, “but a little bit of decorations go a long way. Even if they’re made of cardboard.”
Magda recommends turning an eye to detail for this step. “Don’t overlook ‘the little things,'” she said. Your bathroom, kitchen, and hallways are all pieces of the ultimate party puzzle that can benefit from decorations and attention.
4. Feed your guests – at least a little
Not all parties require food, but I’ll tell you something, feeding your guests a little something does not hurt. Our Expert Themed Party Hosts were divided on this topic. “I’m not a food driven person, and I usually throw a later party,” Korin explained, whereas I personally am extremely food driven (as a person and a party host) and think of coming up with themed food as one of the most fun parts of planning a themed party.
Use your best judgement with this one – it’s true, not every party requires a full spread, but on the other hand, who doesn’t want to eat cupcakes decorated like Muppet characters?! – but remember the wise words of Robin: “BYOB parties are fine, but if I show up and there is not a chip to be found, I’m sort of like – ‘I could just be [at] home??'” You don’t need to play Julia Child, but get your friends some chips and dip, okay? And if your party is based on a meal (brunch/dinner/whatever) and you are food and theme driven, this is really your time to shine.
5. Provide a party favor (or something)
I was surprised by this tip, which just goes to show that even the best party planners (yes, I just called myself a “best party planner”) can always learn something new! Robin and Magda both suggested providing something for guests. This doesn’t have to be an expensive gift or anything – maybe it’s a signature cocktail that goes with the theme of your party. Maybe it’s a little goodie bag from the 99 cent store.
Korin had a great idea for helping folks who might struggle with putting together a costume for a themed party: provide a costume box or accessories for folks to use for the duration of the party! “I had a cat themed birthday and I made a bunch of headbands with cat ears,” she said, “so if people didn’t have a costume when they showed up, I had something for them and they didn’t feel left out.” For this step, I’d say take your own natural skills and put them to good use. If you’re naturally crafty, whip up some extra costume pieces. If you’re a great bartender, make a sweet cocktail. If you thrive at thrifting, find some weird cool trinkets that guests can take home as a memento of your party, aka the most fun evening they’ve ever had. Be creative!
6. Plan some activities
Remember, as the party host, your job is to gently guide the party along the train tracks of ultimate joy. This doesn’t mean you need to micromanage every guest’s interaction (please don’t) but it is helpful to have a bit of an itinerary for what will be happening at your party. Some people are shy and need direction at large gatherings, some people are ultra social and will expect dancing at a party that takes place after 10pm, and some people just want a little bit of incentive to leave their house and attend a party at all. The cool thing about a themed party is that it really helps direct the energy of your party. “Having a good theme can really help dial in what you’re going to do, so you’re not just standing around,” Korin said. “Have at least one activity planned, even if it’s not totally on theme.”
7. Costume yourself appropriately
This is super self-explanatory. You are the HOST of a THEMED PARTY. Your costume is the lead costume in the school play. Your costume is the star quarterback on the football team. Your costume is HBIC. “DO NOT HALF-ASS YOUR COSTUME,” Carly screamed at me in all-caps text when I interviewed her about this subject. “Costumes are key,” she continued. “Do not buy a costume in a bag. Do the work!”
8. Make sure you have a photobooth!!!
I saved this tip for last, even though it was agreed upon to be the #1 most important part of throwing a themed party by every single human I interviewed for this piece, because I feel like you all already knew it was coming. We live in the Age of Instagram, after all. If you throw a themed party, you must – you must – create a space in your house that will act as a photobooth for your guests. Hang up a cool tapestry. Make weird props. Leave a costume box nearby. Invent a hashtag and make a little sign informing guests of said hashtag. DO. NOT. SKIP. THE. PHOTO. BOOTH. “The number one rule of themed parties is the photobooth,” Carly said, and Robin agreed that it is “crucial.” “Always have a photobooth,” Korin noted in an entirely separate conversation. “Don’t expect people to dress up if you’re not going to give [their costumes] the respect they deserve!” She laughed, but I could tell she was serious. “People are putting effort in, and they want that to be remembered,” she said. “Plus, it creates fun memories from your party!”
So there you have it, party queers! Eight easy steps to throwing the best damn themed party the world has ever seen. Do you feel ready? You’re totally ready! The final bonus tip that was also agreed upon by all Expert Themed Party Hosts is straight forward: Commit! Whatever theme you decide on, however you choose to send out invitations, whether you serve food or drinks or neither or both…commit fully and truly to the themed party. You are creating an experience for your guests, you are being playful and sweet and fun and weird, and your guests are counting on you and your commitment to your theme to make it all work. In the very wise words of Carly: “Don’t half-ass a themed party. No one will ever trust you to throw a party again.”