You’re Throwing the Legendary Theme Party of Your Dreams (with This Guide)

Click here for Holigays 2017

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.

Graphic by Sarah Sarwar

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.

IRL Themed Party! Dapper Dinners: The theme is to dress in whatever makes a person feel fancy, powerful, pretty, sexy, etc. It’s a potluck! Pro tip: Create a recurring event that people will start to anticipate and look forward to every month. Photos and caption by Torre McGee.

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.

Top: Still from a video invite Carly and Robin sent to their guests for an epic Halloween party. Bottom: A perfect graphic made by Sarah Sarwar. (Feel free to print out the bottom image and use it as the invitation for your next GAY party!)

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.

There are so many ways to decorate a space! Clockwise, from top left: Hannukah Party dining room set-up; Harry Potter bathroom details; Simple balloons go a long way; Did you know you can make a kissing closet out of fairy lights, blue fabric, and cute humans?! Photos by Vanessa Friedman, Magda Janczak, Binky Compere, Korin Noelle.

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.

Birthday cake and holigay cookies are two great examples of food you can serve at a themed party. Pro tip: Cookies can double as the activity (make ’em and bake ’em with your guests!) AND the food item you provide! Photos by Binky Compere.

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!

Pro-tip: You don’t have to spend a lot of money on the “party favors” – they don’t even necessarily need to be gifts your guests will take home. A well-crafted cocktail is a great thing to provide for guests, as are homemade and thrifted props for extra fun with the photobooth. Photos by Magda Janczak (left) and Vanessa Friedman (right).

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.”

Here are some examples of activities you can do at an IRL Themed Party, clockwise from top left: craft Valentine’s Day cards, make DIY fire cider, jump on a trampoline, learn how to waltz! Photos by Vanessa Friedman.

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!”

Meet Our Expert Themed Party Hosts! Clockwise from top left: Korin, Carly and Robin, Alex (not interviewed but definitely an Expert), and Magda (with girlfriend Christina) — all expertly costumed! Photos contributed by Hosts.

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!”

Pro tip: A photobooth can literally just be a well-lit spot in your house where you put up a cute sheet or piece of paper (see top right and bottom right). If you have a tripod or fancy lights that’s great, but honestly, everyone knows how to use the camera on their phone (or how to convince their friend with the nicest camera phone to snap pix all night long). Photos by various intrepid queers who helped out at these photobooths — the goddess thanks you for your work.

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.”

Vanessa is a queer feminist writer and photographer currently based in New York. She really misses Portland. Find her on twitter and instagram.

Vanessa has written 269 articles for us.

22 Comments

  1. I really like the idea of sending invitations! In the mail! I can’t remember the last time I did that for a party, but now I want to again.

    I threw a library-themed party for my 22nd birthday. The house drink was Huckleberry Gin, and there was an optional cover charge (like book cover, get it?) to raise donations for the St. Louis Public Library, which had just been seriously hit by a ransomware attack. I also got a book-related tattoo as a present to myself. There were a lot of Totinos Pizza Rolls at that party because the SNL skit had just come out…and now I’m sad that I didn’t take any pictures of this event. Must have a photo booth next time!

  2. I learned a lot from this! Even though the thought of throwing a party like this is too much for me rn, there may be a time when I will be so happy to return to this wonderful wealth of awesome queer party knowledge.
    Very impressive themes! The Muppets vs Sesame Street sounds sooo fun

  3. In the past I’ve done a lamp partially shaded by an a thin fabric umbrella(mines was from the 99cent store I got that day we got rain). I also covered the flash on my camera with parchment paper(the see thru white kind) & just literally taped over the flash. Or if your phone has a case no need for tape as it should just stay there in place. The idea is it diffuses(spreads out) the light to give less shadow and more even lighting. It works great in minimizing shadows on the wall for the photo booth. I saw mentioned on YouTube for diy portrait/photo-booth work and I find it works decently.

    Any tips for food theme parties, cause I’ve hosted that in the past and there is always one person who brings the something different(once had someone bring a pot pie to a summer beach party).

    • ohhh, good tips re: lighting the photobooth! i always rely on others for that step because it is not my Realm of Expertise. but maybe now it will be!

      also, LOL @ a pot pie to a summer beach party! you can’t control the food others bring, and honestly i think it’s kinda charming to see what people think up, but i like to use food AS an activity at a themed party — maybe we all make themed cookies together, or we make s’mores at a slumber party, etc. there’s also always the option of providing 2-3 dishes yourself, so the theme makes itself present in the food you offer and then the additional food can kind of blend in. does that all make sense/answer your question??

  4. Another tip that I forgot to mention: Harass the guest list via FB events/texts etc! I am constantly asking them what they are wearing to the part or what food are they making for the potluck. I also will just randomly post cute theme related pics within the fb event to remind folks that this super amazing party is coming up!

  5. Themed parties are my jam and I’ve thrown A LOT over the years, from a Big Brother theme back in the mid-00s as a pre-teen (I know this is no longer relevant but if you can think of any theme where it makes sense to have – like the BB diary room – a video booth set up for people to step in front of the camera whenever they fancy, it’s a lot of fun!) to the Harry Potter Christmas my family and I are doing this year. I will definitely look back to this article for tips! One I’d love to do at some point is Clueless vs. Mean Girls.

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.