This week, as Halloween draws closer, Ruth Croft discusses how to dress the right way this festive season, and why we need to be leaving some costumes in the past.
Halloween is back and better than ever. Sometimes known as ‘All Hallows’ Eve,’ it is a celebration that reflects the liturgical year, dedicated to remembering the saints and martyrs that have departed.
The holiday is supposedly inspired by ancient Celtic celebrations, those specifically with pagan origins. However, Halloween is now a modernised event, with festivities such as trick or treating, costume parties, carving pumpkins, bonfires, visiting haunted attractions, watching horror movies, and telling ghost stories. There can sometimes be firework displays, alongside treats like mulled wine and toffee apples. It is an incredibly popular celebration, especially with young people.
It is something we all look forward to every year, with some getting excited over the spooky season as soon as the leaves burn red and gold. But before the night arrives and we put our pumpkins outside, we need to be having a serious think about our costume ideas, and what the right choice is.
When we think of Halloween costumes, a few come to mind immediately. The most common are traditionally witches, black cats, and pumpkins. In recent years, lots of people will choose costumes that reflect pop culture. People will dress up as villains and final girls from scary movies, famous musicians, influential celebrities, and characters from films or tv shows that have a considerable following, such as Harley Quinn, Princess Leia, Ellen Ripley, Black Panther, and Wanda Maximoff.
This is one of the best parts of Halloween, as it allows people to be creative and express themselves through artistic reinvention. Similarly to cosplay, those who take their costumes seriously are typically very well received by others, because of their dedication and attention to detail. It’s also fun to see some of our favourite fictional characters come to life.
However, sometimes people get Halloween costumes very, very wrong. Ideas that people wore in the late 90s and early 2000s are simply not acceptable anymore, like the so-called ‘Sexy Nurse’ or ‘Naughty Nun.’ It’s hard to believe that people thought that these costumes were justifiable to wear, to flirt in, to use as a gimmick, when they are extremely insensitive at best. Similarly, there are the Halloween costumes that are nothing less than offensive. The costumes that should never, ever be worn, that should never have been retailed in the first place. These are: anything involving blackface, transphobic costumes, cultural stereotypes, mental illness and eating disorder trivialisation, sexual harassment, and anything surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, to name but a few.
In 2021, it seems ridiculous that we should even have to criticise these costumes, that there is a need for debate on why they are so morally wrong. The majority of people will understand that these concepts should be forbidden. But when they are still being sold by brands with considerable influence, we have to wonder just how far we’ve really come in regard to achieving a safe and unprejudiced world.
Cultural appropriation is one of the biggest issues within problematic Halloween costumes. It has been described as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of an element or elements of one culture or identity by members of another culture or identity. This can be controversial when members of a dominant civilisation appropriate from minority civilisations.” Essentially, it is the exploitation of other cultures’ religious traditions, music, and fashion. It can sometimes even be deemed as ‘fetishism,’ which in turn, alienates and trivialises those whose culture is being appropriated.
When people have been harassed, punished, or ridiculed for their culture’s image, to have people dress up as it for Halloween as a gimmick is extremely disagreeable. For example, an incredibly popular costume in the past has been that which replicates traditional Native American fashion, specifically Sioux. They were, of course, persecuted for hundreds of years, with millions of indigenous people being murdered from the 1400s onwards. When they were massacred in the name of ‘civilisation,’ to appropriate their style in modern society is nothing short of repulsive.
Additionally, after the release of Disney’s Moana, parents were allowing their Caucasian children to dress up as one of the main characters, who happens to be Polynesian. Although this instance was most likely done with the child’s innocent intentions, it is still inappropriate because it is permitting white people to dress up as people of colour. There are plenty of other princes and princesses that they can choose from this Halloween.
It is not uncommon, even in today’s standards, for mental illnesses to be trivialised, perhaps the result of people being uneducated about the subject. However, Halloween costumes that stigmatise these issues are still being retailed. When doing my research for this very article, I found costumes that seemed to depict the outdated stereotypes of living in a psychiatric hospital, with straitjackets and bloodied medical gowns. To perpetuate these stereotypes is incredibly dangerous, and so insensitive to those who are dealing with mental health issues. People who struggle with their mental health can sometimes feel very detached from the real world, or completely alone, so for retailers to suggest that they are ‘insane’ or ‘violent’ through Halloween costumes is so degrading, and so entirely untrue.
Similarly, in 2011, a sexualised skeleton-print dress emerged for Halloween, complete with a measuring tape, which marketers named ‘Anna Rexia.’ To make fun of a disease that has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder in adolescence seems so reprehensible that it can’t be real. But it is. The costume is still being retailed to this day.
This last one doesn’t need much explanation: when over four million people have died from the COVID-19 pandemic, you shouldn’t be wearing it as a Halloween costume.
How to dress up right for Halloween is actually really easy. There are hundreds of costume ideas that you can wear based on fictional characters. Barbie, Wednesday Addams, Luke Skywalker, Captain Jack Sparrow, anyone from Marvel, Daphne and Simon from Bridgerton, Wonder Woman, Daenerys Targaryen, Storm from X-Men. It is tremendous fun to create the costume, to spark that creativity within yourself, and have the hard work pay off when you spend all of Halloween night being complimented. There is something really extraordinary about becoming someone else, to celebrate the evening of magic and spooks in style. It’s even better when you know you’ve dressed the right way.
You can read more of Ruth’s work on Instagram by following @thewriterruth.