Why must Halloween costumes be so ‘sexy’?

While Halloween may be over, the yearly parade of fancy dress deemed offensive, derogatory and provocative is sure to be repeated next year. In the lead up to Halloween, a woman searching for a conveniently ready made costume may be hard pressed to find one with a skirt providing more coverage than a napkin. Of course there are some outfits that are indeed lengthier than one’s underwear; however in such cases the material needed for the top part of the ensemble seems to have been sacrificed for that of the bottom.

In my quest to see for myself whether or not it was possible to find a costume that would actually constitute an outfit, I visited several shops in Dublin exclusively selling fancy dress attire. What I found was a profusion of costumes with names like ‘officer frisky’, ‘captain layover’ and ‘sponge babe’, to name but a few. There were also two doctor costumes side by side; a male version resembling a rather plausible surgeon’s scrubs and a female version, entitled ‘doctor shots’.

I cannot help but wonder how we have managed to turn a night that literally translates to mean “All Saints’ Eve” into a festival of licentiousness. We seem to have forgotten that this was once a children’s holiday, deciding instead that a lewd rebranding was due. Is it not a cause for concern that we have taken the very storybook characters we loved as children and dressed them up in what on any other day may be confused with the uniform of a porn star?

A history of the tradition of sexy Halloween costumes has recently been documented by the Times. The newspaper stated that the culture of cross dressing can be traced back to as far as the origins of Hallow Mass. A Halloween expert, Lesley Bannatyne told the newspaper that secular costumes began to emerge during the Victorian period, however people then chose “costumes that were creepy-like bats and ghosts-rather than come hither”. It was not until the 1970’s; the era of sexual liberation that the more sexually provocative costumes began to take over.

What is mostly worrying is that the drive for our costume choices seems to come from the idea that they are “glamorous”. Bennatyne notes that young girls tend to think that this is “a night to do something that I wouldn’t ordinarily do and have people look at me.” It is truly sad that in order feel worthy of attention we feel the need to dress in outfits that would otherwise be left for the bedroom.

Even though it may be tempting, we cannot ignore the fact that the prevalence of such attire stems from consumer demand. When I asked several fancy dress store representatives to name their most popular costumes, they were rather cautious in their replies. A representative from Fancy Dress Store on Liffey Street was quick to note that they do not only offer costumes that are deemed revealing, but also ones that are scary. However, the general consensus among the stores I visited was that the female costumes of the sexier domain are indeed the more popular.

A salesperson from a costume shop in St Stephen’s Green shopping centre said that when it comes to costumes: “It’s not about Halloween,” and that “sexy” costumes are more popular “by a mile”. Even vintage shops where the more creative costume hunters may choose to venture relayed the same response. A representative from Shotsy said that even though their clothes are much more than costumes exclusively sold for Halloween, around this time they do receive more requests for ensembles on the sexier spectrum. “Sometimes that can be a bit depressing,” the representative noted, “we were once asked for a blue gingham dress for a Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz costume, which we happened to have, but the customer felt that the dress wasn’t sexy enough.”

Halloween has become so synonymous with sexiness that it feels hardly worth a mention. The red pointy horns, a devil’s tail protruding from a five inch light-up miniskirt and a figure hugging lace-up corset bodice incomplete without the mandatory padded bust is a sight we have long become accustomed to. Whether or not this is problematic is a matter of personal opinion. However, what is truly scary is that that very same costume is available for a ten year old.

Last week, the Huffington Post became the medium of a renewed surge of critique when several mothers documented their search for their daughters’ halloween costumes. Raina Delisle was so outraged at the fire fighter’s costume she found for her four year old daughter that she instigated a petition to have it removed from stores. She said that among the numerous sexualised outfits available she “was most concerned by the police officer and firefighter costumes, because the girls and boys version were so different.”

Some critics have argued that Halloween is a time for women to play with their sexuality, and that when it comes to costumes we should “lighten up”. Pat Gill, the professor of gender studies at the University of Illinois has said that a sexy ensemble “is a mark of independence and security and confidence”. This is the view taken by many defenders of paltry costumes, however this does not seem to the case after all. A study conducted by the American Psychological Association has found that the sexualisation of young girls and women is a direct precursor to a lack of self esteem, a negative view of one’s body and even depression. Salacious costumes therefore may not be as many continue to argue; nothing but harmless fun.

Halloween has become the undeclared holiday of public promiscuity. Personally I think that on any given day, be it Halloween or not, one’s clothing should be a matter of personal choice, the key word being ‘choice’. Adie Nelson seems to believe that we may be predisposed to select certain costumes making the act of choosing only a phoney formality in our pre-conditioned minds. Her study ‘The Pink Dragon Is Female’ which analysed 469 children’s halloween confirmed her theory by finding that the majority of the outfits made for children were gendered. Dr Nelson noted that “there are bride costumes for little girls but one is hard pressed to find groom costumes for little boys,” adding that, “It would seem that, for girls glory is concentrated in the narrow realm of beauty queens, princesses, brides, or other exemplars of traditionally passive femininity.” This is arguably where the culture of blatantly sexual dress-up stems from.

In my own search for children’s costumes, I found likewise that many were stamped with labels such as ‘pretty’ and ‘pink’. In buying such fancy dress options, are we spoonfeeding the next generation with outdated conformity? Is it therefore surprising that come adulthood we are still faced by gendered costume options? I myself have always wondered why there seems to be such a difference between the uniforms worn by male superhero’s like batman and superman who are equipped with a full body suit, while wonder woman is expected to save the world in a corset and shorts – as if that was possible.

The celebration of Halloween that we are accustomed to is not prevalent in other parts of the world. In India for example, costumes focus on celebrating the gods, furthermore in eastern European countries the culture of dressing up on October 31st is non existent, the night instead is about honouring the dead. Is our form of halloween therefore a representation of our very own society? We cannot continue to deny that there is a significant problem when a child as young as five can be dressed in a ‘veiled vixen’ costume that provides little more coverage than a swimsuit. Should we ask ourselves if our morals have become just as fleeting as our hemlines?