Why do we continue to sexualise Halloween?

Lara Monahan explores the complexity of Halloween’s costume culture

The leaves are falling, your new flatmates are still taking the bins out on time, and your tights don’t yet have ladders in them. This can only mean one thing: we are officially approaching Halloween. At this time of year, it is hard to tell what is filling up faster your workload or your social life. However, this time of year also signifies, for many of us, an impending social pressure to use this opportunity to show some skin and not get judged for it.

Halloween comes from the merging of the celebrations of several different festivals and cultures, with its roots in the Celtic festival Samhain. Wearing costumes for Halloween is widely thought to emerge from this holiday. Historically, these costumes are used as a way to scare away supernatural beings on this night where it is supposedly easier for them to cross into our world.  However, I can’t help but feel that in my recent experience of this night, the fabric between our world and the next feels much less flimsy than the fabric covering my body. This is the result of the costume tradition evolving massively over the years and becoming more commercialised, leading to the sex sells mantra working its way into the industry surrounding the celebration.

“How empowering can a sexy costume be if we aren’t making a choice, but are being coerced into making it?”

Don’t get me wrong I am all for how empowering it can be to feel sexy, and sometimes this includes shedding your clothes. But this hasn’t been what is spooking me most these past few Halloweens. It is instead the lack of choice. How empowering can a sexy costume be if we aren’t making a choice, but are being coerced into making it? Halloween has become, for many, a time of being actively encouraged to dress in a hyper-sexualised way to serve the financial interest of a company, and discouraged from dressing as anything we choose, sexy or not. How do we reclaim the joy of the season?

You might recognise these words from the 2004 cult classic Mean Girls: “In girl world, Halloween is the one night of the year when a girl can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it.” And it really is in “girl world”;  many costumes marketed towards women at the moment are characters from children’s pop culture, such as Little Red Riding Hood, or Bratz dolls. It would be cynical to see this as only infantilising rather than nostalgic, but this cynicism seems to be validated when these costumes are simultaneously hyper-sexual and childish. This crossover is haunting for obvious reasons I think it is safe to assume that this trend has emerged from troubling porn tropes that become more mainstream every day, often reinforcing the sexualisation of girls. 

“…is it only acceptable for women to dress up as employees in these male-dominated fields if it is visibly and firmly a costume?”

And the toil and trouble for Halloween costumes marketed for women doesn’t stop there. Even when these costumes don’t seek to imitate fantasy, and are instead the costumes that imitate real-life occupations of women, such as a doctor, firefighter or police officer, they are still massively sexualised. I am yet to fight fire in lingerie but I have a feeling it isn’t practical. This leads me to wonder  is it only acceptable for women to dress up as employees in these male-dominated fields if it is visibly and firmly a costume? This implies the misogynistic idea that even a realistic impression of a woman working in these fields is too threatening to the success of the sex sells model, which relies on patriarchal gender roles and sexual politics. 

Hyper-masculinity and these same strict gender stereotypes are encouraged in the commercially available costumes for men too, which are largely pirates, soldiers and Marvel heroes. Marketing pressure extends into social pressure; it can feed into the patriarchal encouragement of competition among women for the male gaze, and build on the toxic notion that your body is equal to your worth. 

Of course, that isn’t to say that it hasn’t been often empowering to use Halloween as an opportunity to feel sexy. It can be a time to revel in expressing your sensuality through costume. However, my concern is that this opportunity for sexual liberation has been appropriated by the patriarchy to fit into rigid definitions of gender roles. This is particularly ironic when we consider how much of Halloween as we know it has emerged from queer culture.

Costume has historically been a way for the LGBTQIA+ community to be empowered. From the Polk Street Halloween parties of San Francisco in the 1970s to the coining of the term “gay Christmas”, this festival in which adults wear costume emerges from queer society. In times where the expression of one’s sexuality or gender identity might otherwise be illegal, this was historically a night of relative freedom. This part of history still manifests itself today. Halloween can act as a comfort for many who don’t otherwise feel able to express themselves for fear of prejudice; whatever you wear can be passed off as a costume an identity that you can try on for one night without needing to defend it as a lifestyle choice and with no commitment to it for the rest of the year. This can provide a safe and affirming space for people who otherwise might not have the opportunity to express their identity in this way. 

“…if we can feel liberated on Halloween through costume then why not use clothing to empower us all year round?”

Fundamentally we return to the same issue if we can feel liberated on Halloween through costume then why not use clothing to empower us all year round? I am not suggesting that I want to wear my Beetlejuice costume 24/7, but the albeit complicated feeling of sexual empowerment it can lend who knew Beetlejuice could be sexy?! wouldn’t be a bad thing to have more of in my day-to-day life. Perhaps we should seek to rebel against the idea of how we should dress, and not on just the last day of October? And how can we take joy in our sexuality while dodging feeling sexualised? Well, I think our answer might lurk at the back of your wardrobe or on the rails of your local charity shop.

There is definitely a way to feel empowered by your Halloween costume this October. I think it is about changing the focus: prioritising joy and self-expression, and defying social and commercial pressure as much as possible. And as always, the biggest message to take with you into the season is to dress however you want to, and to have fun doing it.