Clothing holds one of the most powerful influences on history, culture, and tradition in the world. From the primitive animal skins of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:21 to Lady Gaga’s infamous meat dress, the vestments one dawns on a daily basis can tell quite a lot about the world we live in and how it’s changing. Specifically over the past decade, pop culture has observed a significant increase in fashion experimentation, in particular, when it comes to defying gender norms and social expectations for the respective sexes. Men are wearing dresses, women are shaving their heads, and all in the name of freedom of expression. However, not all of these changes are readily embraced by the public (especially if, unlike Lady Gaga, you are not a celebrity), and so, there are still implicit dress codes that we are obliged to follow.
This, my friends, is where Halloween comes in. A day in which anything goes, and you can be anything, thus enabling us to stray from the templates of fashion trends and present however we wish…at least, it’s supposed to. But is it really? When scouring the internet for Women’s Halloween costumes this past week, I couldn’t help but notice a common thread between nearly all of the search results. Almost everything was, well, sexy.
Although this concept is frequently satirized by pop culture, such as in Mean Girls The Musical when Karen Smith upholds that even corn can be sexy, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was more to this than comedy. On Halloween, you can be anything, so why would women choose to be objectified, when that arguably already happens on the other three hundred and sixty-four days of the year? Are women really making this choice at all, or are mass corporations and the pressure of social norms subliminally making it for them? To find this out, I took it upon myself to do some research on the history of women’s Halloween costumes and why they’re so risqué, in the hopes that by exploring the past of women’s cosplay, I can find the key to a more liberating future.
The history of Halloween is over 2,000 years old, but for the sake of brevity, I will only be discussing costume trends as far back as the early 1900s. Believe it or not, the first thirty years of the 20th century were rather instrumental in creating the iconic cosplay looks we know and love today. In keeping with the eerie origins of spooky season, witches and ghouls had a chokehold over costume trends from 1910 to 1930. This makes sense, considering that the original purpose of dressing up on All Hallow’s Eve was to ward off evil spirits. It should also be noted that most of these costumes were handmade. Paper mâché, fabric scraps, and even repurposed streetwear were refashioned into imaginative alter egos. Between World War I and the Stock Market Crash of 1929, such resourcefulness was common in the face of multiple financial crises. The idea of purchasing an entire ensemble for single use was a luxury few could afford, so fast fashion would not override the ‘waste not, want not’ mentality until many decades later. Nonetheless, there were a few companies that were early on the jump when it came to the potential monetization of what was formally a very affordable tradition. One such company was Broadway.
Due to financial strife brought on by the Great Depression, the theater company was taking a massive hit, so in 1937, two costume designers worked together to form America’s first national costume company, Ben Cooper Inc. Continuing Broadway’s close partnership with Disney, the two companies worked together to release some of the first formally licensed Halloween costumes, with Minnie Mouse being one of the most popular for women. Thus, the cultural phenomenon of fandom cosplay began.
Today, there are thousands of movies and TV shows that sell costumes from their franchises, enabling the fandom to dress up as their favorite characters. In 2023, this means a plethora of Barbie cosplays, but in 1940, there were different role models to be impersonated. Specifically, pinup girls.
First appearing in 1941, pinup girls gained most of their traction due to their popularity with GIs. It was believed that these photoshoots boosted war morale, and so, in the spirit of patriotism, the wives, girlfriends, and even children of military men began starring in these risqué images and sending the prints to the frontlines. Naturally, these modeling cosplays eventually made their way into Halloween festivities, too. Some speculate that the pinup girl cosplays marked the beginning of the sexualization of women’s Halloween costumes, but what we do know for certain is that the emergence of softcore pornography in the 1940s was a major precursor to the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s. Before we make the jump to the sixties, though, it’s important to point out another major catalyst for sexy costumes and roleplay outfits, namely, Playboy Enterprises, Inc.
Founded by Hugh Hefner and first produced in 1953, the magazine and calendar prints were advertised as sexually liberating for both men and women…in spite of the fact that the magazines were clearly targeting an audience of straight men. Jenny and Douglas Lambert took note of this in the 1970s and would later launch the Playgirl magazine series, inspired by (but not affiliated with) Playboy, but directed at an audience of straight women. Long before the release of Playgirl, however, Playboy captivated the hearts and minds of men and women alike, and pretty soon, playbunny cosplays entered the costume scene. For men, it was arousing, but for women, it felt empowering. Embracing the sensual side of femininity after years of religious stigma and sexual repression was a breath of fresh air, but what no one could possibly predict is how that breath of fresh air would grow from a gust of wind into a full-blown tornado, forever changing the way sexuality was addressed in the United States of America. Now, we enter the 1960s.
The 1960s are perhaps most well known for being a time of sexual revolution, but they were also a time of feminist revolution, and the interplay of the two social movements was quite fascinating to observe. In the sixties and seventies, this crossover was demonstrated by a rise in female superhero (and supervillain) Halloween costumes, such as Catwoman, Wonderwoman, and of course, one of the highest-grossing Halloween women’s costumes to date, Harley Quinn. Comic book costumes would continue to gain traction after America’s first Comic Con in 1970. Costumes like these were entirely different from the cosplays of the past fifty years, but one thing they held in common with costumes from the 40s was sex appeal. Featuring skintight leotards and catsuits that possessed an almost dominatrix air, it seemed that even the empowerment of women was subject to sexualization. While it’s true that these costumes were fairly accurate to the TV and comic book characters that they imitated, it is equally true that these characters were designed by men, raising the question of whether media made by men is ever not also designed for men. The idea that men intentionally objectify and oversexualize women in media is no grand revelation. This problem has been going on for as long as media has existed. Therefore, if we want to evaluate what women want, we have to look at media made by women. Which, in 1980, there was beginning to be plenty of, all due to the rise of female pop stars.
In the 80s, Halloween costume trends were strongly dictated by what was on television. As one teenager from a WDEF news broadcast in the 1980s put it, “Whoever the hero is on TV is who [people] want to be.” While many of these heroes were from fictional franchises such as Star Wars and The Muppets, a good portion of them were real people, but more than that, real women. In 1983, Madonna released her first single “Holiday”, which glorified the concept of a girls’ night out. Shortly afterward in 1984, American pop star Cyndi Lauper released her hit single, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” portraying female sexuality and partying from the perspective of women rather than through the male gaze. Both Madonna and Cyndi Lauper became popular Halloween cosplays within the year, with Madonna cosplays featuring the performer’s iconic revival of the 1940s bullet bra, and Lauper costumes imitating the singer’s flamboyant style and voluminous hair. This trend of dressing up as celebrities only grew in strength over the next twenty years, gaining traction in the early 2000s during the paparazzi gold rush. What happened after that? Well, Gen Z began to take charge, and that’s where things got interesting.
The general consensus of Gen Z was that modesty ministry was oppressing women, meaning that the only way to break the sexist shackles of coverup culture was by uncovering, well, as much as possible. Booty shorts got shorter, t-shirts halved in size, and thong bathing suits became common beachwear. In the proper context, most youth of today would not describe these outfits as ‘revealing’ or ‘provocative’ at all. Such outfits came less from a place of intentional exposure and more from a lack of intentional concealment. The body is no longer objectively sexy inasmuch as it’s objectively utilitarian, a necessary vessel for the mind. Any other interpretation of the body’s functionality is merely additive but doesn’t take away from its original purpose. Therefore, if a woman wants to embrace sensuality and feel sexy, she is more than welcome to, but she doesn’t have to, she isn’t limited to that. Further, when women do choose to present in a way that is intentionally sexual, they do so for themselves. That is the mentality with which Gen Z women have approached Halloween.
Although costume trends continue to evolve with the changing interests of the media, there is still an overarching theme of sultriness that has refused to budge. In that way, there really hasn’t been much change in Women’s Halloween costume trends over the past forty years. Eroticism continues to dominate female cosplay, it’s just been rebranded in such a way so as to be more palatable to the modern feminist. See, if adolescent girls feel that they have a choice to be sexy on Halloween, then they are more likely to make that choice, whereas if they were being pressured into wearing titillating outfits, then they would be more likely to choose modesty, for such is the power of reverse psychology…a power that men are aware of, and most definitely have.
This is why I’ve always been suspicious of the concept that women can fight the patriarchy through self-sexualization. I don’t think hypersexualizing Halloween costumes is going to aid the feminist movement. I’m more inclined to believe that women have been duped into believing this to be the case, and looking at the history behind female cosplay has only reaffirmed this suspicion. The sexualization of women started as a business, a highly profitable business rooted in misogyny, of which men have historically been both the ringleaders and the number one consumers of the resulting product.
Do you want to be that product?
Now, I’m not calling for women to dress up as nuns this Halloween (unless you just saw The Nun II and were a really big fan, in which case, go for it). What I am calling for is that we dress up this year from an educated and intentional place, with the understanding that while sexy Halloween costumes have become the norm for women, we are not obligated to adhere to those norms. They are not our only option. So, if you want to be sexy this year, then be sexy, but understand the historical background, understand the influence of convoluted social pressures, and understand yourself, making sure that this is something that you’re doing for yourself. In doing so, you will not be helping women reclaim the costume industry, but rather, helping women claim it for what will be the very first time.