Let’s Talk about Sexy Halloween Costumes

It’s sexy costumes season! 

In this 20-minute conversation from our Dress Up podcast episode, Bitch Creative and Editorial Director Andi Zeisler and Online Editor Sarah Mirk talk with independent fashion designer Adam Arnold and Portland fashion designer-manufacturer Cassie Ridgway about why people love to dress up sexy for Halloween.  



SARAH: We’re here to talk about costumes. Halloween is next week and we wanted to start out talking about sexy costumes and the idea of dressing up sexy for Halloween. We did a shout out on our Facebook to readers asking what they think of dressing up sexy on Halloween, asking: Do you dress up sexy or not? Why? Rosemary Hollands said, “Isn’t it part of the feminist mission to stop this bullshit of judging us for what we wear? I don’t see how dressing up on Halloween is any different than dressing up on a Friday night.” A couple people said they’re planning on dressing up absurdly sexy: as sexy Dwight Schrute, from The Office, as a sexy circuit board, because they radiate magnetism, or as a sexy ghost, which is just a person wearing a sheet with lingerie on the outside. 

ADAM: Wouldn’t that be kind of bunchy? 


ANDI: I think what’s worth talking about with regard to that first comment is it’s different choosing to dress up sexy for Halloween and this whole industry that has sprung up in just the past decade for manufacturing these sexy costumes just for women—we don’t see sexy costumes for men—they’re making these costumes usually cheaply and really unethically and marketing them as, you know, like sexy hamburger and sexy elephant. i think it’s worth talking about the whole industry that’s sprung up to codify this idea of Halloween’s sexiness. 

ADAM: What makes a costume sexy? 

ANDI: Well, right, what makes it sexy in these store bought Halloween sexy costumes is they’re spandex, the skirts are really short, and they have some kind of weird anthropomorphic element, like ears— 

ADAM: It’s like cute-sexy. 

ANDI: Right, it’s not scary sexy, it’s cutesyified. 

ADAM: “Frightening sexy” meaning like a vampire? 

ANDI: The store-bought sexy vampire costume would be a short skirt and a low neck, it’s not like terrifyingly long curly fingernails that would occur if you’re actually a vampire. That’s too much. 

CASSIE: It’s definitely not something I want to personally feel like I want discourage in people, if this is their opportunity to express their sexuality for a night with the guys and the anonymity of a costume. But definitely, to be clear, some of those costumes are shoddily made.  

SARAH: What you’re touching on there is how some people feel, when they put on a costume, the freedom to act in a way that they normally wouldn’t. So for people who don’t feel comfortable being sexy, Halloween can be their night to dress up sexy and be a little bit more ridiculous or silly and not be judged in the way they would if they were being that way at, say, work.  

ADAM: I feel that’s kind of the whole point of Halloween. It’s the one day of the year that every person has the permission to express something that is inside of them that they cannot express in their daily life. Obviously, you can express yourself in what you wear every day. But it’s almost like there’s this permission on Halloween. It is too bad that a lot of the options that are available, if you’re not handy with your hands, seem trashy. There are a lot of people that feel there’s a part of themselves in this society that is, for a lack of a better word, sexy and sensual. Our society as a whole downplays that and makes it seem unnatural when I believe it’s a completely natural feeling to feel sexy. It’s a great feeling, being comfortable in your body. On Halloween, maybe that becomes kind of stretched in a way in a person’s mind and they’re able to think of themselves as a crazy sexy animal, piece of toast, or circuit board. 

SARAH: Has anyone here used a costume to express a different part of themselves? 

CASSIE: I’m not entirely sure why, but every since I was a teenager, I’ve always cross-dressed on Halloween. So I was Dawg the Bounty Hunter, I’m going to be Sonny Bono this year. I’m not entirely sure why I do that. I think part of it has to do that we’re in the Pacific Northwest and I refuse to be cold on Halloween. The scantily clad route is just uncomfortable. I like a lot of padding. I wear fat suits as much as possible and stay warm. 

ADAM: So if they turned up the heat at the Halloween party, you’d be an Olympic swimmer? 

CASSIE: Oh yeah.

ANDI: From a media and culture perspective, I hate to be all “what about the children?” but there is this trend of these costumes scaling downward for kids. This idea of Halloween as the day when you get to be sexy is kind of uncomfortable when you’re thinking about like a seven or eight-year-old girl absorbing that message. It’s true for boy’s costumes, too. I have a five-year-old son and if you go to any store, you’ll see all the boy’s costumes have these nutty giant muscles built in. I think we can all agree that the Halloween industry is responsible for creating this idea that there are very specific ways for genders to be.  

ADAM: I was brought up that the best thing you could do was be nice and please everyone. I was always struggling with darker aspects of myself, feelings like, “i don’t like you.” On the surface, I was this happy smiling person all the time, but I didn’t allow this other part of myself to come out. At the height of this, I was the Prince of Darkness, I had this little tail and these little teeth and everything was black. Since then, when I’m trying to tell people that I have a  problem with—when I was first starting to wrestle with that idea in my late twenties, I thought maybe if I had a mask or some way to cover my face to become a character, it would be easier to tell them that. But that would probably be freakier, right? Being like, “I don’t like it when you leave the dishes in the sink…” and you’ve got on a mask of an old, mean lady or an old man with no teeth. Sometimes a costume, just putting it on, will transform who you are and allow you access to characters who are facets of your personality.  

SARAH: It was especially powerful as a kid—we were talking about the way costumes are marketed to kids and how it feels like the range of what’s an acceptable costume for a kid is getting narrower and more commercialized. That’s sad because when I was growing up, I loved putting on different costumes to take on different characters. I loved dressing up as Huck Finn, and then I could be a tomboy adventurer. It was okay, because it wasn’t me. It was Huck Finn. 

ADAM: My grandmother was really supportive of me. I was pretty much dressed in drag until I was like nine years old, when I thought I should probably cut down on it because it was distracting in a public school. I would dress up like Snow White and go up to this family on the end of the street who were Mormon and just help them plant corn in my Snow White costume. I have no idea what they were thinking, but I felt perfectly awesome. I liked how that reader said, “Why isn’t it every day?” Dressing up should be every day.

ANDI: I actually feel like lately there is more emphasis on dressing up every day. Like with street style blogs and fashion bloggers, if feels like there is more focus on dressing up to harness and express different dimensions of yourself.  

CASSIE: My boutique is on Hawthorne and I can definitely say that people take risks with their fashion sense. I adore it. People are very expressive in Portland and while they influence each other, I think there’s something about our city that gives people a bit of carte blanche to express artistic impulses through fashion. I definitely see that on a day to day basis. 

ADAM: We’re visual creatures. I mean, unless you’re blind, your first input from a person is what you see. What you see can symbolize so many things. You see a sweatshirt and you see baggy pants, immediately, there are no words, you have a whole range of ideas about this person before they even open their mouth. 

CASSIE: Your daily costume, so to speak, is a shorthand for your cultural context and the things that you lean toward. I suppose I always notice when people are always wearing well-made American-made clothing or used clothing—I can see some of the choices that they’ve made. 

SARAH: And that’s what can be exciting about Halloween, it can be a chance to pretend you’re part of another group. I can be a punk, I can pretend I’m part of the totally-comfortable-being-feminine-and-sexy crowd. But that can be a problem when you get into costumes that are culturally appropriative. We had a couple people on our Facebook group point out that it’s really annoying when they go to a party and there’s inevitably someone there dressed as Pocahontas or a cholo. At that point, it’s not okay to pretend you’re part of a group for an evening. That comes off as really racist. 

CASSIE: It’s interesting that we’re at this moment in time when we’re discussing cultural appropriation and slut shaming and those are both things that have been brought on by the larger pop culture climate. These icons that teenagers are looking up to and adults are talking about, too, and using as a sounding board—Halloween is a great opportunity to talk about those topics because it’s just such a prevalent thing in Halloween costumes. Slut shaming, I guess that’s why I’m trying to be so sensitive about saying the sexy hamburger costume is okay with me because I don’t want to be found guilty of slut shaming, but, to be honest, I think it’s silly—it’s not the path I would take. 

ANDI: I don’t think it’s slut shaming to say—

ADAM: What is slut shaming?  

ANDI: It’s the idea that you’re waggling your finger and clutching your pearls over the way a woman is dressed because you’re worried she’s going to attract “the wrong kind of attention.” It’s a way to express concern over what a woman is wearing when really you’re passing judgement. But I think there’s a different between saying that the store-bought sexy hamburger costume that someone decided to market to women because women can’t dress any anything but sexy and saying that, full stop, women and girls can’t dress sexy. I think it’s a comment on the marketing and the crassness of it, of the whole Halloween-industrial complex. The cultural appropriation, too, that it’s become a selling point of store-bought costumes. Like “Poca-hotness” or —

ADAM: Did you say Poca-hotness? 

ANDI: Poca-hotness, or, like, “Geisha Girl” with a tiny skirt and hair in chopsticks. It’s offensive already and it becomes doubly offensive when it’s subsumed into the whole marketing complex. It’s packaged and sold to people with no questioning of whether that’s an appropriate costume. 

CASSIE: I happen to be one of those people who, every year, Halloween creeps up on me and I don’t have a costume together. I’m the first person to get on Google and type in “Halloween costumes.” It’s amazing how current the Halloween costume emporiums keep things. You can get a Miley Cyrus costume right now, with the big finger, because she’s so current.

ADAM: I mean, how many people were Madonna in 1984? 

ANDI: I’m pretty sure I was Madonna. 

ADAM: One of my friends, always at the last minute, invites me to a party. Surprisingly, I don’t have a lot of costumes lying around. But this one year, I had a clown wig and I had just eaten a burrito, so I had bad gas and I was just going to turn that into a costume. I’m just going to be a stinky clown. My whole body is the costume. I’m not sexy, I’m stinky. 


CASSIE: It’s just so current. 

ADAM: It’s so right now! But it’s always like, what do I have in front of me right now? It’s like going into your kitchen and making dinner with what’s in your refrigerator. It’s using that part of your mind and developing that part of your imagination to create a costume that’s appropriate for you. 

SARAH: I think the top costumes of 2014 are definitely going to be Miley Cyrus and stinky clown. 

ADAM: And the burrito places are going to be sold out. 

Listen to the full podcast episode here

by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is the former host of Bitch Media’s podcast Popaganda. She’s interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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