Halloween and the rise of sexy costumes for women and girls

For years, families struck a balance between store-bought and homemade Halloween costumes. But these days, DIY Halloween costumes are out; store-bought costumes are an $2.87 billion business.

What does this mean for consumers? Well, for one thing, we’re seeing a lot of costumes that reproduce tired gender stereotypes. Sex sells, and in an $8 billion seasonal industry, it seems designers and retailers are maximizing profits by creating more and more “sexy” costumes for women and girls.

Cartoon by Andy Mariette, via Sociological Images

In today’s relatively new, hypercommercial Halloween, it’s become an expectation for females to dress in sexually provocative ways–even when costumed as, say, a children’s cartoon character, like Nemo from Finding Nemo, or a mundanely macabre item like a body bag. Are you a man? Your body bag Halloween costume will resemble an actual body bag. Are you a woman? The ladies’ version of a body bag costume will be (drum roll…) a skimpy dress with a hood that zips over your head. Seriously.

Adding insult to injury, the definition of “sexy” applied to the majority of women’s Halloween costumes is appallingly narrow. Tiny dresses with a lot of revealed skin available in a very limited range of sizes make it clear: Mainstream, readily-available “sexy” costumes aren’t being made for the full-figured, despite the fact that a size 14 is the average American woman’s size.

The typical sexy Halloween costumes divide women and shortchange young girls by conveying the same old message: if you don’t fit our society’s narrow beauty ideal, this culture doesn’t want to think of you as being sexually desirable. So you’d better focus on your appearance above all else. Note that even the new “sexy” costume for Ursula the Sea Witch from The Little Mermaid is scaled down, available in tiny sizes, even though the original character from the film is a confident, full-figured woman–which seems really incongruous.

Unfortunately, as parents of young girls know, today’s girls’ Halloween costumes are highly sexualized, too. This reinforces the same unhealthy messages about what female bodies are considered desirable and undesirable in our culture.

Although the issue is not just with costumes modeled after sexualized dolls, Bratz and Monster High costumes are a perennial source of concern; several years ago, in her book The Lolita Effect, Gigi Durham wrote:

Last Halloween, a five-year-old girl showed up at my doorstep decked out in a tube top, gauzy miniskirt, platform shoes, and glittering eye shadow. The outfit projected a rather tawdry adult sexuality. “I’m a Bratz!” the tot piped up proudly, brandishing a look-alike doll clutched in her chubby fist. I had an instant, dizzying flashback to an image of a child prostitute I had seen in Cambodia, dressed in a disturbingly similar outfit.

But, no–even the most inane girls’ costume ideas are rendered in skimpy styles, calculated to be provocative. From sexy witches and sexy vampires to sexy crayons, costumes that encourage young girls to sexualize themselves are everywhere.

No wonder some are complaining that Halloween has turned into “Happy Sexualize our Daughters Season.” Ugh.

Readers: Do you remember wearing a homemade Halloween costumes when you were a child? Which childhood Halloween costume was your favorite? Are you planning to make a costume this year for yourself of your kids? Share your ideas in the comments!
Follow Rebecca Hains on Facebook and Twitter

34 Comments on “Halloween and the rise of sexy costumes for women and girls

  1. This all makes me so sad. When we were small my Mom was the queen of the homemade Halloween get up. Whatever (within reason and taste) we desired. My older sister wanted to be a tap dancing television, and so it was. Let’s face it, there are stores selling children’s clothing that include padded bras/swim suit tops and risque underpants (with your choice or soccer ball or cheerleader icon). It is ramping up to warp speed. All I can do is steer my daughter based on her true interests and comfort. Right now, she likes doggies, cheese and swings. We were given a new Tinkerbell outfit in a bag of hand me downs that will fit Viv this Halloween (retail $39.00, WHAT!?). It is actually very modest and sweet, but it really is not warm enough and it scares me to go down “Princess Way,” as I fear you can never turn back!

  2. I will say that I was pretty shocked when I moved to the States and saw what passed for a Halloween costume. Granted it’s gotten worse in Ireland in recent years thanks to the Celtic Tiger, but growing up it was either handmade or nothing.

    Sexy adult costumes are one thing (they can take responsibility for their own actions) but kids don’t know any better, and it’s a poor parent who assumes that companies are marketing to them with the kids’ interests in mind.

  3. For reasons having more to do with my distaste for the macabre than the marketing frenzy, Halloween is my least favorite holiday and the evolution of the costumes only adds to my disgust. My kids participate in the festivities but we’ve always encouraged homemade costumes. First, homemade costumes are just more fun–they are creative and you’re not likely to run into ten other people with the exact outfit (How many polyester Iron Men are you going to see at your door this year?). Second, when you ignore costume manufacturers you are able to remove the gender limitations. If we MUST have Halloween then let’s at least have some fun with the costumes. A spandex sexy kitten costume or a pink plastic firefighter jacket is not worth the headache or expense.

  4. I had two favorite costumes growing up. One was a bag of jelly beans (dry cleaner bag tied to make a loose neck-hole and more firmly just below the butt, packed with air-filled water balloons, plus regular clothes and mismatched socks) The other was a ‘Headless Horseman’ (a black cloth or large black paper table-cloth gathered at one end to rest on top of my head and trailing down to the ground, plus a plastic pumpkin ‘treat container’.)

  5. My favorite (and cheapest) costume was the year I went as a landfill. A garbage bag with holes made for arms and head, with trash stapled to it! I love the bag of jellybeans idea too!

  6. My sexiest costume as a kid (12) was Playboy bunny, i froze my “buns” off…and that is all i think about now with “sexy costumes” aren’t you all chilly? or does everyone who buys these live in florida/ so. cal?

  7. A couple years ago my oldest daughter went as a “tourist”. Socks with flip-flops, big Hawaiian shirt, white make up on her nose (to imitate zinc) and a camera around her neck. My other daughter went as a gypsy. LONG skirt, white t-shirt and a really pretty scarf tied around her head. Both tasteful and both “homemade” as they got to put the outfits together. Those were the most fun costumes because they got to use their creativity.

  8. My most memorable costumes? Age 5, the pink power ranger with a paper mache helmet I made myself. Age 7 my dad helped me make a WORKING traffic light costume–big cardboad box, colored cellophane, light bulbs and batteries with a simple circut to turn on the lights. It was such a big hit at school the kindergarten teacher asked to keep it to teach kids about lights and safety–far as I know she still has it. In the 6th grade, I dressed up as Harry Potter 4. Yes, the actual book “Goblet of Fire”. Another big cardboard box, painstakingly painted.

  9. This is also bad for boys who only get to wear violent or macbre costumes.They must be tough and not fun.. What are we teaching them about who they can be?
    Though my 5 year old for years had begged for princess costumes, and I relented with homemade ones, last year she was darth vader, but I had to buy that from the boys’ section…

  10. I actually just commented about something like this! I remember when I was little and I dressed up as the proper Snow White (no skimpy necklines or skirts here. I wore it all the proper Snow White way!) and Pocahontas, which were both handmade. I also did a princess, witch, Elphaba (in my teenage years), lawyer and other things. This year, just for fun, I’m doing Katniss Everdeen (and I have most of the costume IN MY CLOSET. Yes, in my closet. And I all ready have the hair growing on my scalp.) My brother did characters like Tiny Tim, that very scary hamster from R.L Stine series, etc. Last year, my face and hair were done in the style of Black Swan. I would have tried to do the rest, but I had college, and I’m not about to don ballet gear in college!

    My sexiest outfit was Jasmine, and I had illusion all over the bare parts (it was the only store bought costume for me!) Even then, my mom made me put long underwear underneath as we were in Wisconsin. I still froze.

    I just love the thrill of hunting down parts of my own costume. That’s why I love homemade ones!

  11. My five year old daughter wants to be a WORM this Halloween. Yay for imaginativity! Now I just have to figure out how to make a worm costume… 😉 Oh, and according to her, it has to be brown.

    So glad she doesn’t want to be a princess, though. My 2 year old daughter wants to be Superman. 🙂

  12. I honestly didn’t know what this ‘Halloween’ was until a couple of years ago. This is just yet another reason for me not to ‘celebrate’ (is that what you are supposed to do with this Halloween? Is it like a birthday or Easter?) it this year.

  13. Pingback: Trick or Treat: Gender In Halloween Costumes | Fair Play

  14. I grew up wearing home-made costumes and carried on the rule for my sons. We would buy props and specific clothing, but our rule was that it had to be re-usable– the year they were both pumpkins (home sewn masks) we bought orange sweat pants and shirts, for instance. My favourite was the year they both wore white lab coats and stethoscopes with goofy Groucho Marx glasses and noses and made the dog a tee that read ‘lab animal’– he got a bunch of cookies just for himself 😉

  15. Pingback: 8. Gender: A National Day of Sexism & Objectification | Angel Huipio

  16. Pingback: Weekly Reads #1 | PhD in Parenting

  17. My 2.5 year old daughter is not yet old enough (thank GOD) to have the selection of sexually-inappropriate costumes. I do resent that they label toddler (and heck, kid) costumes as boy or girl, though. If my daughter wants to be a T-Rex, why do I have to pick from the boy section? Why, when she’s old enough to read “boy” and “girl” on labels, should she be made to feel she’s picking from the “wrong” section of the store?

  18. Pingback: I’m wondering if Halloween is turning into a sexually demonstrative holiday… « Under The LobsterScope

  19. My kids start designing and building their costumes in August. This year I will have a robot, a tinman and a vampire fairy to take trick or treating. My girls have not dressed as princesses since the year the eldest, a boy, went dressed in their dress up princess gear and was absolutely tickled to be in a pink frock, purple satin jacket, makeup and bows in his brushcut length hair. It was awesome. They’ve cut out circles and taped them to their jammies to be clowns, wrapped boxes in Christmas paper to be gifts and ransacked my fabric stash for the just right material to be midnight ghosts. I am always astonished at their creativity and I let them know that I think what they are doing is waaayy cooler than anything they could find in a store.

  20. Pingback: Three ways to Get Through Halloween with Sanity Intact | All Growing Up

  21. Pingback: Bullying is Bad. Don’t be a Bully. (Guest Post) | PhD in Parenting

  22. It definitely requires some tact in sifting and sorting those parts of Halloween that are an asset over those aspects that are, well … you know.

  23. My oldest is 9 yo and this year again I will make her costume. It is fun and create memories…

  24. Pingback: Trick or Treat! Planning the Halloween Costume | Fair Play

  25. my favourite growing up was dressing up as a refrigerator. lol. nothing sexy about that 😉

  26. I remember making myself a popcorn box costume one year out of a large me-sized box. Not a bit sexy, but you know what? It was a hit and I still remember it with pride.

  27. One year, my girlfriend and I went as the 3 legged man. We went to Goodwill and got the biggest pair of pants and shirt. We put her left leg my right leg into one side of pants. We put our other leg into the other pant legs. We put the shirt on together. We wore matching wigs and my fathers shoes. What fun coming up with this idea.

  28. Easy way to find/make costumes of pretty much whatever character you want: just google “*character’s name* cosplay”. Most likely you’ll get several that are really good, and some might have tutorials. Cosplayers have the best costumes anyway, since 9/10ths of them are really good at sewing and make all their own stuff. Sure, some will probably be sexual, but it’s no where near as bad as mainstream women’s costumes, despite some people’s misconception of what cosplay is.

  29. I went as a carpenter one year with overalls, my dad’s toolbelt, a hammer, some screwdrivers, and safety glasses. That was one of my favorites.

    I think we were all a graduate at some point because we already had a cap and gown from my aunt’s graduation.

    My favorite of my brother’s was when he went as Mario and Luigi with a friend.

    One year, I even went as a ‘pineapple tree’ because I found out 30 minutes before that my friends were going trick-or-treating after all (we were…17?), so I put on brown pants, a green shirt, a green bandana, and carried a pineapple.

  30. Pingback: Sexy Halloween Costumes in Costume | DogWear Online

  31. Found your blog. Its really nice on Mens accessories store I appreciate your article. Its important to get good quality mens accessories for sale. So thanks for sharing all that important information.

%d bloggers like this: