2004 is the year Halloween changed forever. That’s when the movie Mean Girls gave us a throwaway joke that would take on a life of its own for years to come: “Halloween is the one day a year that a girl can dress like a total slut, and no other girls can say anything to her about it.”
By no means is 2004 the first year that girls dressed on the, shall we say, daring side for Halloween. But it was the year that the concept of the slutty Halloween costume was given a name and a purpose. It was certainly the first year that I can remember seeing so many of my teenage cohort costumed in lingerie and animal ears, which Mean Girls’ narrator Cady Heron explains is the costume par excellence for the especially “hardcore” girls. Slutty Halloween costumes were no longer the exclusive province of the bravest, least chill-prone girls among us. They had become the standard. They had been named.
Seventeen years after Mean Girls called out the obvious phenomenon of slutty costumes, they’ve gone from thrilling to passé for those of us who were young enough in 2004 to hear that line as a call to action. The Spirit Halloween website now has a whole section devoted to “sexy Halloween costumes,” featuring more than a hundred in the vein of “Touchdown Babe” and “Naughty Nurse.” There may have been potential to liberate us buttoned-up young women with the option to express our budding sexualities free from judgment, but capitalism got there first, and most of Spirit’s sexy Halloween costumes cost at least $50. (Excuse me, $49.99.)
These prefab costumes offer little potential for creative expression, and are, in fact, barely costumes. They’re flimsy one- and two-piece strips of Lycra designed to display one’s tits and legs without overburdening one’s imagination with the work of costume design. Spirit’s “Beer Garden Babe” leaves the onlooker with no doubts as to what, exactly, the wearer is costumed as — but aren’t the doubts part of the fun on Halloween? Isn’t it enjoyable to guess someone’s costume, and be wrong, and be charmed by the reveal of the right answer?
The spiritual precursor to today’s slutty nurse costume was arguably born to the Victorians in late 19th century America, who found and went apeshit for the Robert Burns poem “Halloween,” which includes footnotes describing Scottish Halloween festivities. According to author and folklore expert Lesley Bannatyne, that poem was all the pretext that the costume-obsessed Victorians needed to begin celebrating the holiday with vigor — though their costumes tended toward the “exotic” rather than the outright slutty. (“Exotic,” in this case, means “racist.” Some costumes favored by the white Victorians were “Romani fortune-teller” and “Egyptian princess.”) Still, as Bannatyne puts it, these costumes were “seen as glamorous and kind of in the same vein as you see kids shopping for sexy costumes today — in some part of their minds they think it’s glamorous. ‘A night to do something that I wouldn’t ordinarily do and have people look at me.’”
We’re no longer bound to the same rules of propriety that informed the Victorians’ behavior, and our costumes have become as daring as our social mores. (Sorry about that, I’m legally obligated to make at least one Andy Rooney-ass statement in this piece.) But the principle remains in place that Halloween is for doing something you wouldn’t normally do and enticing people to look at you. What’s interesting is that for so many women, “something you wouldn’t normally do” means showing off your body. We’re so out of touch with our bodies, so reluctant to let people see them in the public sphere, that for many of us, it is exotic to drop 50 bucks on a totally banal St. Pauli Girl rip-off costume that can only be worn for one night.
I have no qualms with sluttiness in general, but something about the spirit of the slutty Halloween costume feels sinister and joyless to me. Not that I’m a hardcore Halloween Adult™ or anything, but I still look forward to Halloween as an occasion to flex my creativity a bit, preferably while spending as little money as possible. I’m not wild about the self-consciously cutesy costumes that proliferate on lists of “Best Halloween Costumes” either, for much the same reason: A costume idea that isn’t your own, that was pitched to you through official marketing channels, has had most of the joy sucked out of it by the time it’s shipped to your doorstep. (I will make an exception for a full-body hot dog costume anytime, anyplace, whether it’s Halloween or not, because it’s never not hilarious to see a God-fearing, taxpaying adult dressed up like a hot dog.)
To name a phenomenon is to summon whatever demons are propping it up, and when Mean Girls named slutty Halloween costumes, they summoned the same consumerist demons that now plague every holiday from New Year’s Eve to New Year’s Day. To be fair, Halloween hasn’t ever been exclusively about devising a fun, cheap costume. In its early Christian days, Halloween was about celebrating the harvest’s end and — according to the Celtic traditions that the Christian holiday sought to rip-off — honoring the dead at a time when the boundaries between worlds were supposed to be at their thinnest. And so, the earliest costumes were neither slutty nor exotic, but rather straightforward impersonations of the dead, put toward a religious purpose.
It was a long road from impersonations of the dead to the $49.99 naughty nurse getups of the present day, informed at every step by cultural schisms. In fact, the religious and non-religious alike can now share equally in the opportunity to drop too much money on Halloween costumes (except for the particularly severe religious practitioners who shun Halloween as devilish). Just as slutty Halloween costumes proliferate, so do equally spendy and joyless-seeming modest alternatives. Whether a costume’s stated aim is showing off a woman’s body or hiding it, the true aim is still getting women to spend money.
Again, women’s sluttiness should be celebrated, not smothered or discouraged. As Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi once wisely said, “Do every sin that you can, you know? Have sex with an old man and steal a plant and get arrested.” (I have that quote memorized because it’s the motto on my official family crest.) If it takes a Spirit Halloween sack-o-costume to bring out a woman’s wild side, so be it. I just think we can do better for less money using our own brains and a quick trip to the secondhand store.
Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where costume shops weren’t empowered to dictate our self-expression and collect a profit from it? If Halloween is a night to do things you wouldn’t normally do and get people to look at you, then it’s only right to have those people look at you on your own terms, not some costume manufacturer’s. Be as slutty as a Regina George, but also be thoughtful and deliberate like a Cady Heron Zombie Bride, and I bet you’ll have way more fun.