Appearances Matter Pt. 2: Halloween

Last week I talked about several recent dress-related contentious situations.  From last summer’s Rachel Dolezal moment to this Halloween’s incendiary costume choices on college campuses, there is no end of examples on social media and in the news to show us just how much appearances matter.  While what we wear and how we look matters in all situations where visual communication is part of the equation, the Halloween context is unique from the everyday.  The example of Rachel Dolezal attempting to pass as African American in her day-to-day life cannot be neatly placed in the same category with the white UCLA students in costume at the “Kanye Western” theme party.  While one might categorize the two situations as racist acts—a plausible argument that I do not make here—the UCLA party context uniquely informs dress meaning in two significant ways that do not apply to Dolezal’s appearance.

Gold diggers of 2015 attending a UCLA party

First, the UCLA event was a costume party and second, it was held during the Halloween season. 

While Dolezal goes to some lengths to achieve her appearance—tanning, wigs—the elements and efforts that go into her daily looks do not constitute a costume.  The term “costume” has French etymological roots and has been in the English language since the 18th century.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term’s early usage was meant to indicate mode of “personal attire and dress.”  Used in this way, costume could refer to any aspect of clothing or personal appearance such as that used by Rachel Dolezal or the UCLA partygoers.  Indeed, within the museum world costume is often used in this way as, for example, the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  I prefer the less rarefied and more American colloquial sense of costume as defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: an outfit or set of clothing used to characterize “a particular period, person, place, or thing” such as worn for a theatrical performance or during a festival event like Halloween, Purim, or carnival.[i]  Costume according to this sense suggests a heightened reflexivity about dress’ meaning. 

Arguably there are those who devote more thought to their daily appearance than some who would wear a Halloween costume, yet there remains a key difference.  A costume wearer is understood to have self-consciously adorned him or herself with an implication of disguise to appear as something other than what one “actually” is.  Again, the Rachel Dolezal example complicates things because she is accused of masquerading as African American. Dolezal herself has said, “It’s not a costume.”  Moreover, she makes the somewhat confusing clarification that she is Black, not African American, which I understand to mean cultural affinity with Blackness as opposed to racial makeup.  If we assume that Dolezal speaks honestly, the key here is that, regardless of how others may perceive her, she understands her appearance to be a reflection of her authentic self; one that is not meant to be a disguise.  While Halloween might provide people with an opportunity to dress in a way that more accurately reflects how we think of our authentic selves than our daily dress does, the context is ambiguous.  We can wear a Halloween costume that feels “true” yet alleviate censure by saying it is merely a “joke” not to be taken seriously.  As all carnivalesque situations are, Halloween is characterized by ambiguity.  This ambiguity provides a kind of shield from sanctions we might otherwise face in daily life.  Consider, for example, the perennial Halloween favorite: women’s sexy fill-in-the-blank costumes.

Sexy licorice
A sexy licorice costume from

Such women’s sexy costumes often aim to create deliberate juxtapositions, e.g. Sexy Harry Potter, Sexy Witch.  For many women, Halloween provides an opportunity to explore sexuality in ways that may seem impossible the rest of the year.  US popular culture hypersexualizes girls and women and constantly puts our bodies on display.  Yet even as we are subjects of a sexualizing gaze, public examples of women being agents of their own sexuality are notable for their infrequency.  When a woman wears, for example, a Sexy Firefighter Halloween costume, she is doing more than sexually objectifying herself—although she might be doing that too.  She attempts actively to define the terms of her sexuality.  While this maneuver may not reflect much feminist progress on the surface, it does demonstrate an effort towards personal agency within a social framework that sexualizes women as passive recipients of others’ desires. 

During Halloween ambiguity reigns and opportunities emerge for social relationships to be explored half-seriously and half-playfully.  In the Halloween context women often assume more assertive sexual agency than they do year round.  As I have discussed elsewhere, in the carnival context that Halloween creates, all manner of social tensions and ambivalences get explored under the protective umbrella of half-seriousness/half-playfulness.[ii]


Musician Kanye West
Musician Kanye West


The UCLA “Kanye Western” party provided such an umbrella of ambiguity.  It is difficult to fathom any circumstances under which a Caucasian student attending one of the country’s most esteemed public universities would imagine that putting charcoal on her face could not be construed as dressing in blackface.  And yet the “Kanye Western” partygoers insisted that their “gold miner” costumes were not blackface but rather inspired by West’s 2005 song “Gold Digger.”  Their defense is disingenuous at best but it seems to have worked.  So far the fraternity and sorority responsible for throwing the party have only had their activities suspended while the university investigates. 

In a Halloween context people transgress in ways they know are insensitive—if not downright racist—because they feel safe doing so under the umbrella of half-seriousness/half-playfulness.  Even when the pretext is flimsy, Halloween costumes nonetheless provide opportunities for testing social boundaries.  In the weeks leading up to Halloween, universities and colleges had been advising students to be responsible about their costume choices.  Yet instructing people explicitly not to dress in, for example, black face only reinforces such a costume’s taboo qualities rendering it all the more tempting as a costume choice. 

Are there Halloween costumes that are never acceptable?  Should certain costumes be banned from college campuses?  As blackmamba noted with regard to perceptions of beauty, context is everything.  University of Louisville President James Ramsey and his staff wore sombreros and moustaches and even posed for a photograph precisely because it was Halloween.  When he was criticized for the offensive costume choice, the University of Louisville issued a public apology.  Shortly after attention was called to the UCLA partygoers in blackface, the host fraternity and sorority had their activities suspended.  The repercussions for transgression in both instances were mild, to say the least.  What these different stereotyped costumes demonstrate are the social anxieties that the costumed participants have about Black and Latin/a/o American groups. 

"Mexicans" at the University of Louisville
"Mexicans" at the University of Louisville

I do not favor banning any costumes not least of all because I don’t think such bans would actually be productive or effective.  The circulation of ethnically and racially stereotyped costumes suggests to me social anxieties about the groups represented.  One way to grapple with such anxieties is through the ambiguity of Halloween.  Yet another way is to engage in cross-cultural dialogue to build understanding.  One hopes this season’s insensitive Halloween costumes will spark such dialogue.


Check back soon when I discuss cultural appropriation in relation to dress.







[i] To the notion of costumes used to characterize a period, person, place, or thing, I add abstract concept.  I owe this insight to a Halloween costume my friend Bert Stabler wore in 1999, “The Pale Specter of Standardized Testing.”

[ii] Hall-Araujo 2013, citing Bakhtin 1984: 123-127


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