Four Ways to Add Depth and Meaning to your Halloween Costume

It’s October, which for me means that the month-long celebration of one of my favorite holidays has officially begun. Time to pull out the scary movies, sinister decorations, and fake blood. Also time to start planning a costume…which can be a somewhat daunting task.

I’m already seeing articles popping up about racism, sexism, slut-shaming, cultural insensitivity or fat-shaming in costumes, and I find myself bracing just a little bit for the onslaught of negativity. They’re not necessarily wrong—ugly elements of society tend to find their way into our celebrations in a number of ways, especially when it involves costumes. It’s important to be able to recognize the unsavory elements and talk about what they reveal about society.

But when that’s all there is, after a while it just starts to make Halloween feel absolutely hopeless.

So, I want to take a positive approach to the Halloween costume conundrum. Rather than putting out yet another opinion of what people shouldn’t wear, I want to present some ideas of what to wear. I’ve come up with four ways to make a Halloween costume that is both fun and meaningful.

Dress as someone you admire:

Do you have a favorite figure in history or a fictional character who has been particularly important? Turn your costume into a tribute by dressing up as someone whose life has been an inspiration. Obviously it’s incredible whenever someone creates a detailed, historically accurate replica of a famous person, but even if you don’t feel like you have the time, money, or talent to create Susan B. Anthony or Thomas Edison look-a-likes, you can still create an abstract or symbolic costume of the people you admire.

Queen Christina from Take Back Halloween, an awesome site that gives you tips on how to create your own costumes!

Queen Christina from Take Back Halloween, an awesome site that gives you tips on how to create your own costumes!

Dress as your totem:

If you want to go in the direction of the animal kingdom, consider inhabiting the form of your totem animal for an evening. This is a great opportunity to connect with your spiritual or primal side during Halloween and can even become a kind of mental pilgrimage if you use your preparation time to research information about your animal. The best thing about this costume is that if you don’t like to do much of the costume creation yourself, you can usually find simple animal costumes at Halloween costume shops. Some face paint, ears, and a tale—you’re ready to go! Extra points if you dress as your shadow totem.

Black Cat Mask project from Martha Stewart

Black Cat Mask project from Martha Stewart

Dress as your own fears:

In a post I did on Halloween in 2012, I talked about the value of “dark” holidays in giving us permission to approach our fears and reduce them to conquerable representations. What better way to face your fear than to create a costume of it? This is one idea that could have multiple layers. Literal representations of things like spiders or rats may initially come to mind, but I encourage you to think a little deeper. Often our fear of something mirrors an area within ourselves with which we feel uncomfortable. A fear of spiders may actually be connected with a fear of losing control or a fear of showing your creativity to the world. Finding a way to symbolize more abstract fears can add a depth to your costume. The very act of creating the costume then becomes a therapeutic act in itself.

Pennywise, the clown from Stephen King's "It" (1990). Why is a bit of face paint to create a false expression such a scary idea to us?

Pennywise, the clown from Stephen King’s “It” (1990). What is it about clowns that is so terrifying? Perhaps it has something to do with a false identity?

Dress as yourself:

But not literally as yourself because that would be boring.

Dress as a stereotype or exaggeration of yourself.

Want to bring your activism into your celebrations? Use this time of year to push the boundaries of how society perceives stereotypes. This is the time of year when some of the more hurtful stereotypes make a grand appearance, garnering outrage from any number of groups. On the one hand, we could cry foul, recoil in horror, and allow the negative energy of thoughtless people to hurt, or we could use Halloween as a time to fight back.

A few years ago, I chose to go as a witch—a stereotype of my own spirituality. I chose to do so because I feel that I have more power over how that stereotype is used if I embrace it and turn it into an empowerment rather than feeling miffed and horrified at the way others choose to use that stereotype. By dressing as a stereotype of an aspect of myself, I opened doors for interesting conversations about why I chose my costume and what my identity means to me.

Wicked Witch of the West from "The Wizard of Oz" (1939)

Wicked Witch of the West from “The Wizard of Oz” (1939)

Dressing as yourself could also involve things that don’t fall into larger identity categories. For instance, you could create a costume that portrays minor flaws or personality quirks. Explore what they mean to you. Or go as a two-sided concept like your greatest strength and greatest weakness (which often seem to be the same thing, e.g. perfectionism/attention to detail). Your friends might get a chuckle in seeing you take a jab at yourself, but more importantly, they’ll see you taking ownership of who you are, which is a pretty fucking powerful message, whether that’s followed up with a desire to change or a desire to keep on going as you are.

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I would love to hear about or see pictures of what you choose to do for Halloween. I hope these suggestions give you something exciting to work towards to offset all of the messages that tell you what to avoid. This is one of those holidays that I see as holding tremendous power, and I would love to see mainstream society take a more mindful approach to how we celebrate—which, as I’ve experienced, doesn’t mean it ceases to be fantastically fun!

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2 thoughts on “Four Ways to Add Depth and Meaning to your Halloween Costume

  1. […] the beginning of October, I did a post on creating meaningful costumes. One of my suggestions was to dress up as a stereotype or caricature of […]

  2. Reblogged this on sometimesmagical and commented:

    Before we actually hit October, this is a great time to start thinking about putting thought and meaning into a fun costume. I wrote this piece last year about four ways to create fantastic and meaningful costumes. It’s still a passionate topic for me.

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