The Surprising (And Sexy) History Of Halloween

Halloween was about sex long before it was about chocolates and children...

sexy halloween costumes

by Lucy Morris |
Updated on

Halloween is barely a blink away, will you be a ‘Sexy Swashbuckler’ in a snug corset and ruffled petticoat? Or a ‘Darling Dalmation’ in a furry micro mini dress with a floppy-eared headband? Or, perhaps, you’ll play ‘Nurse’ in a white wrap dress that veers so far south a bra is out of the question?

Anyone who has watched Mean Girls will know by heart the scene that perfectly sums up Halloween for the female half of the population. Lindsay Lohan’s character Cady knowingly says, ‘In the regular world, Halloween is when children dress up in costumes and beg for candy. In Girl World, Halloween is the one night a year when a girl can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it’. Feminism has come a long way, but there's still an abundance of sexy cats that come out for the 31st of October. That said, Halloween was about sex long before it was about chocolate and children.

In fact, Halloween can trace it’s origins to the festival’s precursor, Samhain (SAH-win). It’s said animal hides and the heads of livestock slaughtered ahead of this Gaelic festival were worn during the rituals. Sounds decidedly un-sexy. However, as the boundaries between the living and the dead blurred, so did the lines between genders. Young men would celebrate by dressing up as women and vice versa.

Dress-up has a camp history of its own. From Venice’s debauched masquerades to the decadent costume balls of the French Court during the rule of Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette, the history of fancy dress can’t be untangled from its sexy and salacious past.

The phenomenon known as ‘enclothed cognition’ explains the appeal of fancy dress, explains MindFashion’s founder and cultural marketing expert Janne Baetsen. 'The reasons why we dress-up and whom or what we dress-up as might be broad and personal, but one thing is certain, a costume allows us to imagine and transform into someone else, or, in a different version of ourselves. Giving us 'super' powers that normally don't come naturally or maybe even make us uncomfortable, from feeling sexy, less shy or like a kid again to brave, funny, scary or strong.’ Costumes allow us to let our inner selves loose, even if it’s just for one night a year.

But back to those sexy cats.

'Over time, it became custom of boy choristers dressing up as virgins in Hallowmass [the day after Halloween] ceremonies, which were not only intended to commemorate the dead but also to wish for fruitful unions,' York university's political and social professor Nick Rogers tells me. It took a while for the ghosts and witches concept to get hooked to the festivities, but Rogers thinks this might be because All Soul’s Day (the other name for Hallowmass) was associated with the deceased.

See: Celebrity Halloween costumes from the 80s and 90s...


Celebrity Halloween Costumes From The '80s, '90s and '00s

1981, Brooke Shields1 of 18

1981, Brooke Shields

Brooke Shields as Cruella de Vil.

1984, Drew Barrymore2 of 18

1984, Drew Barrymore

Drew Barrymore dressed as a Crayola crayon.

1984, Twiggy3 of 18

1984, Twiggy

Twiggy as Elvira.

1995, Elle Macpherson4 of 18

1995, Elle Macpherson

Elle Macpherson at Bette Midler's Halloween party.

1996, Naomi Campbell5 of 18

1996, Naomi Campbell

Naomi Campbell as a can-can dancer.

1996, Cindy Crawford6 of 18

1996, Cindy Crawford

Cindy Crawford as Marilyn Monroe.

1996, Helena Christensen7 of 18

1996, Helena Christensen

Helena Christensen dressed as a nurse.

1997, Cher8 of 18

1997, Cher

Cher as Cleopatra.

1997, Demi Moore9 of 18

1997, Demi Moore

Demi Moore as Gomez Addams.

1997, Mariah Carey10 of 18

1997, Mariah Carey

Mariah Carey as one of the Charlie's Angels.

1998, Bette Midler and Rosie O'Donnell11 of 18

1998, Bette Midler and Rosie O'Donnell

Bette Midler dressed as a nurse, and Rosie O'Donnell as a doctor.

1998, Martha Stewart12 of 18

1998, Martha Stewart

Martha Stewart as a surfer.

1999, Jamie Lee Curtis13 of 18

1999, Jamie Lee Curtis

Jamie Lee Curtis dressed as a witch.

1996, Eva Herzigova and Tico Torres14 of 18

1996, Eva Herzigova and Tico Torres

Eva Herzigova and Tico Torres dressed as cats.

2006, Heidi Klum15 of 18

2006, Heidi Klum

Heidi Klum as a poisoned apple.

2004, Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton16 of 18

2004, Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton

Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton as fairies.

2001, Fergie17 of 18

2001, Fergie

Fergie as a pirate.

2001, Jamie Lee Curtis18 of 18

2001, Jamie Lee Curtis

Jamie Lee Curtis as a nurse.

Moving on a few years, a man named Ben Cooper can be blamed for the fancy dress boom. During the Great Depression, Cooper was an out-of-work costumier in New York who began selling outfits based on characters, like Snow White and Donald Duck. Suddenly white sheet ghosts and homemade witches were out and in-came these thin, but affordable dime store costumes. Lisa Morton, author of Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween tells Grazia that the holiday was, ‘mainly a day for boys to play all sorts of pranks, but by 1933 the pranks had become so destructive - this was also at the height of the Great Depression - that many cities were considering banning the holiday.

Instead, a few smart parents got the idea of buying off the destructive pranksters with parties, and costuming became a big part of those parties.’ And yes, this is where the phrase ‘trick or treat’ comes from.

But, fever pitch for the festival didn’t hit mass proportions until post-war. It was a combination of things – the growth of safe suburban neighbourhoods, the end of sugar rationing and ergo the expansion of confectionary companies, the increase in single-parent households with less available time to make handmade costumes and an appetite for the growing mass-produced cheap ready-made clothing – in the 1950s that made Halloween into a day of delight for kids.

A perfect storm of events in the 1970s took Halloween out of the cosy enclaves of church halls and sanitised suburbs and into the streets. In this decade of sexual-liberation, Hollywood got hold of the horror film genre and fueled money into tawdy but camp films like Rocky Horror Picture Show but also cult scare classics like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Exorcist and The Wicker Man. Meanwhile, in New York’s Greenwich Village the combustible combination of cheap rent meant low-income families lived side-by-side with the queer community that occupied this enclave of the city. It was here that the door-to-door parade of dressed-up kids inspired a neighbourhood party that brought drag artists out into the daylight. Soon de facto gay districts across the US – West Hollywood, the Castro etc – saw a similar set of events took place.

But, the sexy cat concept didn’t really take a grip until the 90s, thinks Morton. ‘It's likely that they represent the holiday's transition from a festival celebrated mainly by children - as it was until the 1970s - to something co-opted more and more by adults,’ she says. Whether it’s little boys dressed as superheroes and little girls in princess costumes, Morton thinks the act of costume gendering has been mainstream since the mid-century, but at the end of the 20th Century, something took hold.

Possibly it was an economic impetus, thinks popular culture studies Professor Jack Santino. ‘Halloween has always been about breaking taboos, all those images of death adorning houses; gay parades, political parodies, and so forth,’ he says, ‘ Here the night offers an occasion to flaunt one's sexuality in a way not condoned by the everyday norms. Plus, the commercial Halloween industry has done their best to capitalize and commodify virtually every folk tradition.’

‘It’s easy,’ says Georgia, a self-professed sexy Halloween dresser. ‘I tend to go for an outfit that’s easy to whip together the night before. Typically, these end up being “sexy” costumes because it will just be my going-out clothes that are easy to give a fancy dress twist. To be honest, I despise the rhetoric around Halloween costumes, it's like the pinnacle of the "she was asking for it" narrative. Whether you think my outfit is sexy or not is indicative of your desires, not mine - it certainly doesn't say anything about my sex life or whether i'm interested in having sex with anyone.'

The sexy cat, if you will, like all more costumes says more about the wearer than they may think. ‘Although you are hiding behind a mask during Halloween, it may reveal more of yourself than you are conscious of,’ divulges Baetsen. ‘Previous psychological research on the meanings behind costume choices has revealed that turning into a sexy Jessica Rabbit can stand for a celebration of repressed sexuality, Cinderella can represent your lost innocence or beauty, and Zombie Joe can show your fascination with the macabre.’

So before you hate on the trope for sexy Halloween costumes too much, consider this: Halloween gives us the opportunity to push our sartorial personality to the forefront and express our sexuality in a safe environment. There's more to that sexy cat costume than meets the eye.

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