It’s a problem as old as Halloween’s ancient Celtic roots themselves: how to wear your costume of choice without being called out on social media and promptly canceled. With cultural sensitivities (or at least sensitivities to the idea of people being sensitive) at an all-time high, it might seem like you’re better off dressing as an object (like a treadmill desk) or a concept (like climate change) than as a human being. (Not that climate change is just a concept.) But with enough creativity, can even a “classically offensive” costume be made acceptable?
Los Angeles–based costume designer Ann Closs-Farley has been working in theater, film, and television for more than 25 years. I proposed seven costumes that could potentially cause offense and asked if there was any way to safely pull them off.
Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Day of the Dead Mariachi
Meghan Daum: People seem to love dressing as traditionally Mexican figures, and they especially love combining mariachi costumes with Day of the Dead getups (or at least they did when I lived in Los Angeles). At the same time, the sombrero has become something of a symbol of the whole cultural-appropriation debate. Can this look be saved?
Ann Closs-Farley: These are cultural traditions. If you are of Mexican descent, face painting is acceptable. Among Hispanic peoples, it is generally not used for Halloween but for the Day of the Dead. It’s usually seen as acceptable for all when making sugar masks for celebrations honoring the dead on All Saints Day on November 2. Mariachi costumes are unacceptable if you are not of Mexican descent. Period. If you like this kind of costume style, you might want to research music-oriented uniforms, like the Beatles Sergeant Pepper’s Band or the English Pearly bands, which have fun styles that are more Halloween-appropriate.
There is a great saying: “Good artists borrow, and great artists steal.” What I think works well is borrowing ideas from the Mexican tradition, but using your own cultural symbols to create something new. You could maybe also think about creating a costume that celebrates your own loved ones who’ve passed away. It might be interesting to see what you come up with that’s original and distinctly your own.
This has also been a popular costume for a long time, which isn’t surprising given the beauty of the dresses, hairstyles, and makeup. But should non-Japanese women be endeavoring to do this? Last year, a Utah high school student became the center of social media blowup after she wore a Chinese cheongsam to her prom, and a few Twitter users accused her of cultural appropriation. (Almost instantly, those users were themselves piled on and accused of bullying a girl for simply wearing a beautiful dress.) If a prom dress can spark that much outrage, can anyone get away with a geisha costume?
A geisha is a Japanese woman who entertains through performing the ancient traditions of art, dance, and singing. She is not a character to portray. We need to be culturally conscious that this is part of Japanese culture and is not available for interpretation, humorous or otherwise. Even if you are a Japanese woman and you want to go as a geisha, you should not be demeaning these women by turning them into a sexual fantasy.
Handmaid from ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (Sexy or Otherwise)
Last year there was a brouhaha about the “sexy Handmaid’s Tale” costume for sale online, notably this one called “Brave Red Maiden.” It got yanked, but I’m still amazed at how many standard ‘Handmaid’s Tales’ costumes are out there, as if no one cares that they represent female sexual and reproductive slavery under a tyrannical theocracy. Last summer, Kylie Jenner famously hosted a ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ theme party and was excoriated for it. What’s your take on Gilead’s most recognizable uniform?
The Handmaids Tale costume is fine with me, sexy or otherwise. It symbolizes not just oppression but also rebellion, and when you make it sexy, it gets rebellious again. I like how this costume keeps the conversation going, so I don’t mind this one.
What if someone wanted to dress as a MAGA-hat-wearing Trump supporter? Any way to do this in a manner that’s interesting or original?
No. I don’t suggest engaging in this. This hat is a powerful symbol that has instigated a lot of hate and violence by being worn in public. It will be racially charged just by being there and is not a healthy choice for a celebratory evening. If you must wear it, maybe you can change it to something like “Make America Understanding Again.”
Barack or Michelle Obama
How might one dress as the Obamas? Is it possible to pull off the costume without darkening the skin? Fred Armisen played President Obama on ‘Saturday Night Live’ for years with “honey” makeup to darken his skin. (He also used this when he portrayed Prince.) Presumably that wouldn’t be allowed today. If you were a designer on that show, is there anything you’d do with the costume to compensate for that?
At first glance, I really did not even see they were using darker makeup with Fred Armisen’s Obama impression. I noticed the hairline, eyebrows, and suit. Fred is an excellent actor and sells it just fine. He doesn’t need darker makeup. They did a perfect job of getting the hairline and suit and letting Fred’s acting do the rest.
Michelle and Barack have so many powerful attributes. If I went as Michelle, I might just wear a cool designer-style yellow dress with black lines like school paper and one of her better-known quotes written on it. For instance, “If my future were determined just by my performance on a standardized test, I wouldn’t be here. I guarantee you that.” It would show a clever way to celebrate her and her fashion sense and how much she cares about kids.
You could do the same for Barack and have some of his amazing quotes written on a white suit with a Sharpie. Or even one long quote: “I see Americans of every party, every background, every faith who believe that we are stronger together: black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American; young, old; gay, straight; men, women, folks with disabilities, all pledging allegiance under the same proud flag to this big, bold country that we love. That’s what I see. That’s the America I know!” That shows your admiration without having to be literally dressed like Barack.
Hillary Clinton or Elizabeth Warren (Or Any Woman If You’re Not a Woman)
Can a man dress as a woman without it seeming offensive or like an affront to transgender people? What about the other way around? What if a woman wanted to dress as Mitch McConnell? Is there something inherently less offensive about that than a man dressing as, say, Nancy Pelosi? What about Kellyanne Conway? (Is it just easier to wear a store-bought mask?) What if someone, male or female, wanted to go as Hannah Gadsby? How might one signal that this is a tribute to the person rather than a mockery? (If that’s indeed what they meant?)
Common sense for all of these things, as with the Obamas. If you are coming at it to be offensive, it will be offensive. Period.
This costume was a perennial favorite when I was a teenager. “I’m going as a slut!” It was also what you did when you couldn’t be bothered to put together an actual costume. Is it possible to do this without “slut-shaming”? Any ideas for being original?
“Slut” is a feminist word now. If you want to go as a slut, maybe your outfit can be made of condoms, and you give them away all night to reveal that underneath you have an unexpected costume that says, “I like sex. What’s wrong with that!” Women should celebrate their sexuality and should use the word for themselves. The word’s origin is as crazy as the word has been oppressive. If you decide to be a slut for Halloween, use it in an empowering way!
A Halloween costume says more about the person wearing it than the actual choice of character or subject you are wearing. That’s something everyone should consider.