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Dress Fierce, Not Offensive
It’s time for the costume hunting to begin! Halloween is that special holiday when you get to be someone or something else, and for people who identify as women that usually means you get to be a sexy someone or something else. Sexy Snow White. Sexy Skunk. Sexy Industrial Stapler. But with sites like TakeBackHalloween.org, the holiday is slowly transforming into something like an intellectual fashion parade. That is an outrageous exaggeration, but it’s spurring on costumes born of on ingenuity and substance rather than leg and cleavage.
Now, I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with leg or cleavage. Goodness knows, I’ve dressed as my fair share of Sexy Witches and usually not even on Halloween. But I’m delighted that more costume options are made available for women, because a stroll down the women’s costume aisle would make you think that “leg and cleavage” were the only directions that the manufacturers were given. By “available,” I mean there are sites that offer ideas, templates, and suggestions to make your own clever costume, because if you’re expecting to find Susan B. Anthony, Frida Kahlo, Hypatia, and Harriet Tubman costumes in a store, you will be sorely disappointed.
Personally, I never felt sexier than when I was Frida Kahlo in a gorgeous vintage turquoise Mexican wedding dress with roses in my hair. Frida was a powerful, talented person who owned all her features with such raw beauty, and it was lovely to embody that for an evening when the veil between the living and the dead is the thinnest. At the party, everyone knew who I was, mainly because I exaggerated the brow with charcoal like her famed self-portraits. The party I attended was a house party with my MFA colleagues. The nerd factor was high, the costumes were all smart, creative, or funny: a paint-splattered sheet became Jackson Pollock’s ghost, Lindsay Bluth appeared in her “SLUT’ tank-top and skirt, one went as the Steampunk Movement with gears with moving parts sewn onto his black suit, Audrey Hepburn fraternized with Amelia Earhart, and Gulliver from Gulliver’s Travels was decorated with plastic Lilliputian army men hanging from the shirt and trousers.
In this delightful environment, my costume was at home. But when I sent a childhood friend a Halloween selfie, the first thing he said was, “EW. THE HAIR.” He was referring to the unibrow, of course. And I was violently reminded that most people, even people I love, are stringently in favor of the bizarre, unrealistic, and hairless beauty standards that rule. My first reaction was unbridled rage. How dare he shame me? But I know that wasn’t his intention. It was a deep-seated standard of beauty long ago internalized burbling up. Luckily, my friend is awesome and I get a kick out of making people question beauty, gender, and sexuality conventions, but if I were a more sensitive girl and less-prone to arguing passionately with dear friends over text, then I might have whipped out the baby wipes and gone as a Sexy Bed Sheet.
And boy, oh boy, do minorities get the fuzzy end of the lollipop on Halloween, particularly minority women. Let’s take another stroll down that imaginary Everystore and look at the costumes available. Pocahottie, Gypsy Sorceress, Eskimo Princess, Geisha, and on and on. I loved the “We’re a Culture not a Costume” campaign from 2013 because it beautifully sums up what is so infuriating about racially insensitive costumes. When the oppressor dons the costume of the oppressed and dances around as a fetishized caricature of the disenfranchised minority, like a jackass, it reads like a celebration of the cold hard facts of systemic racism.
Native people and Gypsies (Roma), for example, have been victims of genocide, slavery, forced sterilization, rape, racial profiling, poverty, apartheid, and more for generations. The sexualized fetishization of minority women does not grow out of an innocent admiration—it grows out of sexual slavery and rape as a war tactic. It grows out those women being treated as less than human because of their blood, culture, and the way they look. And this fetishization is literally manufactured to the point that the buyer doesn’t even realize the packaged persona is an ethnicity, like in the case of Gypsies.
Even the word Gypsy is contentious—it’s a racial slur (eg: gypped, gypsy job, etc.) and it’s appropriated in a number of stereotypical applications (the wanderer, the mystic, the seductress, the criminal) that actively injure the Roma and perpetuate or obscure the current Romani human rights crisis. So unless you’re Romani and reclaiming the Gypsy slur as an act of linguistic empowerment, then you should use the proper name “Roma,” “Romany,” “Romani,” or the name of the Romani clan or group you are referring to, like “Manouche,“ “Sinti,” or “Kalderash.”
It’s difficult to convince outsiders to take this slur seriously because it’s so loosely and often used, especially in the fashion industry, but that is exactly why it must be taken seriously: Systemic racism is so common and unchallenged that it’s become idiomatic. This is true for other minority groups too—The U.S. still has a football team called “The Redskins.” In this same way, wearing these reductive and appropriative costumes perpetuates the same stereotypes, hatred, and xenophobia as using racial slurs. It’s just visual rhetoric reinforcing the idea that racism is socially acceptable.
The line between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange is difficult to mark, but I believe there is one, more or less. Where cultural appropriation colonizes, generalizes , and misrepresents, cultural exchange informs, celebrates, and is a fair trade. It’s the difference between buying an Urban Outfitter dress that rips-off and congeals Native patterns and trades on Native people stereotypes to further fatten the conglomerate, and buying handmade goods from a Native craftsperson to support and celebrate the artisan and the craft. (FYI, BeyondBuckskin.com is a great resource for clothes, jewelry, art, and other goods made by Native artists and craftspeople.)
Keeping your holiday P.C. doesn’t mean that you can only wear costumes of your own ethnic background or else you’re a racist. It’s also not political correctness “gone mad.” It’s basic human kindness to avoid injuring other people and offending other people, and the people in question have good reason to be offended. But let’s say you are scrolling through TakeBackHalloween.org and you find the Tomyris costume and absolutely fall in love, but you aren’t of Kazak descent. Never fear! You can still dress up as Tomyris without stepping into the ugly cultural appropriation ring.
As long as you aren’t…
• Painting your face to look like another race (black face, brown face, red face, or yellow face, etc., is more or less always a bad idea)
• Dressing up as an ethnic stereotype: The Dragon Lady, The Gypsy Temptress, The Bare Chested Savage
• Dressing up as a generalization: The Mexican, complete with poncho, sombrero, cactus, donkey, and bottle of Tequila
• Wearing or representing a religious or cultural item or figure that is meant for sacred or ceremonial use only: for example, a Chief’s headdress.
• Appropriating a separate holiday as your Halloween, for example, Day of the Dead
…then you’re probably in good shape. The best rule of thumb is this—if you are dressing up as another ethnicity and you wouldn’t feel comfortable being in a room full of people from that community, then you shouldn’t wear it.
And if you’re dressing as a specific historic or contemporary person character, or, when appropriate, mythological figure, and you make an effort to honor and uphold the cultural and historical period with your dress, then you have a better chance at creating an intelligent, inventive, culturally sensitive, and all-around sexy costume.
If your costume is toeing the line between “specific person” and “general ethnic costume” then you should either abandon it or do more to make your costume-muse recognizable with props, mannerisms, even nametags. And for inspiration, think about who you want to embody and the energy you want to embody—what kind of power do you want to celebrate? Warriors, screen sirens, royalty, animals, concepts, artists, scholars, scientists, mythical figures and creatures? The possibilities are plenty!
So get out your skull cups, your sister crows, and your makeup pencil, and if anyone gags at your unibrow, then hold your head up like Frida and paint your self-portrait directly onto his face.
#Real #Halloween #Sexy #JessicaReidy #Culture #Costume #Gypsy #Pocahottie #Geisha #Appropriation
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