When my doorbell starts ringing at dusk this Halloween, I’m going to keep a tally of naughty leopards.
Last month, the website Consumerist reported the presence of a “Naughty Leopard” costume in toddler sizes on Walmart shelves. And, no, not naughty in the sense that this leopard that might, at any moment, start writing on your wall with crayons. Naughty in a “dirty French maid” way, with a short skirt, translucent mesh sleeves, and stylish leopard-print trim. Also, the whole thing was purple and black, a leopard color scheme that does not occur in nature.
Walmart pulled the costume after the uproar. But you still can find nearly identical black-and-purple leopards elsewhere, with names that are only slightly more benign. One Halloween website advertises it as “Toddler Ballerina Leopard,” which implies a whole new set of problems.
Others have railed, rightly, about the sexualization of young girls’ clothes and the blatant disrespect for the animal kingdom. But I also have a beef with what the fancy purple leopard represents in the context of Halloween. Somehow along the way, the holiday has shifted from a celebration of do-it-yourself creativity to yet another opportunity for people to look good.
Adults have faced this pressure for years. My husband once gave me a copy of Lorrie Moore’s short story, “You’re Ugly, Too,” in which the main character goes to a Halloween party and sidesteps gaggles of women dressed as “sexy witches.” Moore captured his philosophy of Halloween: It’s a chance to be silly, get creative, take risks. You’re supposed to look weirder and worse, he believes, than you normally do every day.
It’s hard to hew to that philosophy when you’re trolling the aisles of iParty. On one hand, it’s nice to see how much store-bought costumes have improved. When I was a kid, we wore plastic sheaths the shape of hazmat suits, and spent Halloween night trying to breathe through tiny nostril holes in masks that smelled like WD-40.
Now, the quality is better, but the choices tend to steer you in certain aesthetic directions. As an adult, you can now dress as a “sexy cheeseburger” or a dominatrix sock puppet. Superhero costumes for toddlers are padded with muscles — baby’s first six-pack. Last year, my 8-year-old daughter declared that she wanted to be a vampire. We went to Target, where I expected to find shapeless Dracula capes. Instead, I had to choose from an assortment of skin-tight, mermaid-style gowns.
Vampires were big last year. This year, kids want to be zombies. I proposed tearing up an old plaid shirt to make my daughter look like an extra from “The Walking Dead.” But she has this idea — seriously — that she needs to start with a fitted black dress.
It’s odd, especially when you think about Halloween’s other main aesthetic. On the one hand, we think nothing of festooning our yards with skeletons, spiders, and gravestones; I’m surprised that my kids don’t need trauma counseling every time they walk to school. On the other hand, on Halloween night, we dress like we’re expecting the paparazzi.
We can blame the costume-industrial complex, but the impetus for change has to come from within. We’re going to have to stop buying. In the world of competitive parenting, this is a dangerous proposition. Once I met a husband-and-wife team who had constructed an elaborate rowboat to fit around their toddler. They kept yelling, “Sabrina! Row your oars!” while their child stood there, not having fun.
The solution, perhaps, is in not expecting costumes to look perfect, or even impressive. The good thing about those flimsy plastic suits of yesteryear was that your homemade costume would always be better. I’d love to return to a different Halloween ethic, of costumes cobbled together cheaply but joyously: white-sheet ghosts, tinfoil robots, minimalist conceptual pieces that make use of what you have at hand.
One Halloween years ago, I opened the door to find a kid wearing street clothes and a telephone headpiece. I asked her what she was: A phone operator? An executive assistant? “Britney Spears at a concert,” she replied. I applauded her ingenuity and gave her an extra Kit Kat.Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.