top of page

The History of the Sexy Halloween Costume and the War on Women’s Bodies

(Photo Credit: Flickr)

By Teresa Pavia | October 29, 2021

Cady Heron once said, “In the real world, Halloween is when kids dress up and beg for candy. But in girl world, Halloween is the one time of year a girl can dress like a total slut and no other girl can say anything about it.” “Mean Girls,” the über-successful, ever-relevant, satirical yet spot-on portrayal of women's relationships to each other, illuminates an important phenomenon here: the majority of Halloween costumes marketed towards young women are almost exclusively sexy.

Fashion has long since been used as a tool of oppression against women. Women, in turn, have used it as a tool for liberation. The preeminence of the sexy Halloween costume is demonstrative of this paradoxical nature of women’s dress in modern-day American society.

New York City’s annual Halloween Parade began in 1973, sitting squarely in the middle of a period defined by second-wave feminism, the gay liberation movement, and the sexual revolution. This Halloween Parade was also the first time that more risqué costumes were worn to commemorate the holiday.

Beginning in 1961 with the popularization of the birth control pill, and followed by the publication of feminist literature, such as “The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan in ‘63, second-wave feminism called for women to take control of their bodies. The movement shed the idea that women existed for men, and focused on women’s cultural issues as it relates to their freedom to express their sexuality.

For the women of this time, dressing in more revealing clothing was an act of defiance against the patriarchal customs and policing of women's bodies in that way. Hemlines reached the shortest length the world had ever seen before, pants became popular, and bras were boycotted.

The 1969 Stonewall Inn riots marked a turning point in the gay liberation movement, which called for gay power and pride rather than shame. The movement called for the elimination of sodomy laws, an end to discrimination, and the acceptance and protection of the LGBT+ community.

For many gay and trans-identifying people during this time, Halloween was the one night of the year that they could dress up how they wanted to, under the guise of a costume. It was an opportunity for the community to dress as daringly as they could, and do so with relative safety.

It was the combination of these movements that sparked the practice of dressing sexy on Halloween. For both groups alike, this was a celebration of their freedom and the pride in who they were, pride in their bodies, and the things that were uniquely theirs. Dressing in sexy costumes was an act of defiance against the patriarchy.

The next 30 or so years would see sexy Halloween costumes become so ubiquitous in American society that by 2004, with the initial commercial release of “Mean Girls”, Cady Heron’s joke could land without pause.

Today, sexy costumes are the norm for most young women on Halloween. In fact, it seems that as soon as they stop being little girls, the only costumes available for teenage girls and young women are ones prefixed by the word “sexy”. There are sexy nurses, sexy cats, sexy pirates, and even sexy nuns.

It seems that this has become the norm because it is what is available to women. The market for women’s Halloween costumes is oversaturated with the sexy version of whatever the costume is. It stands to wonder who benefits from this. After all, fashion is capitalism’s favorite child.

A quick Google search of the sexy costume industry will provide a plethora of articles highlighting the lingerie brand Yandy, who around this time of year, specializes in sexy Halloween costumes. Notably, almost every article provides comment from Pilar Quintana-Williams, the Vice President of Merchandising who also seems to double as the spokeswoman. The company itself was founded by two men. Two other men hold the title of co-chief executive officers.

The practice of men profiting off of women’s bodies is not new. The first edition of Playboy Magazine was published in 1953 with Marilyn Monroe as the nude centerfold.

(Photo Credit: Flickr)

Hugh Hefner had purchased the image from photographer Tom Kelley, who originally took the photo in 1949 for a calendar. Monroe received $50 in total (about $600 in today’s currency). Hefner, of course, went on to make millions, in addition to leaving his mark on the culture. Playboy bunnies accompanied by Hefners are ever-present on Halloweekend night.

Philosophy columns aside, Hefner had made most of his money profiting off of the pure objectification of women’s bodies, and like all pornography, strips the nude subject of their humanity, allowing the viewer to regard the woman’s body purely as something to provide them with sexual satisfaction. This is the male gaze at play.

Monroe would later express her shame and regret for posing for the nude photos. She had been tight on cash at the time. In any case, a year after the photos were taken, Monroe landed her first roles in Golden Age classics “All About Eve” and “The Asphalt Jungle”. She later went on to become arguably the most famous woman in American history.

For many women, wearing revealing clothing is an expression of freedom and an embracement of their sexuality. Besides, feeling sexy is fun. A New York Times article published in 1977 titled “Feminism's Effect on Fashion” states that “Women dress to please themselves, for their work, their life, the weather, and, most of all, to express their own inner beauty and sexuality.”

The women’s movement and the sexual revolution, originally intended to deliver women from the oppressive grip of the male gaze, has been co-opted by men and by capitalism. Moreover, women still have not been disburdened by the degradation of expressing their sexuality. Cady’s use of the word “slut” proves this is an issue that has yet to be resolved.

How is a woman to participate in a society which hypersexualizes, fetishizes, and commodifies their bodies, while still paying homage to our foremothers who fought for our right to wear what we want to? It is okay to want to embrace your sexuality, your womanliness, and to resent the patriarchy for how it views you in doing this. This is not a defeatist approach but a realistic one.

This year I will be dressing up as a sexy devil.

bottom of page