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How you shouldn’t dress for Halloween

Cultural appropriation season is upon us so here are some questions to ask yourself before buying those Claire’s bindis

Historians have said that dressing in costume late in October was a way of camouflaging yourself for protection from otherworldly spirits. But if you’ve bought Smiffy’s Sexy Indian Princess for this week, then come November 1 you might want to avoid everyone on Twitter who thinks you’re a dick now – they’ve seen the blurry Facebook pictures.

Dressing up for Halloween has been around for centuries, with examples noted as early as 16th century Scotland. At that time, the holiday was a Celtic one – Samhain – a period in which the veil between the “real” world and the spirit world was said to be very thin. Souls of the dead could easily slip into our world and before you know it, you’ve got a Hellmouth situation with no slayer on patrol. Hence the costumes. Alongside this, “souling” became traditional – potentially the origin of trick-or-treating – children, dressed up, went to houses singing songs and begging for cakes, apples, money, anything. When Hollywood was born, so was the onscreen Halloween creep incarnate. Actors like Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula, and Lon Chaney, as Wolf Man, gave Americans inspiration and the rest of the world followed suit. But somewhere along the line, the practice became less dressing like a poltergeist and more a political statement.

Learn from the widely publicised mistakes of the celebrities of recent past who were publically skewered for our sins. There’s the time model Adrianne Curry dressed up as Amy Winehouse with a syringe in her arm while the singer was struggling with drug addiction, or Prince Harry going as a Nazi two weeks before the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and, an all-time personal anti-favourite, Heidi Klum, who once chose to dress up as the Hindu Goddess Kali. Basically, to avoid misrepresenting whole groups of people or adding to someone’s daily burden, just don’t be a dick. It’s really very easy when you just try to not be a dick.

Before you start planning your costume this week, here are some questions to ask as you’re stood there with two hours to go, wondering if this is a terrible accident waiting to happen.

Is your costume sexy or silly at the expense of whoever you’re dressing up as?

Sexualising an inanimate object or animal: go for it, if you must. Why the fuck not? Sexy watermelon! Sexy troll doll! Sexy sycamore tree! Sexy can of Orangina! All legitimate options. Sexualising a hijab for use in a skimpy costume if you’d never normally wear one? That’s where the line is. Whichever way you slice it, there’s no good reason to sexualise or make a joke out of a religion or minority group. Even if it seems harmless, making light of what may be centuries of oppression or a lifetime of tradition is a cheap shot. 

Is there still inequality or trauma surrounding that group’s marginalisation at large? 

That’s essentially a big warning sign that you should probably avoid it. Minorities have to deal with exploitation and discrimination on a daily basis and to pile on more by getting involved is insensitive. Be aware of what those sensitivities are and avoid the trauma. In the same light, dressing as a “terrorist” is preserving a worrying type of racism based on fear of those from who practice Islam. Focus on whether your costume perpetuates any negative stereotypes of that group. 

Are you painting on a skin tone?

If someone arrives at your party with blackface, yellowface or any other kind of face, do not let them into your home ‘cause it might lend your party a weird, racist vibe. Blackface harks back to a time when white Americans would put dark paint on their faces and act out stereotypes about African-Americans. By doing this at Halloween, a person is openly admitting that they don't care what mocking symbols of oppression they are representing. To try and paint a face on to represent a race is ham-handed and cheap. It’s in no way like painting on a white face to be a ghost or a green face to be a monster. It’s "othering" a group further.

What is the public opinion of the deceased person you want to dress as?

Is this person a paedophile? Have they done unspeakably awful things? Are they vilified by the majority of people? Do they have victims? Again, a warning sign we should not be commemorating them - even if as a joke - for a few lols. If they’re celebrated, however, it’s probably fine. Be observant of how long ago they died, though. There’s a difference between dressing up as a dead celebrity, like Elvis, and dressing up as someone who has family and friends still alive and grieving. Imagine if you had drunk teenagers running around dressed as your dead Dad for the night.

Are you dressing as a trans person despite not being trans?

Just don’t. And seriously, do not buy that Caitlyn Jenner costume unless you are a moron. By very nature of being a dress-up situation, the theme is one of pretence and therefore there is every opportunity for offence and for cisgender people to purchase it to make fun of her and the trans community. As someone wrote on a Change.org petition to stop the production of the Jenner costume: “I'm signing because this costume mocks the validity of a transgender’s identity, implying that a man wearing a dress is the same as a person dressing to their comfort and identity.”

Am I willing and ready to defend myself in a conversation about this? 

This is kind of an important one. You have to be prepared to find yourself in a heated debate about why you’re wearing what you’re wearing. You have to be bothered to have that conversation and you have to be confident in your decision, armed with reasoning. Don’t be surprised if someone calls you out on it. Is this a fight you want or do you just want to get drunk and sugar-high in peace?

Ignorance doesn’t work anymore. Discussions about costume and appropriation have increased over the past decade. Sure, Halloween, at it’s very essence, is all about the carnivalesque; life being turned upside down. And every costume can offend in the right (or wrong) context, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The line isn’t always clear and is constantly being re-drawn to accommodate and respect more people. But it doesn’t hurt to learn from the mistakes of German supermodels.