The politics of Halloween

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Since Trump’s election, costumes have become both a form of provocation and protest. So how will dressing up play out on the one night when everyone is in disguise?


  • Anti-Trump protesters wore eye-catching costumes in response to Trump’s visit to the Intrepid in May. Photo: Michael Garofalo

  • Scene from a past Village Halloween Parade. Photo courtesy of Jeanne Fleming, Artistic and Producing Director, Village Halloween Parade

Every year, a frightening character comes to the legendary Village Halloween Parade and chats up Jeanne Fleming, the parade’s artistic director. Fleming, who loves the creativity of Halloween but not the gore, long dreaded her annual exchange with the strange man in the graphic blood-and-guts costume. Then she found out his identity: Calvin Trillin, the esteemed journalist and New Yorker contributor.

“When you spend a few hours being something other than who you are, you learn something about yourself,” says Fleming. “It enters into your consciousness, and you learn how people begin to treat you if you’re something different than who you are everyday.”

A 37-year veteran of the parade, Fleming is familiar with how costumes — and what they reveal about a person — have a potent ability to both inspire and unsettle. Ongoing conversations about costumes and cultural appropriation make this exceedingly apparent; for instance, white people wearing sombreros and ponchos to “dress up” as Mexicans tap into fraught issues around identity, power, representation and belonging.

But costumes can communicate more than cultural identity — and aren’t just for Halloween. Though protesters have long used props and worn costumes to amplify their message, contemporary demonstrators have taken the costume-as-commentary approach to a new level since Trump’s inauguration in January. In May, when Trump made his first trip to New York after his inauguration for an event at the Intrepid, protesters dressing as the commander in chief, characters from “Star Wars,” and myriad other creative incarnations filled the streets. From women channeling the Statue of Liberty to call out President Trump’s immigration policies to protestors outside of Trump Tower wearing white hoods and carrying signs that read “Make America Hate Again,” costumes have repeatedly been employed as a form of resistance.

It’s no surprise, then, that current costumes play off of political tensions. Party City, a supply and costume store, is shilling an “Adult Wall” costume, featuring bricks and the words “the wall” plastered on the front. The costume does not explicitly mention politics or the president, but on social media, users have denounced it as an obvious reference to the border-wall proposal. “Gothamist” reported in September that multiple New York “Spirit” Halloween stores were selling Donald Trump masks right next to Border Patrol agent costumes, consisting of a green shirt with matching hat and gold lettering.

As the first Halloween under the Trump administration approaches, it has yet to be seen how clashing costumes may play out on the streets. For their part, colleges across the nation are upping the ante on cultural sensitivity during this spirited holiday. Columbia University’s “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” campaign features posters of minority students holding pictures of people dressed up as racial or ethnic stereotypes, such as an Asian woman holding a photo of a white woman dressed as a Geisha. The posters are emblazoned with the words, “This is not who I am, and this is not okay.”

“As Halloween approaches, we would like to remind our campus community to be thoughtful about how we can celebrate this spirited day without demeaning or isolating others,” reads a Facebook statement from the university’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, which encourages students to change their profile picture to one of the posters.

“It’s when you think my culture looks better on you than it does on me,” says Naika Cadet, costume and marketing manager at Abracadabra, one of the city’s biggest Halloween emporiums, putting cultural appropriation plain and simple. A longtime Abracadabra employee, Cadet says that the store refuses to sell costumes that explicitly expresses bigotry or anti-Semitism, such as a KKK costume or Nazi paraphernalia. Yet Cadet notes that many creative New Yorkers aren’t coming in for a ready-made costume, they’re coming in for a specific look — and that’s where things can get tricky.

“Our whole job here is to educate in a polite way, and gear [customers] to something that’s eye-catching and beautiful, and to get them what that they want,” she says. For instance, if a white woman comes in looking for a Native American headdress, Cadet might suggest she dress up as colorful warrior instead, using a culture’s clothing for inspiration without appropriating it.

Drawing inspiration from unexpected sources is precisely what this year’s Village Halloween parade is about. The theme, “Cabinet of Curiosities,” is a nod to P.T. Barnum’s curious menagerie. “Halloween, of course, revels in hybrids, mash-ups and the frisson of crossed identities,” reads a description of the theme on the parade’s website.

Does Fleming worry that this particular theme will open parade-goers up to offense? Fleming has never turned anyone away for an offensive costume. That’s just not how she thinks, she says.

Says Fleming, “Part of the experiment in allowing for this freedom to occur is to find out what happens when you decide to come as something, let’s say, offensive to me or you, but maybe not to them. You get to find out in a very direct way. People recoil, or they embrace. But you can’t legislate that.”

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