Alex can’t decide between being a pirate or a witch for Halloween. He really wanted pirate, but then found a witches’ hat in the dressing up box, and was seduced by the gold spiderwebs trailing over the brim. The problem was, the hat was all I had. A quick query led to a very kind loan of a witch costume, and oh what a costume! It has the traditional black velvet I remember from the dressing-up capes and long witch dresses of my childhood, but it also has an awful lot more hot pink than I have ever seen on a witch before now. And sequins. And 3 or 4 layers of multicoloured, big, magnificent tulle skirt. And, just in case anyone should mistake this mistress of magic for a lover of understated dressing, a big gold buckle at the waist.
But after this costume had been in my house for a couple of days, and after I’d seen a few more Halloween-themed adverts and looked at a few more shop displays, I started thinking about the costumes we offer our children, and the messages we are sending out. Take my local supermarket, for example – here we are in the seasonal aisle, amongst the pumpkin buckets and the light-up ghosts. The first half of this aisle is taken up with costumes aimed at boys. This seems straightforward enough – there’s Frankenstein’s monster, a vampire, a hoodie with a monster on it for the reluctant fancy dressers. So far, so spooky. And now, the costumes aimed at girls. Ah, a rainbow witch – unusual. A pumpkin wearing a tutu – hmmm. A skeleton mermaid – what?!
Something is going on here. Something that happened in between me being a child and then having a child of my own, where costumes changed, started being bought in shops rather than cobbled together at home out of old sheets with holes cut in for eyes. And along with that growing market, a strong and insistent message has crept in. Retailers are telling our children that being scary is fine for boys, but girls need to be much more feminine and delicate. And we’re letting them do this.
The thing with Halloween is, the costumes are supposed to be scary. That’s what Halloween IS. It’s about ghosts and ghouls and things that go bump in the night, not glitter and pouting and making sure that your hair is perfect. Yet I’m beginning to wonder if Halloween is actually the celebration that most shows up our fascination as a society with the female appearance. It’s not just little girls who are expected to want frills and pretty femininity even when making people jump; try finding an adult female Halloween costume that isn’t a “sexy” something or other. Sexy vampire! Sexy bat! Sexy serial killer! Is it true that the thing that we’re really most afraid of is a woman covering her legs up, or not wearing lipstick?
Don’t get me wrong, if that witch costume was in my size, I’d have been wearing it every day since it arrived in the house. And I am massively grateful to the person who lent it to Alex, giving him the opportunity and the luxury of choosing which costume to go for on the day according to his mood (which, lets face it, is the best way of approaching these things when you’re 3). I love showing off a flouncy dress that I can feel pretty in, and I wouldn’t deny anyone else that opportunity either, regardless of age or gender. I wouldn’t say no to being a skeleton mermaid either, because why not go off-piste if you fancy it?
But shouldn’t we be giving our girls other options too, rather than teaching them that they need to be pretty all the time no matter what the occasion? What world are we constructing for our women of the future? How can we hope for real equality when we are still letting the pink princess myth permeate into even the most unlikely of celebrations? On these dark evenings, I’m not afraid of ghosts or werewolves. But I sure as hell am scared of the children’s costume aisle.