Halloween costumes are serious business

Going Strong: While the recession has hurt designer fashion, the Halloween industry is up 50 percent in the past four years.
Photo: Justin M. Bowen

Every first of November, a couple of my Facebook friends pose this question as a status update: “Why do girls wear such slutty Halloween costumes?!?!” And every first of November, I vow to answer it.

My research typically ends a minute after it begins, when I find myself clicking through some online photo gallery of women in sexy Halloween costumes: sexy nurses, sexy Harry Potters, slutty Harry Potters, slutty hookers—you get the idea. After a couple dozen of these pictures, I forget about the question that brought me to the gallery in the first place, and I don’t think about it again until the following year.

Well, I’ve resolved to break the cycle once and for all. So I began this year’s research before Halloween.

Foolproof plan?

Far from it; the Internet is flooded with a deluge of recent research-inhibiting photos, many of which were taken at Blush and Eve’s “Halfway to Halloween” events.

The Blush event drew more than 1,000 costumed partiers. It was meant to feature women, but as the photos showed, the guys got in on the costume action, too. They came dressed as superheroes, boxers, Army sergeants, Jesus. Everyone in attendance had clearly put a lot of time, effort and money into their outfits. Maybe they were hoping to win the $5,000 prize—the money went to four girls dressed as the four seasons (the temporal construction, not the musical group or the hotel chain)—or maybe there was something more.

As it often happens, my “research” didn’t lead to an answer; it led me to more questions: What kind of people put so much effort and money into their costumes, and why do they do it?

Star Costume & Theatrical Supply is kind of like Halloween USA, but with fewer severed feet. They’ve got the monster masks and fake blood, but they specialize in period costumes, novelty disguises, dancewear and sexy outfits. Apparently, there’s big money in false mustaches and chain bikinis; Star Costume’s security system—with its two extra-giant flat screen TVs, each displaying 16 different security camera shots—rivals that of a casino.

Clay Miller started working at Star Costume right out of high school. He worked the cash register, he sold, he restocked and he stayed with the store for 14 years. Now he’s the manager.

Star Costume & Theatrical Supply

“These days,” Miller told me, “we do our biggest business with out-of-towners—conventions, weddings, that sort of thing. Earlier this month, we did a Greek wedding where we rented out 75 Elvi and 35 Marilyns. We had them email their sizes over from Greece so the costumes were ready when they got here. We always get the sizes in writing …”

“And why is that?” I asked.

“People lie about their sizes.”

“So you had 75 Elvis costumes lying around, ready to go?”

“Actually,” Miller corrected me, “we’ve got 125. They’re really popular with Asians.”

Miller walked me around the store. He showed me the gold boots favored by our city’s go-go dancers and the Kryolan TV Paint Sticks popular with our city’s female impersonators.

“The sticks are thicker than regular makeup,” Miller explained, “so they hide stubble and other imperfections. The cast of Divas is in here all the time; Derrick Barry, the Britney impersonator, is in here all the time. [Female impersonators] probably buy a third of our makeup.”

“Who else comes in the store?” I asked.


Local costume shops
• Halloween Mart, 6230 S. Decatur Blvd. Ste. 101, 740-4224
• Star Costume & Theatrical Supply, 3230 S. Valley View, Suite 120, 731-5014
• Show-Off Las Vegas Costume, 6400 South Eastern #4 (Park 2000), 739-6995
• Studio Lites, 4000 W. Sahara Ave., 876-0234

“Actually, the FBI was just in here. They weren’t buying costumes or anything; they were telling us that because the economy is so bad right now, a lot of people are robbing banks, so we should be on the lookout for people coming in, asking about our wigs and moustaches, acting strange. We’re supposed to take down their license plate numbers and give ’em over.”

The FBI isn’t being overly paranoid; in April in Ohio, 30-year-old white male Conrad Zdzierak allegedly used an incredibly realistic African American mask, manufactured by SPFX, to rob four banks in one day.

Ironically, one of the few sectors not affected by the sagging economy is the Halloween industry. It’s up 50 percent over the past four years. Americans now spend $6 billion every Halloween.

Moving from economy to erogeneity, I asked Miller about the sexy Halloween costumes.

“Vegas is a party town, and Halloween is a party holiday,” he said. “Halloween is all about sex, and in my experience, anything sexy will move.”

I wondered whether Miller was exaggerating. Could he actually move a sexy garbageman costume? Sexy Janet Napolitano? Sexy Alan Greenspan? He probably could and charge a lot for them, too. These days, even a skimpy costume can run you a fortune.

Let’s say you want to be a sexy schoolgirl for Halloween. And let’s say you want to get your costume from the Los Angeles-based Trashy Lingerie. Well, Trashy Lingerie’s “Reform School Waist Trainer” will run you $250, their “Reform School Pleated Skirt” costs another $150, and the suggested accompanying “Nicole Bra” will set you back another $70. The “Reform School Collar”? That’s $35. Pair that getup with a pair of sexy shoes and stockings, and you’re looking at a $600 price tag.

Of course, you get to keep the costume when you’re through. That’s not always the case. Some folks go to Star Costume and spend $500 on a rental.

Clay Miller walked me beyond the mask wall, through the curtains and into the rental area. I’d never seen so many hangers in one room. You could take a Nordstrom salesman, a dry cleaner’s owner and a hanger manufacturer into the back of Star Costumes, and they’d all walk away saying, “Whoa, that guy’s got a lot of hangers back here.”

In this hypothetical, “that guy” is Bob Love, Star’s rental inventory manager. When I met him, he was ironing his way through a heaping pile of blue ruffled shirts. Judging by the size of the heap, I sensed he’d be ironing long after I left.

“I don’t add an item to my inventory unless it can be used at least three different ways, ”Love told me. “Like these shirts here—they can be used for ’70s costumes, for Victorian-era costumes, for 18th-century costumes (if you turn the collar up and press the collar points down) and for Dumb & Dumber tuxedoes.”

“I want to know about the expensive stuff,” I said.

Less is more: These costumes, some by LA's Trashy Lingerie, fetch high prices for little fabric.

“Two years ago, Marc [Salls], the owner, bought five extremely expensive costumes—they cost thousands of dollars apiece, $500 to rent for a weekend. You don’t come across too many people who want to spend that much for a costume rental, but here in Vegas, you do. We’ve already rented them out a few times.”

“Who rents them?”

“High rollers, guys who go to the Playboy Mansion, guys who throw high-end costume parties. There’s this bar owner in town, a young man, who rents from us all the time. He rented out some our most expensive pieces: our Genghis Khan, our Black Warrior, our Elven Knight, our Attila. Now, I respect him because he’s as picky as I am, and he’s very specific about what he wants. But he’s kind of a narcissist; he likes perfection. Guys like that go for the elaborate costumes. They come in here every Halloween.”

I left Love to his pile and Miller to his mustaches, and asked UNLV sociology professor Michael Borer to analyze what I’d heard at the shop. First, I inquired about guys who put so much time and effort into their costumes:

“Even though costume parties are supposed to be fun,” Borer said, “they can also lead to stress for the more competitive types. While costume parties can be opportunities to ‘try on’ different identities and forget about one’s social status, the status of costumes—their presentation, their construction—can become part of an emergent status hierarchy. Temporary, yes, but real.”

Next I asked Borer about the girls—the million-dollar question: Why do women, especially those hitting the Las Vegas Strip, wear such sexy costumes on Halloween?

“Like I said, traditionally, Halloween functions as a ritual of reversal. These practices were used to relax the ‘normal’ power structures during the ritual event, where paupers would act like kings and vice versa. But today, the ‘normal’ rules of behavior and codes of conduct are softened, allowing people the freedom to play with their public presentations and performances of self. ‘Dressing up’ as something they’re not—whether it’s a zombie, a pirate, or even a prostitute—gives you a chance to express a part of yourself that isn’t normally appropriate or acceptable.”

Women tend to opt for slutty costumes on Halloween, in other words, because they can. Sure, they might have to put up with a judgmental October Facebook status update or two, but they won’t be branded a slut for life. (Speaking of which, I just had the best idea for a postmodern Halloween costume: sexy Hester Prynne [the woman from The Scarlet Letter]. Now there’s a costume Clay Miller could move!)

I ran Borer’s theory by my roommate, an expert on skimpy costumes as of last Halloween, when she wore the skimpiest costume I’ve ever seen. Really, if you crumpled this thing up, it would fit into one of those colored plastic eggs that come out of toy vending machines. Technically, it was a sexy nurse outfit, but practically, it was a series of interconnected red and white bandages.

“It started out as a box lingerie thing I got from the Halloween store,” she explained, “but I added a belt, stripper shoes, white stockings and then anklets and earrings, which I made myself.”

“Why’d you put so much effort into it?” I asked.

“I was going to the Beaux Arts Ball, and I knew that everyone else was going to put a lot of effort into their costume, so I didn’t want to let everyone down and look lame.”

“And why’d you go for something so skimpy?”

“I was actually trying to make fun of all the girls who think that Halloween is about dressing slutty. I was trying to take the piss out of them by dressing extra-extra-slutty. But in retrospect, I don’t think anybody got the joke. Most people just stared.”

After talking with my roommate, Professor Borer, Bob Love and Clay Miller, I’ve realized that there is no one reason many girls dress slutty on Halloween. And there is no one reason certain people put so much time and energy into their costumes. Some do it as self-expression, others do it because it’s expected of them, others do it for social status and some, apparently, do it as satire.

So, Facebook friends, remember: This Halloween, if you see a girl wearing a pleated 9-inch plaid skirt, a midriff-baring T-shirt, thigh-high boots and pigtails, remember: She might be making the exact same social critique you plan to make the following day. She’s just doing it in her own way.


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