There’s a scene that anyone who’s ever seen Mean Girls vividly remembers. Cady, the new girl, gets invited to a Halloween party with all the popular kids. She arrives dressed as a zombie bride—wedding dress, black wig, fake blood and all—and is mortified the second she steps through the door. “In the regular world,” she explains, “Halloween is when children dress up in costumes and beg for candy. In girl world, Halloween is the one night a year when a girl can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it.” At some point in the last 20 years, Halloween became a holiday when boys dress as whatever they want. Girls, as Cady notes, often “just wear lingerie and some form of animal ears.”
As Suzanne Scoggins, a writer and feminist specializing in women’s history, says, “there’s a serious lack of opportunities in life to dress up in strange clothes and pretend to be somebody else...Why waste it?” Scoggins runs Take Back Halloween, a website that provides do-it-yourself female costume ideas for notable women, legends and queens from cultures around the world. Looking to pull together an Athena costume that involves more than three yards of fabric? Or want to show your love for the free-spirited, crossdressing Queen Christina of Sweden? Here’s how. From the Egyptian queen Hatsheput to Irish fighter Grace O’Malley and Haitian mermaid Lasirene to Aztec goddess Chalchiuhtlicue, the inspiration comes from every corner of history and mythology.
To help with the costs of running the site, which is now in its third year, Scoggins is running a Kickstarter which has attracted hundreds of backers and raised more than 220 percent of its initial goal (there really is a demand for alternatives to Sexy Pizza costumes). Take Back Halloween debuts new costumes all year long for Black History Month, Mardi Gras, Purim and other holidays. Keeping the servers running isn’t cheap (the site gets millions of visitors during the week of Halloween alone) and neither are the security measures the site needs to keep anti-feminist hackers away. (Donate here to help.)
The Daily Beast chatted with Scoggins about Take Back Halloween, how stores ended up carrying nothing but “sexy” female Halloween costumes—and her response to those concerned about cultural appropriation.
First, can you tell me a little bit about yourself? How do you know so much about costuming?
I’ve had a lifelong interest in history but one reason I know a lot about costumes is that I was an actor in my flaming youth. I started out training as a historian but I ended up becoming an actress and falling in love with theater in my 20s. I was always doing period shows for some reason, always getting cast in Shakespeare and Renaissance and Moliere and Spanish drama and Restoration comedies. So I have worn a lot of corsets.
What made you start Take Back Halloween?
I was prompted to do it because Halloween has changed a lot. When I graduated from college in 1990, the garment pipeline from China hadn’t opened up yet. There were no commercial costumes for adults. My frame of reference for Halloween is that you make your own costume.
The international garment trade has gotten into the garment business and they’re really what’s driving this now because the little skimpy costumes are very cheap to make. It becomes a feedback loop: With the sexualization of culture, the costume manufacturers push the sexy costumes and girls think, “Oh that’s the thing to do.” So they buy it, that becomes the norm, and then manufacturers respond with more. It’s like this vortex of hell!
I always say there’s nothing wrong with being sexy. There’s nothing wrong with that. What’s happened though is that everything else has been crowded out. What really pushed me over the edge was, in 2009, my friends were always complaining about not being able to find a costume they could just wear to go trick-or-treating with their kids. Everything was like something you wear for a film shoot with Charlie Sheen! Younger girls, and college-aged women were also complaining. I was reading online forums where girls said that they were afraid to wear something that wasn’t sexy.
That’s what really blew me away. I call it my Gollum moment because I read a post from a woman who had come up with this fantastic costume. She was gonna be Gollum and do this whole latex thing but she was afraid to do it because she knew she would be ridiculed for not sexing it up. Now, when I was in college, a costume like that would have won every award. People would have been like, “Wow, how creative! How fantastic!” And now, a woman is afraid to do that?
If women’s history, feminism, theater and costuming all got drunk and had a baby, it would be me. So it was like, “Okay, I’ll just do a website with this and explain to people you don’t have to be limited to what’s in the store, you can just make a costume yourself, I’ll tell you how.”
My favorite part of the costumes is that there’s no sewing.
Sewing is a dealbreaker for 99 percent of the population. Nobody knows how to sew--and you don’t have to know how. This is all about modifying and hacking existing garments, pinning them together and occasionally, gluing. This is how we made costumes before Leg Avenue got into it, back in the ‘80s.
Did you see Kristen Schaal’s skit on The Daily Show where she pretends to think that we should all just get to the point and wear giant vagina costumes already?
I practically wet myself, I was laughing so hard! The New York Observer ran that the next morning and put us right below it and said, “Here’s the antidote. Go fund this Kickstarter or go visit this website so we can all be Baba Yaga next year,” which I thought was so cool.
But then there's Rashida Jones, the Parks and Recreation actress, who recently tweeted, “This week's celeb news takeaway: she who comes closest to showing the actual inside of her vagina is most popular. #stopactinglikewhores,” which comes too close to slut-shaming. How do you manage that fine line?
I don’t think it’s a fine line myself, though it can be. I think the focus is wrong. Blaming women or blaming girls for wearing these costumes is like blaming little girls for wanting pink toys or high school boys for playing violent video games. People consume what is in front of them and what is being pushed. Advertising works. Girls 20 years ago were just as sexual, but this whole rack of sexy, pre-packaged costumes didn’t exist. It just wasn’t even a thing.
It seems to me when we talk about mass culture, if we’re talking about pink toys for girls or violent video games or something racist, usually the focus is usually on the manufacturers. “Why are you pushing this stuff and not something else?” But for some reason, if it involves women and how they dress, it’s as if manufacturers just evaporate and these 18 year-old girls are making all this happen by themselves. They’re not! An 18-year-old girl is not willing Leg Avenue into existence just by the force of her hormones.
What would you say to critics who have concerns about cultural appropriation with your costumes?
Cultural appropriation is shitty. Here’s the thing I always tell people: If you’re a white person and you don’t know what to do (or if you’re a black person, or whatever), here’s the deal. It’s usually okay to dress up as a specific historical person as long as you do it respectfully and you don’t do blackface or yellowface—that’s creepy. But it's not always okay. There are two examples I use to illustrate the spectrum: Sumerians and Sojourner Truth. Everyone on the planet, I feel, should be able to dress up as a Sumerian without a second thought. Six thousand years ago, first civilization on the face of the planet, Sumer belongs to all of us. The opposite end of the spectrum: Sojourner Truth. If you’re not an African-American lady, you should probably pass on the Sojourner Truth costume. Even if you have the best will in the world, just don’t. But in between that, it’s hard to say. You really have to think it through for each costume.