Updated: Oct 18, 2021
Cultural appropriation frequently arises, but it seems to flourish every year on Halloween. The issue itself is a tricky topic, as it’s often difficult to discern the difference between appropriation and appreciation. And who decides when something is inherently offensive? Typically, appropriation follows two rules of thumb: first, in the context of the society at large, the costume reinforces stereotypes (harmful or not) about entire cultures; second, the costume makes a mockery out of a culture. The latter often occurs through the sexualization of the outfit.
Despite these blurred lines, there are instances where appropriation is clearly exhibited. Party City, a North American party retail chain, is a principal offender. In its roster are several sexualized costumes, including the “Blessed Babe Nun Costume,” which features a short bodycon dress, and the “Gypsy Crop Top,” which consists of an off-the-shoulder white crop top. The former is paired with thigh-high fishnet stockings on the model, and the latter is paired with a ruffled miniskirt and fishnet tights.
Traditionally, both outfits are modest, and the purposeful sexualization of them is disrespectful. Christian nuns devote their lives to Christ and take a vow of chastity. Additionally, the crop top’s marketing as a “Gypsy Crop Top” is somewhat questionable — the use of the term “gypsy” to describe Romani people or their culture has a racist history in multiple languages, even though this connotation is not widely known in the U.S.
Party City also hosts a number of costumes that employ cliché stereotypes, mostly about Mexican culture due to the chronological proximity of the Mexican holiday, Día de los Muertos, to Halloween. These costumes include the “Neon Day of the Dead Jacket,” “Day of the Dead Sombrero Senor Costume,” “Day of the Dead Senorita Costume,” “Lacy & Traditional Day of the Dead Couples Costume,” “La Muerta Day of the Dead Skeleton Catsuit,” and “Black Day of the Dead Dress.” The issue with costumes like these, where they are not necessarily making the attempt to be offensive, is that every single one of them reduces Mexican culture to a stereotype and portrays a day of great significance as some sort of Mexican Halloween.
The Day of the Dead actually takes place on the first two days of November, and is meant to remember the deceased by celebrating their lives. While some also see Halloween as a day to remember the dead, its origins are less definite than those of The Day of the Dead, and in American culture, it has evolved into a secular holiday characterized by celebrations and activities that are just for fun without much of a greater meaning or purpose. Therein lies the problem with “Day of the Dead” costumes — many of them come off as some sort of fetishization of Mexican culture, molded and shaped to fit into Western culture.
Other costumes are not necessarily related to any specific event in other cultures; Party City sells a “Fiesta Serape” costume which consists of a colorful woven poncho. The model featured also dons a cartoonishly-large sombrero. These sorts of costumes reflect the problem with wearing a culture as a costume. The Party City “Fiesta Serape” is not an accurate representation of traditional Mexican dress, and most other cultural costumes are also inaccurate. Thus it is clear that this is not appreciation, as the outfits are simply caricatures of cultural dress not often seen in the U.S.
It remains to be seen how we can make a clean differentiation between appropriation and appreciation; again, the act of wearing the traditional dress of another culture is not inherently malicious or offensive. In the context of Halloween, however, it can pretty much be safely assumed that most cultural dress, especially costumes supplied by retailers, is a form of cultural appropriation.