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Every year, trick or treaters everywhere face an increasingly difficult question: “What should I wear for Halloween?” While for kids, this question seems pretty straightforward — one typically goes as a character from their favorite TV show or movie — the formula for a good adult Halloween costume has always involved a trade-off. Young adults want to go as a character that fellow party goers will recognize, but don’t want to wear the same tired costume — think basic witch or classic Scooby Doo gang — that’s been done a million times over.
This autumnal tradition is made even more complicated by gendered expectations; namely, the “sexy” Halloween costume.
As pointed out in the cult classic Mean Girls (2004), “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.” Thus, Halloween has traditionally been a time of year for women to explore their sexuality and feel confident under the guise of a costume, or be subjugated by the unfair expectations of unrealistic beauty standards under the patriarchy, depending on your take. Regardless, strolling down the Halloween aisle at Party City, one is guaranteed to spot a myriad of sexy clown, sexy firefighter, and sexy pirate costumes marketed towards women.
That being said, in the digital age, animal ears and lingerie just aren’t cutting it anymore. The classic “sexy” Halloween costume, while ever prevalent, has found a competitor in the form of the “cool girl” Halloween costume.
The cool girl look is, first and foremost, referential. Anyone can be hot, but not everyone can have a cultured enough taste in film or art to even consider dressing up as the couple from Bones and All (2022) with their partner. The success of the cool girl costume is predicated upon its ability to demonstrate the wearer's superior pop culture palette.
Additionally, the niche or unique aspects of the reference in question aren’t necessarily indicative of costume idea quality — the genre of content that one is referring to is just as, if not more, important. Pulling from manic pixie dream girl culture, an aesthetically pleasing film, a niche childhood favorite, or the “cool girl” character in a popular movie are the most commonly pursued routes for devising such a costume.
Examples include the narrator from Ottessa Moshfegh’s “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” Olive from “Easy A,” a gender-bent Patrick Bateman, Mia Thermopolis from the “Princess Diaries,” and Carrie (from “Carrie”).
However, as accurately proclaimed in Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl,” “Cool girls are, above all, hot.” While this new Halloween costume craze may seem progressive in its prioritization of artistic taste over sex appeal, it is important to note that cool girls are still required to fulfill the expectations of the male gaze.
All cool girl Halloween costumes are “sexy” Halloween costumes, but not every “sexy” costume can be a cool girl costume. Despite the fact that it-girls of today seem to be raising the bar for what constitutes a “good” Halloween look, appearing attractive to men remains a staple element of Halloween for young women.
While cool girl looks are certainly hot, they also must be fashionable. Sexy Marie Antoinette is a popular choice because the wearer is referencing Sofia Coppola's masterpiece and doing so by wearing a voguish corset and some chic, coquettish lace. A core part of the costume is some sort of stylistic vision or trendy element which demonstrates the fashion sense of the cool girl in question.
Cool girl Halloween costumes are hardly bought at Spirit Halloween and do not come in a shiny plastic package. The looks should appear to be created from rewearable pieces which are either thrifted or makeshift, or purchased from legitimately fashionable clothing retailers. The looks are often composed of rewearable pieces, thus satisfying the sustainability concerns of Gen Z.
While the “sexy” Halloween look seems like it's been around forever and isn’t exactly going anywhere, this successor is clearly derived from the modern digital age of individuality complexes and the overarching cool girl Tiktok aesthetic. This genre of costume certainly represents the “cult of individuality” that Gen Z worships in a similar manner to the niche aesthetic culture to which Gen Z subscribes.
Both pose a paradox: Once originality is mass marketed, its integrity goes out the window. When contemporary corporations market individuality to young women — as opposed to the heavily critiqued “basic” beauty standards promoted by the likes of Victoria’s Secret in years past — and young women buy into the cool girl trend in order to cater to the new demands of a niche aesthetic, are they not still conforming to a mass-marketed ideal?
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