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(Un)dressing up for Halloween

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

“It’s the one time of year we get to be who we’re not,” said Mitzi Bond, right, assistant manager at The Fallen Angel. Kelsey Lansing, left, and her sister Alyssa Lansing shop for a Halloween costume Tuesday at the store at 644 E. College Drive.

By Chase Olivarius-Mcallister Herald staff writer

Halloween, once a respectable pagan festival, has become a corporate fiasco: This year, Americans are expected to spend $2.6 billion on All Hallows Eve.

Durango’s Noel Altaha said revelers too frequently smuggle racist and sexist imagery into public discourse under the banner of Halloween’s “anything goes” ethos.

Previous Zombie Marches – this year’s is set to begin at 11:55 p.m. Halloween night – have been spiritually anti-establishment. Yet they’ve been attended by white adults in blackface, “sexy Pocahontas” getups and African tribal clothing.

Altaha, a member of Arizona’s White Mountain Apache tribe, even created a YouTube video titled “I am not a costume” to protest the widespread use of Native American imagery by Caucasians on Halloween.

She said critics of her video often have admonished her to feel “happy that people are ‘quoting’ my culture.”

“But I also think I should be able to define what it is to be Native, not companies that are doing it to profit,” she said.

Sex sells

Over objections like Altaha’s, this year, in an online survey, “Native American Temptress” was the third-most-popular Halloween costume, according to a study conducted by Envy Corner, an adult costume retailer – beaten only by “Sexy SWAT Agent Costume” and “Nurse Anita B Naughty Costume.”

Like Altaha, Peggy Russell, owner of Durango’s Costume Emporium, said mass-market costumes such as “Native American Temptress” aren’t just racist; they also hypersexualize the identities they claim to represent.

This hypersexualization started in the 1990s with “sexy firefighter,” “sexy nurse” and “sexy vampire” costumes, said Russell, who has been in business since 1991.

“Then there was shock value,” she said. “Now it touches everything, not just young women, but 11-year-old girls – they see it in stores, on TV, and they want to copy it. Eleven-year-old girls come into my shop, and time and again, they look like they’re 18, with makeup, heels and short skirts.”

Russell clarified she is no prude. Her regret is more that girls have their whole lives – including decades of adulthood – to be sexual objects.

She said she couldn’t ethically countenance accelerating the process.

“Money talks, and there’s online shopping, so there’s no control,” she said. “When I get really sexy costumes in, I refuse to sell to children. Do I lose a lot of money? You bet.”

The feminine mystique

It’s a witticism of history: For centuries, feminists fought men’s sexual oppression and battled for women’s economic opportunity. Yet today, many women who ostensibly enjoy full access to the professions opt to dress as “sexy” doctors, “sultry” police officers and “seductive” soldiers for Halloween.

Within Durango’s Halloween costume market, Fallen Angel, an adult store, is unmistakably dominant.

On Monday, three staff members barely could keep up with their customers. The “sexy” police costumes were sold out. If brevity is a virtue, there was much to admire in Fallen Angel’s hemlines. Dresses ensuring precipitous cleavage abounded, many in Snowdown’s safari theme.

Owner Earl Colclough said in terms of clothing – the store’s hardware is another matter – Fallen Angel does its briskest business at Halloween.

Like every costume merchant interviewed for this story, Colclough said on Halloween, men remain largely unscathed by the pressure to be sexy. Most males select costumes to jest, “out-do one another,” match their partner, or embody superhuman or horror-film fantasies.

But in a culture that still belittles, stigmatizes and shames women for being too sexy, Colclough said Halloween offers women an opportunity to dress however they wish, without social rebuke.

“You can let loose for one night and be sexy without the taboos,” he said.

The taboos in play aren’t just sexual. To Mitzi Bond, assistant manager, the “sexy professional” costumes are popular because they subvert: police officers, firefighters and soldiers usually are figures of formidable authority, not targets of bawdy fun.

Colclough was firm that Fallen Angel is an adult store; to enter, you must be 18 or older unless accompanied by a parent.

“We do sometimes have adults come in with their 17-year-old daughters, but they’re in here saying, ‘That’s acceptable, that’s not,’” he said.

Oh! The children!

Just 40 feet from Fallen Angel, Joanna Tucker, owner of Sprout, was selling secondhand children’s costumes, including different-sized pumpkin vests and a Clifford the Big Red Dog costume.

She said the challenges of readying kids for Halloween are numerous: Costumes can be exorbitant, and questions such as “Will my daughter be able to pee in this getup?” often don’t arise until it’s too late.

Tucker said Fallen Angel affords adults “a lot of fun.”

But she also said hypersexual adult costumes exert a strong gravitational pull on youngsters’ imaginations of what Halloween costumes should look like – one the mass market has been quick to pounce on.

“I think even at 3, 4, 5 years old, you see it,” she said.

Her observation was born out amid Walmart’s wide range of generally affordable girls’ costumes. Just an aisle away from an adorable doctor’s costume, the very young girl on the packaging of a princess costume queasily echoed images of JonBenet Ramsey.

Still, there are havens of unsexed Halloween livery. At the La Plata County Humane Society on Monday, customers examined long racks stuffed with fairy, monster, Peter Pan and dragon costumes – a bargain at 75 percent off of $4.

Store director Mike Bollinger and merchandising manager Margaret Centofanti said they didn’t stock any “sexy” Halloween costumes.

“Innocent is good,” Centofanti said. “I did sell one woman a blue diva sequin dress. But it was tasteful.”

Those searching for angel costumes (traditional, not Victoria’s Secret), can likewise turn to Treasures by Therese, which sells and rents Halloween costumes. Owner Therese Teiber said while her customers seek beautiful costumes, they differ in one basic respect from Fallen Angel’s.

“Mine want to be warm,” Teiber said.

(Fallen Angel recommends patrons layer their fishnets over two layers of skin-colored nylons, in addition to wearing leg warmers.)

cmcallister@durangoherald.com

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