Pop quiz time. Halloween represents: a) A sorry indictment of the Americanisation of our culture. Whatever happened to a penny for the guy, eh? b) Sweets. c) An outfit that requires weeks of planning, which is unusual for you, as you generally can’t commit to anything more than 24 hours in advance. If you answered a), you are over 50. If you answered b), you are under 14. If you answered c), you are a millennial.
Halloween is now essentially Coachella with fake blood instead of false eyelashes. In the modern calendar, the day looms, suddenly, large. As the rites and rituals that ebbed away along with church congregations are replaced by new ones rooted in fashion, celebrity and popular culture, Halloween becomes ever more prominent. When spring comes around, we don’t make Easter bonnets any more, we make flower crowns for summer festivals. The day pumpkin spiced lattes are back at Starbucks is now bigger than Shrove Tuesday. And Halloween will soon be bigger than Christmas. At which point, we are essentially pagan again, I guess.
The rise of Halloween can be tracked in costumes. Twenty years ago, if you were going trick-or-treating, you nagged your mum into giving you an old sheet that you could cut eyeholes in, practised saying “woo-hoo” and waving your arms around a bit, and that was your “look” sorted. So low was the status of Halloween in those days that sometimes the only sheet you were allowed to chop up wasn’t even white. And you had to make do with being a floral ghost. As Halloween began to shine brighter on the radar, the date became an excuse for a party, and so the costumes became themed versions of on-the-pull outfits. Witches developed a penchant for cheap, red satin bustier tops and leery winks, and their black cats for fishnet tights and cutesy ears.
But Halloween outgrew the sexy cat. The fishnet-era Halloween costume is now dead. I mean, it’s still all over Amazon, but it is now basic, which is obviously way worse than dead. The alpha Halloween costume of the 00s is one that semaphores your close reading of the zeitgeist. So, in 2014 one went as Iris Apfel, in 2015 as Cecil the Lion and in 2016 as Beyoncé in her Lemonade dress. At its most basic, foot-soldier level, the Halloween costume simply says that you are up to date on cool box set-type viewing. Last year, that meant glasses and a frilly jumper (Barb from Stranger Things), this year it is a red cloak and a white bonnet (Offred the handmaid).
At the other extreme, it gives celebrities whose job involves endlessly reinventing their image – a new hair colour, a baby bump, whatever it takes – the ideal opportunity for a makeover. The Kardashians are major fans of a Halloween photo opportunity. In 2014, Kim as Anna Wintour with North West as André Leon Talley was just one of several costumes.
Halloween is a release valve on societal norms. We get to take a day off from good behaviour and be naughty. Or from respectability, by embracing sluttiness. So it makes sense that in the stultifying vanity of now, that release valve has become about having a chance to look unpretty. See Katy Perry as Hillary Clinton, or Emily Ratajkowski as Marge Simpson, or Liv Tyler as a bun in the oven in honour of her pregnancy. These costumes are compelling as much for the novelty of seeing women in the public eye putting red-carpet levels of effort into looking silly rather than gorgeous as they are for their originality and their humour.
There is no equivalent of the little black dress when it comes to Halloween costumes. On a holiday that celebrates pop culture, being up to date matters more than anything else. Which helps make Halloween the perfect celebration for a generation with zero attention span. Last weekend, however, invites to the Casamigos party co-hosted by George and Amal Clooney came retro-stamped with a 70s dress code. (The Casamigos do has become the Halloween party to be seen at, a kind of Los Angeles version of the White House Easter egg roll, presided over by the west coast’s first couple.) Kaia Gerber, daughter of Cindy Crawford, confirmed her new position at the top of the fashion-celebrity tree with her Elvira-from-Scarface look, which paid homage to a blue-chip, and very grown-up, style icon. Kim Kardashian came as Cher, presumably choosing from a brief shortlist compiled after Googling “hot women from the 70s who wore bra tops”.
For the rest of us, unbound by the Clooney invite, the costume options are endless. You could be Melania. Or Wonder Woman. Or Beyoncé’s birth announcement. Or Kim Jong-un. Or Salt Bae. Or Vladimir Putin. Or Paul Manafort. The one upside of a world that has gone completely mad? Halloween now makes perfect sense.