COLUMBIA — What do a corrections officer, a school nurse and a Greek goddess have in common?
On Halloween night, two things actually: a low neckline and a short hemline.
Teenage girls and sorority sisters, young professional women and a few 50-something mothers will don these and other eye-teasing costumes Oct. 31. They are costumes that would, in the words of author Raymond Chandler, “make a bishop kick a hole through a stain-glass window.”
Risque Halloween costumes are creating a stir. Last month, a Spirit Halloween store in Overland Park, Kansas was indicted by a grand jury for displaying obscene costumes. The store was not charged in the case.
All Hallow’s Eve isn’t just about Tootsie Rolls and drugstore costumes anymore; it’s become a social theater.
For many women, it’s a moment to let both fashion and social inhibitions loose, and for one night, dress in a thrilling way they normally might not.
Or, depending on whom you ask, it’s a harmful and demeaning event filled with women parading in costumes emphasizing an over-sexed culture.
“If a girl wants to go out on October 31st when it’s 45 degrees out in an outfit that covers half of her body, I’m cool with that,” said Rachel Miller, the manager responsible for ordering Halloween costumes at the downtown Gotcha costume shop. “It’s the one day a girl can get away with that.”
Bev Ehlen, the St. Louis-based area director of Concerned Women for America, a faith-based group, sees the issue differently.
“It’s more evidence of the sexualization of our children and society,” Ehlen said. “When women let down their standards, it’s the last step of the breakdown of morals of society.”
So which is it?
As Tina Parke-Sutherland, literature professor and coordinator of the women’s studies department at Stephens College, puts it: “Why does everybody want to be whore on Halloween?”
“From a social norms point of view, sometimes people will do something very occasionally that will take them outside of themselves that can be fun to do when there is no danger,” said Bruce Bartholow, assistant professor of psychology at MU.
“I don’t think it’s an either/or situation,” said Bartholow. “It’s a continuum.”
At Gotcha costume shop, the people Bartholow describes have been given a name: “Sexy Girls.”
“The average ‘sexy girl’ is a college student,” Mitchell says. “She’s sometimes a sorority girl or girl who’s in a shell.” But being a “sexy girl” isn’t just limited to college students.
Mitchell said she’s seeing more women in middle age snatching up sexy costumes.
“I’ve noticed that a lot this year, maybe 10 to 15 percent of our business,” she said. “I’ve also noticed younger girls — 15, 16, 17 years old — who want to wear that stuff.”
The most popular costume this year at Gotcha is called the “Candy Striper,” which is part nurse uniform, part candy cane. It sold out on the first day.
There is an argument made that dressing in such a costume on Halloween is a social statement for women.
“Some people would say it’s inhabiting a space that has been used against you, and it’s using it as a means of empowerment,” Parke-Sutherland said.
At least one “sexy girl” isn’t concerned about social statements or empowerment, or for that matter, what her parents think.
MU freshman Melissa Steffen, shopping at the Spirit Halloween store, is comfortable with the idea of wearing a risque costume.
“My mom would be like, ‘Dang! That’s hot.’”
The MU psychologist frames the issue in larger terms.
“There’s always the risk of going too far,” Bartholow said. “If you’re talking about gender roles, it’s very touchy.”
“I think too, it’s part of a larger cultural trend to hyper-sexuality. Even the kind of everyday clothes that young women wear can be very revealing.”
Bartholow does not want to take the fun out of Halloween, but he raises a practical concern.
“It can be perfectly harmless,” Bartholow says, “or it can be an invitation to trouble. Especially if alcohol is involved.”
Halloween safety for kids can be especially important.
The Columbia Public School system does not have a districtwide Halloween dress policy and individual schools are left to determine their own policy, said Jack Jensen, the assistant superintendent for elementary education.
Ridgeway Elementary School does not allow their students to wear Halloween costumes. Rock Bridge High School allows “appropriate” costumes as long as they do not cover the student’s face, said Lynne Moore, receptionist in the guidance department.
Whatever the point of view, in Columbia the trade in salacious female costumes is doing well. Spirit Halloween, which opened a store here for the first time this season, has an adult section that is well-stocked and well-patronized, and at Gotcha, for the first time in the five years she’s worked there, Miller needs to place a second order of “sexy girl” costumes.
Window shopping with her family last week at Gotcha, Connie Crane, 45, of Palmyra, looked at a row of “sexy girl” costumes and waxed sentimental on Halloween.
“It’s a night to pretend,” Crane said, “to be a kid again.”
Daughter Melissa Crane, 25, was not sentimental in her reply.
“Why would you want to pretend to be a hooker?”
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