Halloween Costumes: Appreciating or Appropriating Culture?

Sana Kothari

Halloween. For kids, this means watching horror movies, pumpkin carving, dressing up, and eating a lot of candy. For adults, it usually means all of the above, with the addition of alcohol. Not much has changed about these widespread traditions over the years. However, a part of the holiday that has come under fire is the costumes – especially if they find roots in the customs or rituals of diverse cultures.

When it comes to Halloween costumes, there can be a fine line between cultural appreciation and appropriation. The former celebrates the philosophies of diverse cultural origins. On the other hand, the latter can be seen as a disrespectful use of another culture for one’s own enjoyment without understanding or appreciating its significance and origins. Cultural appropriation can be seen as insensitive or hurtful, so here’s a simple guide of do’s and don’ts, and questions you can ask yourself to make sure you are being appreciative of other cultures while enjoying the holiday.

Don’t wear: A traditional outfit that isn’t from your own ethnicity or culture.

You may not know the significance of your costume. Take the example of Native American powwow regalia or headdress. Native American tribes use these outfits during ceremonies to call on higher powers to spread strength and support in their communities. Ask yourself: Would I wear a store-bought feather headdress with a suede miniskirt and fringed leather jacket to a party hosted by an indigenous person? If the answer is no, then don’t do it.

Do wear: Costumes based on fictional characters from books or television, if not culturally specific.

Gi-hun from Squid Game. Hermione from Harry Potter. Marge from the Simpsons. Spiderman. These characters are not born from obvious long-standing traditions or history. They are made purely for entertainment and whimsy, and can be used as such! Conversely, for ethnically specific characters – such as Mulan, Aladdin, or Moana – tread carefully and consider the historical significance of their ethnicity. Ask yourself: Is the heritage of the character I’m dressing up as the main part of their personality? If the answer is no, go right ahead!

Don’t wear: A sexualized cultural item or artefact.

A coconut bikini as a “luau” costume. A bed-sheet as a “toga” costume. Wearing only a poncho as a “tequila” costume (increasingly popular during Trump’s “build-a-wall” presidency). These are all examples of important cultural tools or symbols being taken out of context and conveyed by cheap or sexualized props. Ask yourself: Was it the intended use of this artefact to be a sexual prop? If the answer is no, don’t use it.

Do wear: Animals, foods, technologies, art movements/famous paintings, mythical creatures, celebrities… the list goes on!

An avocado, an old school classic iPod, a pop art painting, a phoenix, a dinosaur, Lady Gaga, the COVID-19 virus and vaccine (a good couples costume!). Don’t be discouraged by the idea of cultural boundaries and restrictions; there are so many ways to be creative without being insensitive! Stick to the rule of thumb: stay away from costumes tied to culture, race, or religion, and you’re good to go!

Happy trick or treating!

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