Everybody knows that women shouldn’t just be a Sexy _____ for Halloween. Instead, you should be something empowering, like a cool empress or goddess or inventor from Take Back Halloween. Even if you feel amazing dressed up as a Slutty Bunch of Grapes (oh wait I picked that as a joke but it is a thing:
BUT the girl in this photo is totally doing the costume wrong. Here are two ways to do Slutty Bunch of Grapes: you’re totally naked except for like seven purple balloons taped to your body, and your chosen Halloween lover gets to watch you pop them one by one as you do the Dance of the Seven Slutty Grapes, OR you’re totally naked except for SEVERAL HUNDRED real grapes glued to your body with some kind of special food-safe glue and your lover gets to eat them all off one by one and then zhe is TOO FULL to eat any of hir candy and YOU GET TO EAT IT ALL oh wait I was supposed to be telling you NOT to be a slutty bunch of grapes!) ANYWAY, even if you got a great idea for a Slutty Bunch of Grapes costume + sex game from the Internet, you shouldn’t be a Slutty Bunch of Grapes because of what Mean Girls taught us. You remember! “In Girl World, Halloween is the one day a year when a girl can dress up like a total slut and no other girls can say anything else about it.”
So because Halloween is this weird carnival time of misrule, women and girls are encouraged, even required, to wear provocative outfits for which they would be mercilessly slut-shamed at any other time of year. And because Cady didn’t get the Girl World memo, she shows up in an amazing, totally transformative Zombie Bride costume and feels really uncomfortable and the boy she likes makes out with Regina George the Playboy Bunny.
I like Cady’s naive Halloween costume because I don’t think women should have to be a Slutty Bunch of Grapes or a Sexy Mouse or whatever for Halloween. And I like the costume because it’s so transformative and scary and gross, and for me that’s the best thing about Halloween: being transfigured, becoming unrecognizable, and also the reason you’re unrecognizable is that you are so bloody and gross and scary and dead that no one can believe it’s sweet old clean friendly living you. For me, being gory has been an important part not only of Halloween but of a specifically feminist Halloween vision, in which the violence and abjection of my appearance isn’t just appropriate to a day when we remember our mortality and/or scare off evil spirits, but to a feminist project committed to embracing the perceived grossness of women’s bodies and to acknowledging the violence and abjection that marks so many women’s lives. That’s why, although I love looking at resources like Take Back Halloween, I’m not really that likely to use them–in general, I like costumes to be a little grosser, or scarier, or stranger. I also like them to be specifically literary, for some reason. (The reason is I really like literature and also all my friends are like grad students or poets or journalists or artists or extremely well-read computer programmers.)
So, in honor of this month’s WEIRD SISTER launch, here’s the first of three posts about DIY Feminist Literary Halloween Costumes. The costumes in Parts One & Two are the trickier ones, which involve a little more advance shopping or assembly time; I’ve organized them chronologically, so today’s costumes are from ancient and medieval literature, and Part Two will cover the nineteenth century to today. Part Three will be last-minute costumes. But in general, all of these costumes can be assembled within a couple of days, using everyday stuff + an old bedsheet + some eyeliner + scissors + tape + red paint.
I should warn you–I hope I kind of already have warned you–that my definition of “feminist” is sometimes just “covered in blood.” But in choosing these bloody costumes, I’m focusing on the ways in which women writers and readers choose to represent or examine or critique or delight in grossness, violence, and abjection. Feminist Halloween costumes shouldn’t glorify violence against women, so none of the costumes below depict historical violence experienced by real women. Remember, kids: your feminist Halloween costume should unsettle the patriarchy much more than it unsettles your feminist sisters.
On to the costumes!
THE QUEEN OF SHEBA
From the Bible + Ethiopian legend + Arabian legend + lots of crazy medieval texts; she may have been a real person who reigned during the 10th century BCE; some people associate her with the Bride in the Song of Solomon, which is the most sex-positive and maybe the most women-positive part of the Bible.)
You can interpret the Queen of Sheba in a lot of different ways, based on the different cultural and religious traditions that claim her: as the Ethiopian queen Makeda, as this Disney Princess-y version from 15th-century Prague (also see a discussion of this image on the excellent People of Color in European Art History tumblr), or as a fantasy blend of different traditions and images, like this costume idea from Take Back Halloween. Another twist might be to dress as the Bride from the Song of Solomon: put pomegranate slices on your cheeks, fawns on your breasts, tiny stuffed goats in your hair, etc. As you’ll see in my costume ideas below, I’m really into suggesting that you glue stuff to yourself, but I haven’t figured out how to make your teeth look like sheep, so I’m going with Makeda, the Queen from Ethiopian legend.
You’ll need: a white linen dress, preferably with a full skirt; a white shawl or scarf; patterned fabric for dress trim (ideally from Ethiopia or Eritrea, but any woven geometric pattern will probably work); metallic gold sandals; optional tights, so you don’t freeze; gold hoop earrings; gold necklace and bracelet; dark blue eye pencil; needle and thread or straight pins.
Prep Intensity: Medium; it might be hard to find enough patterned fabric and attach it to the dress. But in general if you can find the components for the costume, there isn’t too much DIY.
Step 1: Pin or baste (sew with loose stitches) the patterned trim to the hem and neckline of your dress.
Step 2: Style your hair; try a few different braids, or a braided coronet.
Step 3: Put on the dress, shawl, shoes, and jewelry.
Step 4: Draw several concentric circles around your neck with the blue eye pencil; you could use this 19th-century illustration as a reference.
Step 5: Show up at a Halloween party with a cargo of spices and insist on trading them for candy and drinks; challenge all the boys at the party to tell the difference between a real flower and a fake flower; recite random lines from the Song of Solomon to your party crushes. Some fall-themed sample lines: “Sustain me with raisins,/refresh me with apples,/For I am sick with love” and “As an apple tree among the trees of the forest/so is my beloved among the young men.” Maybe you should convince everyone to bob for apples.
The original lyric poet, original poetess, and original Lesbian, Sappho lived and worked during the 6th century BCE.
You’ll need: flat bedsheet; safety pins or needle & thread; decorative brooches or pins; a few feet of ribbon or cord or a long, thin scarf; plastic headband; construction paper; medium-sized sheet of cardboard (about 11″ x 17″); scissors; glue. Optional: white powder, blue and gray eyeshadow, eyeliner, lipliner.
Prep Intensity: Medium. The materials are easy to find, but the costume involves some easy DIY projects involving construction paper and glue; draping the sheet is kind of a pain.
Step 1: Cut out green leaf shapes from construction paper; glue them to the headband like this:
Step 2: Draw a lyre on a sheet of cardboard; cut out. The lyre should look like this:
Step 3: Fold and drape the sheet like this:
Fasten shoulders with safety pins or tack them closed with a few sloppy stitches. Cover pins or stitches with decorative brooches (you can also use big, fancy earrings; just stab the hooks into the fabric and let the earrings hang down.) Belt with ribbon or cord.
Step 4: Style your hair. You have a lot of options: you can leave it loose, you can put it in a bun, you can go for an Edwardian Psyche knot (a style that’s modeled on ancient Greek hairstyles), you can try a more elaborate ancient Greek hairdo.
Step 5: Slip your headband around the back of your head so that it fits like a laurel crown (if you have a bun, you want it to go on top of the bun.)
Step 6: Go around strumming your lyre and singing to your beautiful young girlfriends.
VARIATION: DEAD SAPPHO. For Dead Sappho, your goal is to look like you leapt to your death from the Leucadian cliffs, heartbroken over your rejection by the ferryman Phaon. This is just a legend; there’s no historical evidence that this is how Sappho died–but on the other hand, we know almost nothing about Historical Sappho anyway. Dead Sappho also tends to be More Heterosexual Sappho, but you don’t have to worry about that if you just want to be creepy and dead for Halloween. For Dead Sappho, wet your hair and work in a lot of sticky hair gel before Step 3 (draping the sheet.) This should keep your hair looking wet even after it dries. Apply powder to your face, neck, chest, and arms. Apply blue and gray eyeshadow under your eyes to make yourself look more corpse-y; you might also want to create bruises on your face, chest, and arms to show where your falling body hit the rocks. Red lipliner can indicate where you cut yourself on the rocks.
From Greek myth & the 431 BCE tragedy by Euripides. The original “cool girl” & bad mommy, Medea murdered her own two children to get revenge on her unfaithful husband; for centuries she’s been important to feminist writers as a model of feminine transgression & rage.
You’ll need: a white flat bedsheet that you don’t mind ruining; red paint; red lipliner or lipstick; black liquid eyeliner; bobby pins; safety pins and/or needle and thread; a few feet of ribbon or cord; gold or bronzey jewelry, including brooches, necklaces, armbands.
Prep Intensity: Medium. The materials are easy to find. You should be able to do the sheet draping and blood-dripping relatively quickly, maybe within an hour, but it could make a mess that will slow you down.
(Please note that almost all my costume ideas involve pouring, dripping, or spattering red acrylic paint on your clothes and/or body. I’ve always found that acrylic paint washes off skin pretty easily; just don’t actually paint your skin with it, or you might die like that poor Bond girl in Goldfinger. If you prefer, WikiHow has an exhaustive list of recipes for nontoxic, edible fake blood; if you have time, you might want to cook up one of those and dribble it all over your face and body instead of using lipstick or paint.)
Step 1: Style your hair. You can use any of the ancient Greek hair ideas for the Sappho costume above, or you can tease your hair into a wild, vengeful mane. I had shorter hair when I wore this costume, so I put my hair in pin-curls the night before, then let the curls fall around my face and held the rest of my hair back with a gold ribbon. In general, a cloth band or tiara around your head, with curls or tendrils emerging onto your forehead, will look very Greek.
Step 2: Drape yourself in the sheet and fasten the shoulders (see Step 3 for Sappho costume above.)
Step 3: Spatter sheet with red paint (this is easiest to do when the sheet is already draped on your body.) Smear red paint on your hands and arms up to the elbows.
Step 4: Put on all your nicest gold jewelry, including armbands, a necklace, and possibly a gold necklace on your head for a coronet.
Step 5: Do your makeup. I went with smeared black liquid eyeliner, red lipstick, and tears of blood applied to my cheeks with red lipliner.
Step 6: If you want, carry around dolls representing your poor dead children. Horrify everyone. Ride in on a chariot pulled by dragons and convince everyone you didn’t actually kill your kids after all. Maybe they’re just dragons, like Daenerys Targaryen’s kids.
The author of the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji, Murasaki was a Japanese novelist, poet, and courtier who lived from approximately 978 – 1025 A.D.
Take Back Halloween has great suggestions for a Murasaki costume; my suggestions below for a slightly simpler version are based on their original concept.
You’ll need: loose white blouse; loose red pants; kimono (preferably violet brocade); optional additional kimonos; copy of The Tale of Genji (or any book with a homemade paper cover that says The Tale of Genji; optional fan; optional white facepaint, dark gray or black eyeshadow, red lipstick; optional black tooth color (try party stores and costume stores that sell FX makeup); optional eyebrow plastic; optional long wig.
Prep Intensity: Medium. The biggest difficulty will be finding a nice kimono and a copy of Tale of Genji (here’s an abridged copy of the book on Amazon.) If you already have those, you’re pretty much all set. If you choose to do period makeup, that will take some time and skill.
Step 1: Get dressed; wear blouse and pants under kimono (ideally a violet one, since the color was associated with Murasaki’s name.) If you have multiple kimonos, layer them on top of each other
Step 2: Put on the wig, or, if you have long hair, wear your hair loose down your back.
Step 3: Carry around a copy of A Tale of Genji and possibly a fan. Communicate mostly by reciting famous poems that you have cleverly modified to suit the occasion.
Step 4 (Optional): Consider painting your face as women did in the Heian period; they also blackened their teeth, because black teeth were considered more attractive than the naturally yellowish teeth most people had before whitening strips were invented (or whatever. I think I have pretty yellow teeth right now.) But you’ll also want to consider that a lot of people will assume you’re dressed as a “geisha” or a “Japanese girl,” which might not be the effect you’re going for and could offend people, especially if you’re not Japanese.
To get the full Heian look, you’ll want to paint your face white, get rid of your eyebrows (you can do this by applying eyebrow plastic before putting on your facepaint, but if you don’t have thick eyebrows just putting facepaint over them might be good enough for Halloween), then apply new, smudgy gray eyebrows high up on your forehead. Paint your lips bright red in a rosebud shape over the line of your natural lip. Finally, blacken your teeth.
An allegorical monster from Edmund Spenser’s 1590 poem The Faerie Queene, Errour has a serpent’s tail and vomits up horrible snakes and frogs, which she breastfeeds using her horrible poisoned dugs. She also vomits up black ink and blasphemous papers and books. She’s not intended to be a feminist figure, but I think the aggressive grotesqueness of her body and the weird transgression of a woman vomiting up (bad) writing makes her a figure ripe for feminist reclamation.
You’ll need: a long, tight skirt, preferably green; a tight top, either green or a color close to your skin tone; lots of plastic frogs, toads, and snakes from the dollar store; facepaint (dark blue or black and possibly green); spirit gum; tiny notebooks; an unruly long wig (optional).
Prep Intensity: High. It’s relatively easy to get the components of this costume, although it might be tricky to find a skirt that fits properly; gluing or sewing all this stuff to your costume and/or your face is going to be a big pain. My husband thinks nobody will try this costume. Prove him wrong!
Step 1: If you don’t mind ruining skirt and top, draw scales on the skirt with a thick Sharpie (this will also work for the XXX the Mermaid costume, coming next week!) and draw nipples on the top (around where your own nipples would be.)
Step 2: Put on the skirt and top. If you don’t have a tight skirt you want to trash for this costume, you can also wrap fabric tightly around your body from waist to ankle, but it will make peeing tricky. You can also pull a looser long skirt tight in the back and fasten with binder clips or safety pins:
Step 3: Glue snakes and frogs to your breasts, like they’re suckling. Glue tiny notebooks to the neckline of your shirt.
Step 4: If you want to be extra serpentine, paint your face and neck green to match the skirt and top.
Step 5: Using black or dark-blue facepaint, make it look like you vomited ink all over your chin, neck, and chest; you can use actual ink on your top instead of facepaint.
Step 6: Put on the unruly wig, or tease and hairspray your hair into an unruly mess.
Step 7: Using spirit gum, attach small frogs and crumpled-up sheets of dirty paper around your mouth and down your chin and neck, as if you vomited them up.
Step 8: Go around town making horrible retching noises, gobbling up plastic snakes, and trying to convince your friends to believe in various heresies, like that the Holy Trinity isn’t real or that the Pope is great or that women’s reproductive organs aren’t a disgusting site of disgustingness and horror.
MONSTER CRAFT PROJECT: Errour is not, of course, the only potentially feminist literary monster you could be for Halloween. You could be Medusa; you could be Grendel’s mother; you could be the girl-version of almost any monster you can think of. If you want to be an intimidating female monster, might I suggest a skull bra? In 2010 I wanted to be my D&D character, a female half-orc barbarian, and I was dismayed that no one seemed to make skull masks the size of my breasts. So I had to take matters into my own hands: I blew up two breast-sized balloons, built up eyebrow ridges and a nose bridge on the balloons using masking tape, covered everything in papier-mâché, and painted them to look like skulls. Then all I had to do was pop the balloons inside, cut the skulls in half, and glue the front of the skulls to an old bra. Voila, a terrifying skull bra:
THE CRANE GIRL/WIFE
From the Japanese folktale “Tsuru no Ongaeshi,” & uh that Decemberists album. Another costume that you might not think is super feminist, because it glorifies/sentimentalizes women’s domestic labor and self-sacrifice: in the story, a wounded crane rescued by a couple shows up at their house in human form, and proceeds to weave beautiful cloth for them out of her own feathers. But your costume is foregrounding the violence of that labor and those sacrifices, and pronouncing it creepy. Yes, that’s kind of close to Edgar Allan Poe saying that the most poetic thing in the world is the Death of a Beautiful Woman, but he’s not being critical of it, he’s just creepily enjoying it. That’s different, right?
You’ll need: Lots of white feathers (buy on Amazon or at a craft store); several white ribbons or strips of cloth, about 10 inches long and 2-3 inches wide; a white dress or unitard; white tights; white shoes; red lipstick or lipliner; red paint; red food coloring; needle and thread or glue gun; optional flat white sheet or thin white muslin for “wings”; optional plastic beak; optional cheap handkerchiefs to distribute to passersby.
Prep intensity: High. You might have to go to a specialty store for the feathers, or order them online. Sewing or gluing the feathers to your costume might take some time.
Step 1: Dip one or two of your fabric strips in a bowl of water with lots of red food coloring. You want it to look like a bloody bandage, so make sure some of the bandage stays out of the water so the fabric will look stained, not just dyed red.
Step 2: Stitch or hot-glue white feathers to your strips of cloth like this (make sure you save some feathers for your hair) :
Step 3: Let cool, if you used hot glue.
Step 4: Spatter the feathers and fabric of your “bloody” strips with red paint.
Step 5: Put on your white dress/unitard and tights.
Step 6: Tie feathered strips snugly around your wrists, arms, neck, and legs (if your legs are visible.) Make sure to tie your “bloody” strips close together, somewhere on your arm.
Step 7: Put some feathers in your hair, either using bobby pins or by braiding your hair tightly and inserting the feathers into the braids (or both).
Step 8: Using a red or pink lip pencil, make small dots on your skin in between the feathered bands and/or on your forehead near your hairline. Your goal is to make it look like you plucked feathers out of your own skin to weave fabric for your foster parents/husband. You can draw or paint rivulets of blood coming down your face from some of these dots.
Step 9: If you want, you can also attach small feathers to the edges of your face using Vaseline or spirit gum.
Step 10: If you’re worried people won’t get that you’re a bird, put on a plastic beak.
Step 11: Go around distributing beautiful handkerchiefs that you wove yourself and telling people not to follow you into the bathroom in case they see something they regret.