Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Elsa or Else

The New Yorker’s 2014 Halloween cover should look something like this: high angle on a shadowed cul-de-sac, pools of light illuminating the street. In those pools, row after row of tiny Elsas — the heroine of “Frozen” — snowflake crowns glimmering, blue skirts shimmering, hands on hips in Wonder Woman’s power pose. All the other kids, the ghosts and Spider Men, Minecraft Steves and black cats, baby spiders and infant California rolls, are in shadow. Every Halloween has a pop-culture winner, and this year it’s “Frozen.” If your daughter thinks she’ll be the only one singing “Let It Go” at every house, warn her now.

I should know: I tried to get my three-year-old to switch to Sleeping Beauty.

But why? She doesn’t seem to care that her best friend, along with all the other little girls in preschool snack group, will be Elsa too. And Elsa is easy. We already have a well-loved costume. It took me just ten minutes to bedazzle a pair of blue Crocs, thereby transforming them into “Elsa shoes.” A little glitter goes a long way. The Sleeping Beauty switch, which would have required either more work or more spending on my part, was pure projection. If another mother on Instagram casually drops the fact that she’s been working on her daughter’s costume since July, can I get away with ten minutes?

Halloween, like so many aspects of modern parenting, can easily become as much about the parents as it is about their kids. We are helping them execute their visions, we say to ourselves, as we put another coat of paint on the cardboard T-Rex, and they act out a dinosaur battle in the sandbox. I do get excited at each year’s challenge, so much like a design school prompt, but making sure the kid actually helps is extra work. Could I make my son’s requested costume — Sceptile, a reptilian Pokémon — from a hoodie, six styrofoam balls and the cardboard box the diapers came in? To refuse seems like an almost Calvinist denial of the transformation of what was once a simple bedsheet-and-pillowcase holiday into something more like a sponsored pageant.

In my lifetime I’ve experienced a ramping-up of expectation, from both children and advertisers, that turns Halloween into a sort of precursor to Christmas. There’s the back-and-forth on the costume, akin to the endlessly reordered gift list. There’s the drugstore filled with garlands, the craft store filled with foam pumpkins, the pumpkin spice everything. Design blogs have already offered their spin on pumpkin decoration for adults. My cousin, the mother of a 6-month-old, has been asked repeatedly what her infant is going to “be.” Top trends on Etsy include a $48 sushi onesie that was featured on Martha Stewart’s show – and, later this week, will be featured on her granddaughter.

Trying to stuff all mention of Halloween into a single month, as my mother did, feels increasingly difficult, though I did hold the line on starting costume prep at the second weekend in October.

You can buy an Elsa dress at every price point from $16.49 to $130, while Pinterest catalogs hundreds of do-it-yourself versions at every skill level (NO SEW, t-shirt hacks, separate tutorials for capes, hair clips and luxuriant one-shoulder blonde braids). Whatever happened to semi-homemade Halloween?

But when I went looking at Halloween history I found something unexpected. The scale of the $7.4 billion Halloween industry dwarfs that of the past, but the underlying division of costumes into two camps — elaborate DIY vs. cheaply manufactured, has existed since the beginning of the last century.

Commercial costume companies began in the 1910s, making costumes out of paper or, in the case of Collegeville Costume, excess cloth from the manufacture of American flags. These costumes ranged from generic (clowns and ghosts) to well-known characters (Mickey Mouse, Little Orphan Annie) and were made of cotton, with gauze masks. After World War II, production switched to the polymer-scented masks, the hospital-gown-like smocks many of us remember from our youth. 1960s kids could be Jackie Kennedy, an Apollo astronaut or the star of many a forgotten TV show. Scan a Buzzfeed listicle of 1980s costumes and you see all your old moon-faced friends: Chewbacca, Yoda, Strawberry Shortcake, She-Ra. The benefit of those masks was true disguise, and the parts were easily reused and passed down to little siblings and neighbors. Not so with today’s stretchy bulked-up Iron Man: it’s far too easy to shred his nylon armour, and the costumes come in sizes like clothes. Buy your Halloween accessories too soon and they are broken before October 31.

The other end of the spectrum was the masquerade equivalent of dinner from the larder. The first paragraph of Lesley Pratt Bannatyne’s Halloween: An American Holiday, An American History describes “a coal-black cat’s head made of your mother’s tights and pipe-cleaner whiskers.” My brother went as Indiana Jones with my father’s fedora and a homemade whip. Making do was its own form of creativity, when dress-up gear was less branded and came from the piles at church rummage sales. Even bygone Halloween came with a dash of today’s social media one-upmanship. Bannatyne describes elaborate party invitations for the crafty Victorian, which “were handmade in the shape of Halloween symbols and featured a rhyming verse.”

Where once there was “princess,” now Disney color-codes each one — no fairy godmother can transform yellow Belle into pink Aurora. The star of choice used to be Charlie Chaplin; now, one can choose from anywhere in the Marvel, Pokémon or Lego universes, each with its own “encyclopedia.” These costumes can’t come from the store. When my family went as assorted X-Men a few years ago, we used red safety goggles for Cyclops and an Ariel wig for Marvel Girl: Wolverine seems to be the only kids option on Amazon.

Of course, you can just say no. You can not buy, and you can not make. An architect friend reports his 10-year-old now makes the costumes for herself and her twin – and she does a better job than he did. But there is peer pressure. Just search “Dad makes elaborate ___ costume for his kid.” Here is the blogger Sweet Juniper’s description of making a samurai outfit last year: “For this armor I started with those huge rectangular shoulder pads (sode), punching tons of holes in the leather and using embroidery floss for the traditional silk cords that make traditional samurai armor so colorful.”

To return to the food metaphor, might the next step not be a Slow Halloween movement, in which people again turn to their own closets for materials? Vulture film critic Bilge Ebiri had the right idea when he tweeted, subversively, that the popularity of “The Box Trolls” “could be a mortal blow to the pre-made Halloween costume industry.” (Because all you need is a box, full stop.)

But it’s not a competition. It shouldn’t be a fashion show. My son shows himself to be wiser than I when he tells me, scissors in hand, “It doesn’t have to be perfect.” Costumes, historically, provided an escape from the self. A cul-de-sac full of little black cats and ghouls, in wrinkled pajamas and smeared, self-applied face paint, would be an escape from over-engineered childhood — as well as from the grownups.


Originally published in re:form