Culture is Not a Costume: Dress-Up Options to Avoid this Halloween

By Lilyen McCarthy


As Halloween approaches, people of all ages are brainstorming ideas for the perfect costume

According to Pinterest, the most popular adult costumes for 2022 are Elvis and Priscilla Presley and “Stranger Things.”

this year. Coming from a second-year college student, costumes I have seen every year are angels and devils, evil people from “The Purge” film series, the characters from the “Scooby-Doo” gang, and unfortunately

some offensive selections. Whether it’s a sexualized version of cultural clothing, any costume with blackface or a religion made to look possessed/evil, there is always one ignorant or malicious person picking the wrong costume.


Not all offensive costumes are donned with foul intent. In order to understand what makes certain clothing offensive, you have to understand the meaning of cultural appropriation. Oxford Languages defines cultural appropriation as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another typically more dominant people or society.”


One very common example that will always be offensive is the sexualized traditional clothing from any culture. Spirit Halloween has slowly stopped selling indigenous regalia, but Amazon and other sites sell costumes named “Sultry Indian Hottie” and “Native Warrior Princess.” Dressing as an indigenous woman, while not being a part of the culture, is ignorant to the culture and neglects to recognize the thousands of indigenous women and children that go missing every year, especially when done in a vulgar manner.


There are also many gypsy costumes disguised as “fortune tellers,” yet the outfits still carry Romani culture undertones. Regardless of the intent, a costume hinting at this culture is appropriation and offensive. Other common feminine costumes that are considered cultural appropriation are “sexy” geishas, traditional Hindu clothing and costumes themed around the Mexican holiday, Day of the Dead.


It's not to say that masculine costumes are safe from cultural appropriation, either. There are many Bob Marley impersonators, not of Jamaican nationality, who should not be dressing as the Jamaican singer. Performer Chris Brown went viral for dressing as a “terrorist” in 2012, a costume extremely racist toward the Middle Eastern population. It puts all people from this area in a very negative category that most should not be included. The “terrorist” costume is not exclusive to celebrities. More cultural appropriation against Middle Eastern culture happens when people not from the region dress as Aladdin, Jasmine and other characters from the “Aladdin” movie.


Another offensive costume that I don’t think gets talked about enough is a sexy nun/monk or a gory take on the clothing. Sexualizing a group of people whose mission it is to remain modest and serve their religion cannot be justified in my book.


There are also costumes that some would not consider cultural appropriation, exactly, but I still believe they should be avoided. One of these offensive costumes that may come around this year is dressing as any prolific serial killer. With the Netflix series, “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” starring Evan Peters, Dahmer’s story has been publicized once again. I know there will be quite a few people dressed as Jeffrey Dahmer this year, and it is completely insensitive to his victims and their families. Dressing as a prolific serial killer idolizes a person who did horrible, heinous things to many people. It does not matter if you are going for “scary.” Zombies and ghosts are scary, but a serial killer costume is wrong.


Recently, TikToks have discussed costumes that people should avoid, and they are ideas that I, personally, never thought anyone would decide to wear. Some costumes I found in my research are transphobic outfits, Ku Klux Klan members, people who are homeless and Holocaust victims/survivors. Some individuals are ignorant in the case of cultural appropriation, but dressing as a clearly malicious symbol is irresponsible and in completely bad taste.


The controversial decision when discussing offensive costumes is in regards to children. Can kids be offensive with their costumes and what they decide to wear? I believe that a kid dressing up very rarely has racist or ill intent. As much as kids don’t fully understand the world, they often don’t understand other cultures and how a costume can be cultural appropriation. It is up to parents to teach their kids about culture and realizing what is okay to dress up as and what is not.


Celebrities voicing cultural animated characters have said in the past they believe it is completely fine for children to dress up as the characters they have voiced. When children dress up as characters, it isn’t a stab at the characters’ culture, but instead, in idolization of the character. Once again, it is the responsibility of adults to teach kids why some costumes might not be the best choice, and to point them in the direction of a better selection for Halloween.


There are many, many costumes and outfits that we should avoid this upcoming Halloween, and all holidays in the future. It’s better to be the seventieth lifeguard than to offend a culture.

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