Inside the sexy Halloween costume industry
This year has seen sexy bunnies, sexy devils and, um, sexy hand sanitiser flying off the shelves. But who actually creates the world’s sexy Halloween costumes, and how do they come up with their ideas?
In 2008, Desiree Daniels was designing evening gowns when the global financial crisis hit. As a recent fashion graduate from San Francisco’s Academy of Art University, Daniels was in her element creating elegant dresses for high-end American retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s while living in New York. Then, the company she was working for filed for bankruptcy.
“By complete fluke I saw this ad for a Halloween costume designer,” Daniels says now. “I remember walking in for the interview and there was Halloween stuff everywhere and I thought, ‘These people are weird’.” Daniels got the job, and for the last 10 years she’s been designing Halloween costumes – first as an employee, now as a freelancer. Her designs have appeared in Walmart, Target and Claire’s Accessories. “Basically I’ll wake up and there’ll be an email in my inbox and my boss will say, ‘witches and vampires, GO’.”
Every October, a new sexy Halloween costume, usually designed by an American company, goes viral. In 2014, a “Sexy Ebola Containment Suit” inspired headlines – a year later, a sexy green poo and charcoal burger costume celebrated a limited edition Burger King offering that apparently turned your effluent emerald. Meanwhile, a red-capped politician named Donna T. Rumpshaker notably arrived pre-election. This year we’ve inevitably been treated to sexy hand sanitiser and sexy banana bread. Raunchy Halloween costumes are now so prevalent that even a list of the weirdest (sexy lime wedge /sexy Play-Doh /sexy beer mug /sexy kangaroo) will hardly make you flinch. But though we regularly marvel at the models flaunting the costumes, we rarely stop and think about the designers behind them.
Who creates the world’s sexy Halloween costumes, and how do they come up with their ideas? How exactly did sexy Halloween costumes become so ubiquitous? Is there anything that can’t be sexified – and how do you put a new spin on a sexy vampire every single year?
“Yeah, that’s the question, right?” Daniels, who now works and lives in LA, says laughing. “Because every year you design the same 40 characters – there’s always witches, vampires, devils, pirates. One thing that helps is a lot of the companies will make it so if you get witches one year, the next year you’ll get vampires.”
Daniels explains that sexy Halloween costumes are more fashion-forward than many of us might think, and ranges are regularly relaunched to feature new fashion and colour trends. Ten years ago, the default sexy Halloween costume might’ve featured a big frilly skirt under a tight corset, whereas right now, sleek bodysuits are in.
“Three, four, years ago I would’ve never dreamt of doing a midriff-revealing costume,” says Savanna Morrish, a designer at 126-year-old costume manufacturer Smiffys, based in the Midlands. Morrish, who works in Leeds, says crop tops are in, and things have moved on from the “glamour model-esque” origins of the brand’s sexy costume range. “You have to evolve,” she says. In 2010, when “there were no female zombie costumes on the market”, she transformed a sexy nurse into a sexy zombie nurse and created an instant bestseller. Her favourite costumes to design are space-themed as – compared to nurses and policewomen – there’s more room to play around. “The world’s your oyster,” she says.
Believe it or not, thousands of new Halloween costumes flood the market every autumn – Heather Frank, product design manager at HalloweenCostumes.com in Mankato, Minnesota, says her team can create up to 750 costumes in a single year. Frank says it can take as little as six months for a sketch to hit the shelves, though typically the process lasts around ten (Smiffy’s Morrish takes an average of just four months).
Frank also works with licensors to create branded costumes – some are open to sexy outfits, some are not, others compromise. “A good example would be we did some romper-style Care Bears for women, they’re cute with little shorts and they’re cheeky but they’re not overly sexy,” Frank explains. The site now also hosts a costume called “I’m a Mouse, Duh!” – a meta-riff off the classic Mean Girls gag: “Halloween is the one day a year when a girl can dress up like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it.”
But how exactly did Halloween become this One Day A Year, particularly as the word originally meant “Saints’ Evening”? Valerie Steele is a fashion historian and director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology – in the past, the museum has hosted an exhibition of vintage Halloween costumes. Steele says that while Halloween costumes were first mass-produced in the 1930s, they only started to get sexy forty years later, in the 1970s.
“That was when the sexual revolution of the 1960s really spread to the mass population, and you had women’s liberation, sexual liberation, gay liberation,” she says. Steele emphasises that fancy dress has always offered a “liminal moment” for people to transgress social norms; nineteenth-century Italian aristocrat the Countess of Castiglione was a mistress of Emperor Napoleon III who was able to reveal more flesh in costumes than she would’ve been able to in ordinary life. She posed in costumes such as a Queen of Hearts dress for over 700 photographs, some of which revealed her bare legs and feet – scandalous for the era. Steele also says that abstract Halloween costumes are nothing new – she cites Victorians who dressed up as “night”.
Yet Steele says it wasn’t until the turn of the century when Halloween costumes became entwined with fashion – when women “just wore a micro-mini dress or a sexy top and then put on bunny ears or devil horns or something like that.” This is also when the term “Slut-o-ween” was first popularised, and in 2004 PRWeb released a press release entitled, “Women Prefer Sexy Over Scary this Halloween” (Mean Girls, for what it’s worth, was released that April).
Around 2010 – freelance designer Daniels says – the “heads and tails” market peaked in popularity. Daniels designed a white pair of bunny ears with pink lace as well as plenty of wildcat ears. “It was like, ‘design as many as you can, pigs, whatever, goats, just get it out there’,” she says. “I don’t think that’s as popular now.”
Daniels also points to the lingerie company Leg Avenue as a key player in the sexification of Halloween. Established in 1999, the hosiery business is currently selling sexy deer, sexy shark and sexy mad scientist costumes on its website. In 2007, lingerie company Yandy was founded and, three years later, the company began manufacturing its own costumes. Today, Yandy produces the world’s most attention-grabbing topical outfits, from the aforementioned hand sanitiser, to 2018’s ill-thought-out sexy Handmaid’s Tale costume (since pulled from the site).
“I send a Google doc to the entire company – warehouse staff, customer service staff, IT, everybody gets involved – and they just add to the list any good ideas they have,” explains Pilar Quintana-Williams, vice president of merchandising at Yandy. The brand creates around 500 new costumes every year, of which 10 percent are topical (take 2019’s Miss Impeachment costume, or the fake news dress which continues to be a bestseller year after year).
It all started with sexy corn. Quintana-Williams says that, in the early 2010s, her boss was dating a girl from Nebraska and the team designed a sleek corn cob costume to make fun. “From there we grew the fruit and vegetable portion of our costumes, which then proceeded into junk food.” Sexy pizza was one of the trickiest to perfect; Quintana-Williams explains that “getting the crust to sit up nicely” on the shoulders took multiple attempts. There’s even now a vegan-friendly sexy cauliflower pizza edition.
There are a few hard rules when it comes to designing sexy costumes – you’ve likely noticed that fishnets and thigh-high socks are clear favourites, and many designers work hard to ensure their costumes are instantly recognisable. “When she walks into the party, if someone has to say, ‘What are you?’ then it’s over,” says Alicia Thompson, director of brand marketing at Yandy. Quintana-Williams scraps designs that don’t inspire a split-second reaction.
But at the end of the day, fashion reigns supreme. “Women don’t always shop for the character… they look at the body style,” Quintana-Williams says. “Sometimes we have a vampire that sells really well and it’s a silhouette that girls are just fawning over so we’ll take that same body, change the fabric around, make a vampire into a pirate.” Currently, a Beetlejuice-inspired jacket dress is one of the site’s top-sellers. “Nothing’s really going on with that movie but I think the style in general is what’s resonating with the customer.”
Have sexy Halloween costumes had their heyday? This year, HalloweenCostumes.com’s number one bestseller is Wilma Flintstone complete with “bright orange foam headpiece” (though Frank says the site’s sexy piñata has also been popular for the last eight or nine years). Freelancer Daniels says millennials and Gen Zers “don’t want to contribute to throwing things into a landfill” and often opt for homemade outfits, while historian Steele says younger generations can actually be more puritanical in many ways. One area for growth is the sexy men’s market – all of the designers quoted in this piece believe this area will continue to expand as culture shifts.
“Things are changing, I mean if you look at pictures of Ibiza now, all of [the men] have got abs and their tops off,” says Smiffy’s Morrish. Male sexy costumes have always been popular with gay men, particularly during Pride, but now straight men are opening up to the idea. Daniels says the popularity of the Morphsuit in the 2010s gave men the freedom to show off their bodies without revealing their faces.
The elephant in the room, of course, is that Halloween costumes – sexy or not – promote ideas around gender that are increasingly irrelevant. Annette Lynch is a professor of apparel at the University of Northern Iowa and author of Porn Chic: Exploring the Contours of Raunch Eroticism. Lynch says that from a young age girls are taught hedonic power while boys are taught agonic power, i.e. overt, active power. “If you wanted to gain attention and you were a woman, sexuality is what you were socialised to market,” she says. Since authoring her book in 2012, she says there’s been a shift in the gender dichotomy in the fashion world and newer generations are attempting to restructure things. In a world where more and more people identify as feminists, sexy Halloween costumes have less appeal.
But while they’re still going strong, is there anything that can’t be turned into a sexy costume? Smiffy’s Morrish laughs in a slightly derisory way. “No. No, you can always do everything,” she says. Quintana-Williams says the brand “can make anything sexy – we call it Yandy-fying it.” But the job isn’t without challenges, and not all costumes make the cut.
“There was a sexy Boris that made our list, [but] that would’ve been a challenge,” Quintana-Williams says. “We’ll be working on that one for a little bit.”