Sexy Halloween Costumes
Credit: Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

The Halloween scene in Mean Girls is iconic for many reasons. In addition to offering a dire warning of why you should never ask Regina George to scope out your crush, it also gives us the ultimate cringe moment of Cady (Lindsay Lohan) walking into a party in her buck-toothed Corpse Bride costume, only to find that every other girl is sporting lingerie with animal ears.

“In girl world,” Cady narrates, “Halloween is the one night a year a girl can dress like a total slut, and no other girls can say anything about it.”

I’ll admit — in 2004, that line rang so hilarious and true to me. I was a lifelong weird girl and horror-movie obsessive who went as zombie something-or-other just about every year for Halloween. I actually got pretty decent at FX makeup — here’s me one year as a very gory ghost. I reveled in my weirdo status and definitely considered myself too cool to go as anything so basic as a “sexy mouse.”

When I rewatch that scene in 2018, it’s cringy to me for a different reason: The entire premise is to slut-shame women who wear sexy costumes. As much as I adore Tina Fey, the observation about “slutty” costumes feels judgy as hell and misses the mark. It sets up a false dichotomy of “cool girls” who do scary or funny, and “basic girls” who do sexy. But I don’t think it’s that simple.

The truth is, the conversation around feminism and women’s empowerment has advanced so far since 2004, and our costumes reflect that. That was the era of candle-lit Take Back The Night marches through college towns, a time when elder millennials (or gen-X super seniors) were bringing much-needed attention to the problem of sexual assault on campus, a fight that continues today. At the same time, sex positivity — a way of embracing one’s body, desires, and the joy of being sexual even in the face of shaming and double standards — was increasingly coming to the fore. The sex-positive strain of feminism has grown much in the last few years, with the growing conversation around consent, and the #MeToo revolution in women refusing to be shamed, and demanding accountability for those who assault and harass.

In 2018 more than ever, our culture understands that, duh, of course women can be both sexual and powerful (let’s call it the “Beyoncé effect”). And I believe that, for women coming of age now, it’s these more inclusive definitions of womanhood and sexuality that guide their choices. I wanted to talk to some women who wear, and love, sexy Halloween costumes, because I feel like their voices get left out of this conversation. I found that they reject the notion that it's a contradiction to embrace your sexuality along with every other aspect of your being. There are lots of reasons why women choose sexy costumes — and if you think you can judge a girl just because she wears bunny ears one night a year, you’re dead wrong.

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First up, let’s address the myth that sexy costumes can’t be creative. Take, for example, Emily, a recent college grad and the queen of the DIY sexy costume. She says, in recent years, she’s been “a cactus, the Phoenix Suns gorilla, the phrase ‘holy cow,’ a devil, a flower child, a sailor, Britney Spears, a runaway bride, the alien from Toy Story, and a Playboy bunny.” All without setting foot in a Spirit store, or leaving one ounce of her sex appeal at home.

“The best Halloween costumes are ones no one’s thought of,” Emily says. “To me, that means they have to be DIY. Store-bought costumes aren’t as exciting to me and a lot of times they’re ridiculously high priced.”

Emily started wearing sexy costumes in college for fun, ease, and for the underrated reason of temperature control at crowded parties: “My friends and I were usually all going to a fraternity party, and those basements are notoriously hot. So even if you weren’t wearing a ‘sexy’ costume, you probably weren’t wearing pants because you didn’t want to overheat!” As someone who spent one memorable Halloween sweating uncontrollably at a house party in a homemade lamb-fleece onesie, I can attest that Emily’s theory holds up.

Lindsey, 27, also likes a sexy DIY costume that riffs on pop culture. “Some girlfriends and I went as sexy Hobbits a few years ago. I'm a big fan of the movies, and my friend suggested it as a joke while we were brainstorming group costumes. That one cracked us up so hard it had to win. We thrifted corduroy and velvet jackets, and pants or skirts, so it was kind of like a sexy suit. My friend actually drew 'hair' on the top of her feet, but I skipped that step."

If you lack DIY skills or are in a hurry, chances are you’ll find yourself at Yandy, the online lingerie and sexy-costume emporium. Yandy’s philosophy is that pretty much anything is fodder for a sexy costume. That can result in some tone-deaf misses — the brand recently pulled its sexy Handmaid’s Tale costume from the site following social media backlash. It can also result in delightfully odd, funny moments such as this week’s viral sensation, sexy Meghan Markle, 2016’s sexy Donald and Melania, sexy poop emoji, and my personal favorite — sexy Hannibal Lecter (yes, that’s a brain clutch in case you were wondering).

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Pilar Quintana-Williams, Yandy’s VP of Merchandising, reports that despite some backlash, sexy Halloween costumes are still a big deal. “They’re as popular as ever. We predominantly sell to ages 18 to 25, but we have seen shifts. Our customers are growing up. They have kids and still enjoy Halloween.” Perhaps, in 2018, one can still be sexy in her 30s, or — gasp — even beyond.

Customers are asking more fashion-forwardness of their costumes these days, too, Quintana-Williams says. “Women today shop costumes the same way they shop for their wardrobe: they focus on what looks good on their body. They don't get caught up on being a goddess, a cop, or a witch. If a costume accentuates their features, that's what they’ll be.”

Another important shift Yandy is embracing is inclusive sizing. Unlike many stores, Yandy designs and sells costumes ranging from size XS to 6X, and Quintana-Williams is proud that they “can dress any body style.” It’s a sad fact that many everyday clothing brands still haven’t gotten the inclusive-sizing memo.

Some of Yandy’s biggest sellers this year are the Deluxe Dark Angel Costume, and for the second year in a row the very Game of Thrones-y Northern Queen Costume is flying off the shelves. Both are notably more interesting and higher quality than your typical cheapie getup, and would not look out of place amid the meticulous cosplay looks at Comicon.

Of course, not every sexy ‘stume reinvents the wheel, and that’s okay too. Micah, 33, spent her 20s wearing more conservative costumes, but is branching out into sexy-nun territory this year for a pretty great reason: “I'm six months pregnant, so I thought a sexy nun costume would be funny with my visible belly. My husband is going as the naughty priest. We’re going to tell people I cheated on my husband, Jesus.”

For Micah, it’s not just about the funny visuals, it’s also about maintaining her sense of sex appeal while pregnant. “My body has changed so much this year, and I don’t always feel great. I thought a really short dress might make me feel more like myself. Plus I obviously can't drink, so I have to find some way to have fun!”

Other women echoed those sentiments. Samantha, 23, reported going as Lara Croft the year she started a new workout regimen — “For the first time in my life my arms were jacked! Where I live, Halloween is the last warm-ish time before winter. If I didn’t show off then, I knew I wouldn’t get the chance for another six months.” Gotta flex while you can.

Of course, plenty of women also just like feeling sexy in their costumes. “It’s just fun,” says Ali. “You feel sexy and that makes you feel good. I’m 24 and have never done it, so I figure let’s do it now and see what all the fuss is about.”

There’s also the loosening of inhibitions that are in play the other 364 days a year. As Ali says, “Women like to feel sexy and confident about themselves, and for some women, Halloween is the only ‘appropriate’ time to express that.”

That made me realize I’m privileged in this way — I work in fashion media, live in New York City, and am a freelancer, so in many so ways I’m not subject to your typical dress codes. For women who work a more standard office job, or live in more conservative parts of the country, Halloween represents the thrill of a one-night license to wear whatever the hell you want.

And it’s easy to pay lip service to the idea of empowerment, but the women I spoke with truly seemed to embrace sexy costumes as part of a larger celebration of their bodies. The cliche, echoed in Mean Girls and in pop culture at large, is that women dress up as eye candy, but to current twentysomethings, sexy costumes communicate something about self-possession. It’s tautological, but they wear sexy costumes, in part, because they love the freedom of being able to wear a sexy costume.

“I feel empowered when wearing a sexy costume because I’m wearing it for myself and not for anyone else,” says Emily. “I’m not trying to impress anyone or show off, I’m just being me.”

Emily’s aware that some people are judgmental, but it doesn’t bother her. “At the end of the day, you are your own person and you control your own actions. You decide what you want to do and what you don’t want to do. So if you want to wear a costume that’s revealing or skintight or whatever, who cares, because it’s your decision.”

Like other women I spoke with, Emily exudes a level of DGAF that I found impressive. I’m in my 30s, and when I was in my peak Halloween partying years, I felt a divide between the sexy costume wearers, and the rest of us. I was a Cady, they were Reginas. But that us vs. them business is not how we do feminism anymore, and that’s a good thing.

When I was younger, I felt the need to reject sexy and define myself by other terms. I wanted to be seen as smart instead, or funny, or a girl with a really great record collection. In 2018, women know it’s not a contradiction to be all those things and more. I think it says something about how far we’ve come in understanding that not only does our sexuality not define or degrade us, but it’s a crucial part of who we are, and worthy of celebration — critics be damned. No matter who you are, if that sexy bunny or sexy hobbit or sexy “the phrase holy cow” calls to you on October 31st, go ahead and get after it.