The Why Behind the Buy

Understanding consumerism and why we buy

What Your Halloween Costume Says About Your Personality

Your costume is a display of your dark side, creativity and developmental needs

Halloween has gone to the dogs - and cats and grown-ups. Once a trick-or-treat night for kids, today more money is spent on adult costumes than children’s costumes - nearly 1.25 billion dollars. Plus another $330 million will be spent on pet costumes. 

Respondents to the National Retail Federation’s annual Halloween survey say they’ll spend less on costumes this year than they did last year, but my guess is that they’ll actually spend more. Halloween falls on a Thursday (a.k.a. “Little Friday”) this year - a top night for partying.

If you’ve ever wondered what someone’s Halloween costume selection says about his or her personality, read on. Putting years of psychological training to sort of good use - here’s my take.

My Dark Side

The hallowed halls of college campuses will be awash with sexy nurses, sexy maids and sexy schoolgirls along with bare-chested Tarzans, swashbucklers and superheroes. The attentive reader has by now noted that these costumes all have something in common. Right! The women’s costumes are characters with more subservient roles while the male costumes represent more of the savior or hero roles. The extra attentive reader might also have noticed that sexiness is a common factor as well.

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Does that mean that young women dressed as sexy wenches have a secret wish to be powerless and rescued? Most likely it’s the opposite. Costumes are a way to explore who you aren’t. For example, it’s unlikely a waitress will dress up as a sexy waitress - or any other type of waitress for that matter. Okay, yes, there has to be at least a tiny bud of interest in the persona and character behind the costume chosen, but that doesn’t mean there is a secret wish to become that character. The same is true with regard to the male roles. Though Tarzan did get the girl in the end, Batman, pirates and most other male power characters (especially the ones that show off their abs) tend to be unsuccessful in their love lives and wind up solitary. That’s not the secret wish of most young men - instead it’s a one-night exploration of a theme during a time in their lives where they’re building an identity.

Young adults are in the stage of psychological development where trying on different roles has strong allure - it’s their job to figure out who they are. Halloween is the ultimate role play day, so it’s no wonder nearly three-quarters of 18-24 year olds plan to wear a costume. The percentage of adults dressing up dwindles a bit with every age cohort. It slides to half of 35-44 year-olds and down to one-quarter of 55-64 year-olds. By that age people know who they are and role play feels less exciting.

In a similar vein vampires, grim reapers, devils, witches and other powerful, predatory characters are top picks across all adult age groups again this year (as they have been for the past five years). In a political and economic era where people feel less certainty and control in their lives you can see the allure of trying on a character that’s unburdened by empathy and more likely to be the perpetrator rather than the victim. Alicia is going as a vampire this year. “I usually go as a cat. This year I’m going to bite some necks.”

Ulterior Motives

As to the sexiness requirement of the costume choices of young adults? On one level it really is simply about sex. But on another level it’s related to the developmental task of preparing for partnership or marriage. Honing the skills and characteristics that attract suitors is a powerful instinct at that age. The other 364 days of the year might well be devoted to developing a good sense of humor, solid career prospects or any other number of characteristics attractive to a potential mate. But Halloween is particularly well suited to a display of physical assets without looking desperate as in, “I’m not flaunting - it’s the costume!” That was my excuse at least when I strutted around in my homemade belly dancer outfit my freshman year in college. For $5 worth of coin trim sewn on a push-up bra and a couple yards of gauzy fabric for a sarong I won runner up in my dorm costume contest.

Creative Expression & Connection

Costumes are communication devices. They say something about yourself to others and are meant to elicit a response. Nobody (normal) puts on a costume to sit home alone. Costumes are vehicles of social connection.

Choosing and crafting a costume takes imagination and creativity. It’s strutting around your mental assets and interests rather than your abs or cleavage - though it’s possible to do both. Mike says that the best costume he ever wore was a mass of purple balloons attached to a t-shirt, “I went as a bunch of grapes. Girls wanted to pop one, everyone thought it clever.” Susan says the best costume she’s ever seen was a guy who wrapped himself in Kudzu, a vine that runs rampant in the South. “How smart was that? He called himself Kudzu Man and it was hilarious - plus cheap.”

Pop culture characters and themes are particularly rich conversation starters. This year we’re sure to see plenty of Miley Cyrus, “Game of Thrones” and “Breaking Bad” costumes. As a bonus, with a little creativity these costumes can be inexpensive to make. Clem plans to fashion a Duck Dynasty outfit by wearing a head scarf along with a bushy beard he bought a couple of years ago to honor San Francisco Giant’s pitcher Brian “Fear the Beard” Wilson. If you’re a fan of cooking shows consider Jessie’s outfit, “I got a white chef’s apron and hat at a second hand store. Under the apron I wore short white shorts (Jessie is a leggy 24 year-old) and a tank top. And then I just put a wooden spoon in my pocket. It’s my all time favorite Halloween costume.”

Honor & Fantasy

Another group of revelers will trot out costumes representing their favorite rock stars, athletes, and actors. Or outfits from idealized cultures like hippies, “Mad Men” or the Victorian era. “I went as Joe Montana one year,” recalls John. “I was getting slaps on the back and people were calling out ‘Hey Joe’ all night long. I gotta say, it was a rush.” Similarly, Serene said that she went as a hippie one year and felt transformed. “My mom was a hippie, I have pictures. It felt like I was channeling her when she was young.” Serene wore jeans and a gauze top, and picked up a wide belt and a feather boa (channeling Janis Joplin too?) at a vintage clothing store. Like those who choose costumes as a means of creative expression, this group is also hoping to connect and communicate with others. But they’re also showing us a bit of their inner fantasy life.

 

Kit Yarrow is a professor of psychology and marketing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco.

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