Halloween and Fancy Dress

The psychology of dressing up

Posted Oct 27, 2016

A couple of years ago, my local newspaper, The Nottingham Post, interviewed me for a Halloween story about the psychology of fancy dress. Before I was interviewed, I did a search of academic literature databases and couldn’t find a single academic paper that had been published on the topic. Although this didn’t surprise me, it did mean that everything I said to the journalist was opinion and speculation at best. The first thing I did was think all the different situations in which people wear fancy dress costumes, and this is what I came up with:

  • Those that wear fancy dress as part of a calendar event or festival (e.g., Halloween or the Mardi Gras)
  • Those who wear fancy dress costumes as part of an organized fancy dress event (e.g., a fancy dress party, a fancy dress competition, a murder mystery party, or a one-off occasion such as an event we had here in Nottingham [March 8, 2008] to break the world record for the most people dressed as Robin Hood (1,119 individuals dressing up breaking the previous record of 607).
  • Those who wear fancy dress costumes as part of their job (e.g., a clown, a strip-o-gram, an actor, etc.).
  • Those that wear fancy dress costumes as a form of disguise (such as bank robbers dressed in the masks and clothes to hide their identities).
  • Those who wear fancy dress costumes as a way of raising money (e.g., people in the London marathon who are sponsored while wearing ridiculous costumes).
  • Those who wear fancy dress costumes as part of an external group event such as a group all dressing identically on a hen night/stag night, or groups of people that go to football matches or Test cricket matches. This could also apply to individuals who dress up as characters from plays or musicals while watching the said stage shows (e.g., dressing up like a Rocky Horror Show character or dressing up like Dorothy while attending a Wizard of Oz ‘sing-a-long’ show). This might also apply to groups of people like the Furry Fandom who dress up as animals and meet up socially to explore different sides of their ‘fursona’ (i.e., their animal persona).
  • Those that wear fancy dress costumes as part of sexual role-play or other sexual acts (for more detail, see my previous blogs on uniform fetishism and Nazi fetishism).
  • Those that wear fancy dress as part of a cult or ritualistic event such as devil worship (although such people may argue that they are not dressing up but merely wearing their expected ‘uniform’).
  • None of the above (e.g., people that wear fancy dress costumes as the result of losing a bet)

The reason for compiling a list like this was to get a better idea of what the psychological motivation is behind dressing in a fancy dress costume. Although most people might say that the main reason for dressing up in fancy dress is because it’s a fun and/or exciting thing to do, the list I compiled clearly shows the range of motivations is much greater than one might initially suspect. I’m not claiming that my list is exhaustive, but it shows that reasons for wearing costumes are many and varied. Reasons could be financial (to earn money, to raise money for charity), sexual (particular fancy dress outfits being arousing either to the wearer or the observer), psychological (feeling part of a united group, attention-seeking, exploring other facets of an individual’s personality), practical (concealing true identity while engaged in a criminal act), and/or idiosyncratic (trying to break a world record). For others it might be coercive (e.g., being forced to dress up as a form of sexual humiliation, or punishment for losing a bet).

One of the most well known social psychologists, Professor Michael Argyle made a passing reference to fancy dress in relation to self-identity his 1992 book The Social Psychology of Everyday Life. He noted:

“It is not only punks and skinheads who put on fancy dress; Scottish country dancers, bowls players, musicians and many others have their special costumes. Mass forms of leisure do not help to give a sense of identity, with the exception of supporting sports teams, which certainly does. It is the more engrossing and less common forms of leisure that do most for identity”.

It’s debatable whether this really refers to fancy dress but for some people, fancy dress will always be about either self-identity and/or group identity. I also came across an online article by British psychologist Dr. Catherine Tregoning that looked at what people engage in most at Halloween and what it says about them in relation to their occupation (I ought to add that the article was on a job-hunting website). At Halloween, do you watch horror films? Do you carve pumpkins? Do you go on ghost hunts? Do you like dressing up in Halloween costumes? If you do, Dr. Tregoning claimed that:

“This may mean you’re the type to keep reinventing yourself and often change career! Or do you operate in different guises in your current role, changing your personality and presenting your outward self differently according to who you’re with or the task in hand? Or do you need some form of escapism from your day job? If you’re good at acting a part on Halloween – then use your skills to “act” confident in an interview or “act” calm under pressure when delivering a presentation”

Another article by Rafael Behr published in The Guardian examined the politics and psychology of fancy dress. In relation the psychology, Behr’s views had some crossover with the interview I did with my local newspaper on the topic:

“Children love dressing up, especially in clothes that make them feel grown up. Adults like dressing up because it reminds them of that feeling of being children getting excited about dressing like a grownup. What this indicates is that actually being a grownup is generally overrated and involves spending a lot of time in disappointing clothes. Anyone who goes to a party in fancy dress will feel a pang of anxiety immediately before arrival that they have made a mistake and it is not a fancy dress party at all. If you have this feeling before arriving at a wedding or funeral, go home and change. Only senior members of the clergy are allowed to wear ridiculous clothes in churches”.

Finally, another online article that examined dressing up for Halloween was one by psychotherapist Joyce Matter who examined whether fancy dress costumes bring out a person’s alter ego (or as she termed it, an individual’s “shadow side”).

“Do we all reveal our shadow sides with our costume choices? Do those aspects of self that we have repressed express themselves uncontrollably when we are at Spirit Halloween? Perhaps… Expressive play can be one of the most cathartic experiences as well as giving us the freedom to discover hidden aspects of self that may contain valuable resources we are repressing. A refusal or inability to do so reveals difficulty with self-acceptance and perhaps a preoccupation with the opinions of others…Through my work as a therapist, I have come to believe the shadow side is not necessarily dormant characteristics that are negative—they often contain positive aspects of self which we have not been free to embody. Once we honor and integrate them, they can become powerful strengths”.

As an adult, I have never put on fancy dress for Halloween. In fact, the only time I have dressed up in anything approaching fancy dress was when I played a French butler during a murder mystery evening with friends. As there is no scientific research on the topic I don’t know if I am typical of middle-aged men or whether I am just content with my life that I don’t feel the need to act out or experiment within the confines of costume role-play.

References and further reading

Argyle, M. (1992). The Social Psychology of Everyday Life. London: Routledge

Behr, R. (2014). The rules: Fancy dress. The Guardian, January 25. Located: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/25/etiquette-guide-to-...

Lyons, C. (2014). Dressing for the part. The Stylist. Located at: http://www.stylist.co.uk/life/dressing-for-the-part

Marter, J. (2013). Your Halloween costume may reveal your shadow side. Psych Central, October 6. Located at: http://blogs.psychcentral.com/success/2013/10/your-halloween-costume-may...

Mehmi, N. (2010). How to pick your fancy dress costume to attract the opposite sex. E-Zine Articles, December 3. Located at: http://ezinearticles.com/?How-To-Pick-Your-Fancy-Dress-Costume-To-Attrac...

Tregoning, C. (2013). Halloween is coming!…..What your take on it might say about your career! Jobs.ac.uk, October 6. Located at: https://blogs.jobs.ac.uk/psychology/2013/10/06/halloween-is-coming-what-...