Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Another Halloween dilemma

Around this time of year, Freecycle starts teeming with requests for Halloween costumes. Some are for specific costumes, such as "I am looking for an Ariel Halloween costume and accessories for my 5 year old daughter"; "Hi everyone, am looking for an  Elmo, cars or buzz lightyear costume size 2t/3t"; and "Looking for a Ninja costume for my 5 year old son." Others are just for any costume in an appropriate size: "Looking for a girl's costume in a size 5/6 tOddler. Also a boys in a size 10/12." Costumes for adults get requested too: "Seeking a Minnie Mouse costume with accessories in women's size, large" and (from the same person) "Seeking a men's complete costume in extra large size of Mickey Mouse or Pluto." 

No doubt, these frugal parents see Freecycle as the best way to get their kids the costumes they've requested without having to spend a lot of money. And after all, they might reason, reusing a costume from last year is green, too, since the alternative, presumably, would be to buy a new one. That's most likely the idea behind a recent e-mail I received from Green America promoting National Costume Swap Day on October 13. The website advertises swap events in 37 different US states, plus the District of Columbia, and 3 Canadian provinces. Some of these are informal swaps, where you can just drop off your old costumes and browse for ones you need; at others, you bring in a used costume and receive a "swap ticket" that you can cash in for a new one. Some of them are fundraisers, so you donate your old costumes and can then buy those brought by others—presumably for less than they'd cost to buy new.

Naturally, as an ecofrugalista, I'm all in favor of reusing and recycling costumes. If you have a store-bought costume that you don't plan to wear again, it's obviously sensible to pass it on to someone else who can. But as I read through these lists, the one question that keeps running through my head is, "Haven't these people ever heard of making costumes?"

Back when I was still young enough to go Trick-or-Treating, pretty much all us kids wore homemade costumes. I knew that store-bought ones existed, but as I remember, I always felt sorry for the kids who "had to" wear them; the way I saw it, their parents didn't have time, or didn't care enough, to make them "real" costumes. Neither my sister nor I was ever reduced to Trick-or-Treating in store-bought garb, although I did once wear a costume based around Wonder Woman Underoos—but that was because I already owned a set. At the time, I didn't think much about the fact that homemade costumes were cheaper than store-bought ones; to me, their biggest advantage was that we could ask to be absolutely anything we wanted. Rather than being confined to whatever the store happened to have, our costume selection was limited only by our imagination and our parents' skills. My sister won a prize in the Halloween parade one year dressed as a U.S. mailbox, crafted by my dad out of corrugated cardboard; another year she went as a can of Campbell's tomato soup, à la Andy Warhol. I went one year as Pac-Man, wearing a papier-mâché mask that my dad made using a beach ball as the base. (Mom did buy me a Pac-Man T-shirt to wear with it—but it doubled as my nightshirt for the rest of the year.) I didn't win a prize with that one, but I was part of the Best Group one year when some friends and I went as the four leads from the Wizard of Oz. My Tin Woodman costume was a suit of posterboard armor, with separate pieces for arms, legs, and torso, all spray-painted silver; I carried an axe made of the same material, stapled around a broomstick.

That's why I'm so puzzled by the number of Freecycle requests for costumes. It seems to me that a lot of these parents are missing out on the best part of the holiday by trying to get their kids' costumes—or their own—ready-made, denying themselves the thrill and the challenge of putting something together themselves. Admittedly, a kid's request to go as the Little Mermaid might be hard to accommodate with limited time or sewing skills, but how hard is it to dress a 5-year-old boy as a ninja? Just dress the kid in black, wrap a black scarf around the head and face, and give him a sword—either store-bought or cut out of cardboard and spray-painted silver. What, is a kid that young going to complain that it's not authentic enough?

One blogger, at least, is aware that homemade costumes are an option, and often a desirable option: Emily Birkin of Live Like a Mensch. Her problem is that she's short on time as well as money, making it hard to come up with a costume for her two-year-old son that won't look too slapdash. The problem, as she puts it, is that
As I see it, there are three types of costumes:
1. Store bought.
2. Painstakingly homemade.
3. Homemade and clearly thrown together at the last minute.
I admit that the "painstakingly homemade" costumes are generally better than the "thrown together" ones, but the latter kind can still be perfectly adequate. Although the costumes I remember most fondly from my childhood were the elaborate ones, I remember wearing simpler costumes too, some of which were literally thrown together at the last minute—yet they were nothing I was ashamed to be seen in. The year I was 13, for instance, I decided I was too old to go Trick-or-Treating and didn't plan a costume. At the last minute, though, I just couldn't stand to see my kid sister going out without me, so I hastily got myself up as a mime: black clothes, white face paint, and a cardboard sign reading "Trick or Treat" on one side and "Thank You" on the other. I didn't get nearly as many comments as my sister in her mailbox costume, but I still got candy. :-)

I don't know exactly when, or how, store-bought Halloween costumes became the norm in American culture. I suppose the growth of the costume industry is partly responsible. We've been getting fliers from Spirit Halloween in the mail for weeks now, selling complete costumes for both kids and adults at $30 to $60 a pop (although we've noticed that the adult female versions of most costumes appear to be normal costumes modified by the term "slutty": slutty vampire, slutty nurse, slutty Little Red Riding Hood, etc.). Our local drugstore has likewise had an entire aisle devoted to costumes since mid-September. With these constant hints passing under parents' noses every day, it's easy to see how they might start to get the idea that a ready-made costume is a necessary part of this holiday. But that can't be the whole story, because industries don't grow up in a vacuum; there has to be a demand before businesses start rushing to supply it. So why has the demand for store-bought costumes grown so dramatically since my childhood? Perhaps it's because parents today have less time—but they don't seem to have more money, so why should they jump to shelling out $40 for a store-bought costume as the default solution, rather than scaling back to simpler homemade costumes? Or is this just another example of how our culture is becoming increasingly commercialized, to the point that we automatically assume the solution to any problem is something to be purchased?
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