Halloween is upon us: A night where corpses rise from the dead, ghosts descend from the sky, and culture reporters troll the streets, conjuring trend pieces out of thin air. Just in time, The Arizona Republic’s Megan Finnerty has scared up a “somewhat surprising national trend” in Halloween costumes. Finally, “after a dozen years of sexy nuns, sexy cats and even sexy hamburgers, Halloween this year is looking decidedly more demure.” No, “sexy just isn’t sizzling quite like it used to.” We are “slightly more modest in 2012.”
In classic trend piece form, Finnerty’s thesis is an impressive hedge: She is “somewhat surprised” that we are “decidedly more demure,” or maybe just “slightly more modest” this holiday season. Still, her claim is thinner than the resume of the Leg Avenue Head Nurse. Costume shopping in Los Angeles this weekend, aisles stuffed with extreme-breasted storybook characters and latex safari animals told a different story: If this year’s outfits got any less modest, the costume trend of Halloween 2012 would be deliberate areola exposure.
But that’s Hollywood! Perhaps the view is different in Arizona. Let’s assess Finnerty’s anecdotal evidence: In Phoenix, she found an 18-year-old girl who returned a Sexy Indian costume she deemed “too slutty” (she opted for a form of racial appropriation that hit further down the thigh); a 23-year-old who is considering wearing boy shorts over her Baywatch costume; and a costume shop owner who urges tweens to wear turtlenecks under the more revealing costumes. She doesn’t even carry thongs.
That old calculation that three makes a trend is particularly suspect in the context of the huge number of Americans who will wear Halloween costumes this year—collectively, we will spend $2.87 billion on those getups, according to the National Retail Federation. And Finnerty admits that “sexy costumes are still selling,” citing a survey by the thrift store Savers that found that “about half of the women who dress up will do so as something ‘attractive,’” while most men are opting to look “scary” (That stat doesn’t speak to the trend either way—the store’s PR rep told me this is the first year it’s included sexy data in its annual survey).
But Finnerty does offer up one intriguing data point that manages to access the hivemind of millions of revelers around the world: “Yahoo searches for the phrase ‘sexy Halloween costumes’ have dropped 47 percent since 2010.” Google results chart a similar decline. The “sexy Halloween costumes” search term has spiked every October since 2004 (the first year for which Google search data is available). It peaked in 2008. Then, it tanked. By 2011, search volume for the phrase had decreased by more than 50 percent from the ’08 high.
What could account for this flagging interest in Sexy Halloween? Finnerty theorizes that women “are tired of how Halloween serves to turn them into sexual objects.” Maybe they are “stymied by the lack of self-expression available to them when the choice in the costume aisle seems to be only ‘sexy or unsexy.’” Or maybe the Sexy Halloween trend has finally expired. “People know that Halloween is just an excuse to dress sexy,” BuzzFeed Shift editor Amy Odell told Finnerty. “It’s like the most obvious thing a woman can do.”
But there’s a difference between a phenomenon that’s turned passé, and one that’s permeated American culture so deeply that it no longer constitutes a trend—it’s just life. When I plug just “cat costume” into Google shopping results, I find a “Frisky Kitty Halter Babydoll Cat Lingerie” costume, a “Deluxe Black Cat Costume Faux Fur Cheap Sexy Adult” costume, and inexplicably, a “Catholic School Sweetie” costume on the first page of results.
Today, searching for “sexy Halloween costumes” only gets you the most overplayed options. So women have started getting creative, though no less “sexy.” First, we saw the boom of Sexy Bananas. Then, the backlash of Ironically Sexy Hot Dogs. Now, women are on the hunt for a costume that’s unique enough to escape ridicule, but sexy enough to conform to the holiday’s feminine expectations. Forget nuns, cats, and hamburgers—more than one set of American women has dressed as Sexy Taco Bell Sauce Packets for Halloween. (Not that they call them that—the costume description omits the “sexy,” because what else would it be?). Others are stepping out as Sexy iPod Nanos, a Girl Gone Wild, or Sexy Chucky. These women are not “tired of how Halloween serves to turn them into sexual objects”; they’re tired of the selection of sexy objects available for them to embody.
When I see women dressed as sexualized fast food sauces, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. In the new Sexy Halloween economy, the line between sexy and ironic appears to have evaporated. There’s something hopeful about that—this new permutation of the trend rejects plastic corporate packaging and values a woman’s cleverness instead. As long as she still looks hot.