Global Mode: Halloween Edition

As some of you may know, I’ve recently made the move to Boulder, Colorado. A big change from Uppsala, Sweden! To reflect this new global positioning, I’ll be covering news and events in from around the world in a column called “Global Mode.” I look forward to hearing your feedback and tips on global themes you think deserve a closer look!

I thought we could begin in a topical (if local) fashion, with Halloween. Although I don’t care much for the holiday myself, it is a great day to be in Boulder, where you often don’t know if the guy in the pink faux-fur boots has made the effort for halloween, or if it’s just his normal Wednesday Burner outfit. Likewise old hippies in tie-dye and the scores of “mountain climbers” we saw as we walked the Pearl Street Mall last night; many costumes looked suspiciously like they were pulled from bedroom bureaus.

“Day of the Dead” costumes. The large Mexican population living in the Rocky Mountain area inspires tons of Dia de los Muertos parties, museum exhibitions and costumes each year. Pictured: unknown. From the Boulder Mall Crawl Facebook page.

Although maybe we just weren’t invited to the right (CU Boulder) parties, the sexiest costumes we saw were two young firemen whose shirts had apparently burned in some tragic fire. And with the exception of a few girls who bookended their jean skirts and brown North Face fleeces with a feathered headband, facepaint and their old Minnetonka moccasins, racial appropriation was also generally absent on the Mall last night.

Poster from the STARS 2011 “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” campaign.

You may have read about the “We are a Culture, Not a Costume” campaign launched by Ohio University’s Students Teaching About Racism in Society (STARS) in 2011, with a reprisal and new, more effective slogan this year. Fighting the continued use of stereotypical, simplified signifiers of certain cultures as Halloween costumes, this group is working toward racial understanding and awareness in all aspects of American society. We’ve covered fashion’s appropriation of cultural themes extensively here on Worn Through, and the endemic laissez-faire and even anti-pc attitudes toward race have arguably enabled all the “Middle Eastern Terrorists” and “hillbillies” one sees on October 31. The trivial nature of a costume, especially within the framework of what has become a light-hearted, commercial holiday, complicates the argument, the wearer urging the offended to not take it so seriously, the offended perhaps wondering why, of all the thousands of costume ideas available, the “gangsta” or “gypsy” seemed like the right choice.

Poster from the STARS 2012 “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” campaign.

And it is a complicated one; some costumes are obviously thoughtless and insensitive, abusing signs from cultures the wearer obviously is unfamiliar with, but some are more difficult to parse out. What is the difference between a costume interpretation of a “geisha” and that of one’s favorite Naruto character? How is the intention of the wearer measured, and should it be considered? Are Japanese themes off limits to those not Japanese or of Japanese descent, and so on? As you can see in the above poster and others on the STARS website, blackface (!) is unbelievably not out of the question for some.

Significantly, the poster campaign by STARS has been trivialized into a meme in my Google searchers, instead of a movement; do you think this helps or hurts the message? Parodies of the 2011 posters have emerged, featuring John Travolta holding a picture of Nicholas Cage, or a gory zombie holding a picture of a theoretically “poorly-done” zombie costume. And the expected backlash of reactionary commentary is abundant; personally, I think most of them confuse “not being allowed to dress up like a different culture” and the issues with a fur coat and pimp cup or a bottle of tequila and a sombrero. Dressing up as whatever one would like on Halloween has somehow apparently become an inalienable right.

What does Halloween mean to you? What responsibility do we have toward others on this public, socially-created holiday? Do you feel that the STARS campaign is necessary? Overblown? Overdue? Have you encountered costumes that offended or frustrated you?

Find a critique of the 2011 campaign at Racialicious, and read more about cultural appropriation in fashion at Threadbared. The comedy group the 1491s also put together this recent video on “Halloweening Responsibly,” which is worth a watch. Please add your respectful, thoughtful comments below!

Related Articles

Leave a Comment

Monthly Archive


Available now: Punk Style by Worn Through founder, Monica Sklar, PhD. Find it at :, Powell's Books, or a bookseller near you.