From Princess to Ash: Navigating My Childhood Halloween Costumes

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Halloween tends to send us into a web of nostalgia. We reminisce over our favorite childhood Halloween candies (some of them long discontinued), our favorite scary movies, carving pumpkins, and of course costumes. Skimming through our memories, some of those costumes make us laugh, some make us cringe, and others forces us to wonder what in the world were our parents thinking.

Halloween just like any other celebration comes with its own set of rules and rituals. We do have widely kept guides, but these rules shift from family to family. Different households take on their own foundational guidelines for the Halloween season. In our household, we had one rule. (I got older a second rule would be implemented: Be home by eleven and no driving.) But when I was a child, we had one Halloween rule and one only, and it was to be followed without hesitation: No scary costumes, only happy ones. From the time I can remember until my teenage costume hiatus, my brother and I dressed up in non-scary costumes with one exception. When I was four years old, before my brother was born, my parents dressed me up as black cat, but as my mother will tell you, I was a happy black cat. Really, she isn’t wrong. I was and continue to remain a fairly happy gal.

Over the course of many Halloweens, I was a golden princess, a bride, a cheerleader, and my personal favorite, a sunflower. No pictures remain of my Halloween as a sunflower, thank the heavens. As a golden princess, I looked like a fancy Pinterest cupcake that if I tried to recreate now would end up a Pinterest fail. The year I was a cheerleader my brother was Troy Aikman. It was the ’90s. We grew up in a small Texas town where football and the Cowboys were second to God. The Halloween of the sunflower was a particularly upsetting Halloween as my baby brother was dressed as a dinosaur. A dinosaur! A stegosaurus to be exact. I was a sunflower, and my baby brother got to dress up as the coolest costume under the sun. Both my brother and I have been dinosaur fans since the diapers we wore donned elegant brontosauruses and triceratops, and he got to dress up as a dinosaur while I was stuck with yellow felt petals framing my face. This stuck me as an imbalance in the rule.

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Lovely Cleo and a dreadful pirate.

As both my brother and I aged, our costumes became more elaborate and detailed. Long before Pinterest, Instructables, and DIY-ing was hip my parents were transforming my brother and I into masterpieces. Had Buzzfeed been around, we would have wound up on a costume winning post. One year, my parents turned me into Bugs Bunny complete with carrots and my brother an “old timey” soldier as he called it. Another year, my mother mastered the cat eye (before it was cool), sewed gold sequin headbands and arm bands, and transformed an old sheet into a dress for a Cleopatra costume, while my dad painted tattoos on my brother and meticulously cut jagged lines in clothes turning him into a pirate. This was the turning point.

Now remember, I mentioned the tried and true Halloween rule in our household: Only happy Halloween costumes. You may notice that as I was still dressing up in happy costumes, my brother got to be a pirate, not exactly a pleasant costume though I suppose the Queen of the Nile was fairly shrewd. The Halloween costumes that followed after the pirate didn’t exactly fall into the happy category either. From Spawn to werewolf—complete with blood and scratches—the older my brother got the scarier his costumes got to be. To be fair, I was thirteen they year I dressed as Cleopatra and after that year I started watching scary movies on Halloween with friends rather than dressing up to trick or treat, but even in retrospect the rule doesn’t fully add up. Sure, the dinosaurs in Land Before Time are nice, save for the T-Rex, but my brother’s toddler stegosaurus costume doesn’t match the ray of sunshine of my sunflower costume. This Halloween household tenet may have slightly affected the costumes I chose as an adult Halloween participant.

College marked my triumphant return to Halloween. I’ve always been interested in combining men and women’s styles in my outfits for a more gender blurred look. As I returned to the Halloween game, I quickly realized I could incorporate this into my Halloween costumes, as well as heighten the persona of the costume itself. I’m a performer, and so naturally on Halloween I don’t just dress up, I go in character. Upon my return to the Halloween game, I went for a pop cultural staple: Tom Cruise in Risky Business. Another year, I went as Elaine Stritch wearing a bowler hat, tights, and a tie. The Elaine Stritch costume is among my favorites as her personality and her voice are so commanding and larger than life. Yet another year, I went as a Rorschach ink blot, wearing all black and attaching a white scarf to my back. Anytime someone asked what I was I would raise my arms, strike a pose, and ask, “What do you think I am?” Another year, I went as David Lynch conversing with people largely through Lynch quotes. Another year, I went as my hero, Evil Dead’s Ash, pre-Army of Darkness so no boomstick, but there was lots of blood and a chainsaw arm.

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Hail to the Queen, Baby!

None of this is to say I didn’t enjoy my childhood Halloween costumes. I most certainly did. They weren’t forced on me, and in many ways, those traditional and happy costumes helped to spur my creative adult costumes. Though, let’s admit: Little girls in bride costumes is pretty scary. Overall, the rule seemed to be subjective from Halloween to Halloween and based on the ideas my parents thought up, as well as the cultural and historical context for the costume itself. Our Halloween rule wasn’t perfect, but it sure did fuel my love for Halloween and my desire to immerse myself in costume with abandon.

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Southern. Nerdy. Feminist. Outdoors Enthusiast

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