Changing How the World Thinks

An online magazine of big ideas


Dressed to Kill

How our clothes shape our selves

Dressed to Kill - Shahidha Bari - Halloween

When Wednesday Addams attends a Halloween party in the 1991 film adaptation of the comic horror classic, The Addams Family, a puzzled schoolmate asks her why she doesn’t seem to be wearing a costume. “I’m a homicidal maniac,” Wednesday replies serenely, “They look just like everyone else.” 

The irony is that Wednesday’s distinctive look -  sleek black plaits, narrow black dress and sharp white collar – has itself become an iconic Halloween costume. Her observation, though, that Halloween is an opportunity to look like everyone else isn’t exactly right. It’s true that come late October our streets will teem with the usual brigades of small ghosts, skeletons, witches, mummies and Marvel superheroes. High on sugar, their sticky fingers will ceremonially ransack the proffered bags of Haribo. But the business of dressing up –  whether in Halloween costumes or fancy dress – also poses more unusual questions about the relationship of clothes to identity and the very idea of an authentic self.  

 Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but if human beings are capable of impersonating each other, what does that mean for the notion of a unique selfhood? And are there essential aspects of identity and experience that are bound up in the seemingly insignificant matter of what we wear?

 Wednesday Addam’s familiar uniform derives from the original cartoon created by Charles Addams, which ran in the New Yorker between 1938 and 1988. She remains a style icon today. Only earlier this year, British Vogue announced Wednesday as “fashion’s favourite muse” for the Autumn/Winter 2019 season, with both Miuccia Prada and Versace resurrecting sleek centre-partings, jailhouse stripes and an attitude of grungy disaffection. Fashion exploits the idea that our clothes can serve as a shorthand for character. But regular clothes can do this too, with a seemingly supernatural efficiency: think only of the suit that immediately imbues you with authority or the glasses that grant you a new seriousness. 

 The transformations that our clothes can enable are exciting, but they can also dislodge our self-assurance. How, for instance, can it be that we so easily emulate others in what we wear? When we adopt each other’s style, perhaps we reveal how interchangeable and indistinct we really are. We make light of costumes, but doesn’t their very possibility contest what we regard as our as unique personhood?  If I can glibly dress as someone else, how, then, are any of us ourselves at all? Anxieties about authenticity linger under the surface of all forms of dress. We seek clothes that we think ‘are us’, and there is an implicit insolence in the ready-to-wear, off-the-rail garments we rifle through and which reveal us only to be generic. At the same time, there is also the deep, irresistible promise of clothes: the possibility of presenting ourselves anew every day.

 On Halloween, we’re encouraged to relish in that potential with an unembarrassed zeal. Why be yourself when you can be a zombie bride, the poop emoji, Beetlejuice or Boris Johnson – take your pick. This practice of dressing up for Halloween can be traced back to the customs of “mumming” and “guising” popular in Britain from the 16th century. Early trick-or-treaters, known as “mummers” and “guisers” would travel from house-to-house, reciting verses or songs in exchange for food. Their costumes were efforts at impersonation – often memorialising the dead – or else warding off evil spirits. 

 And it makes sense that we should associate clothes with supernatural forces. When we grieve the dead, it is, so often, their clothes that we cling to: inhaling the fading scent on a collar or pressing a familiar texture to our cheek, as though some precious remnant of life remained in them still. Our own clothes can feel spookily animated too. The garments we love best and wear most skim the planes of our bodies and recall proportions that they seem almost to have learned by memory and habit. We peel off our jeans and see the impression left by a jutting knee, a curve of a hip: the faintest trace of the bodies that we are.

 Halloween, though, reminds us of the black comedy of our proximity to death too: whether its the parade of headless pyjamas merrily traipsing down the stairs or the billowing white bed-sheet whirling around a living room. The bed sheet is ET’s Halloween costume of choice in Spielberg’s classic film of 1982.  In one of the film’s key scenes, 10-year old Elliot (dressed as a zombie) and his teenage brother Michael (dressed as a hobo lumberjack with a plastic knife in his head) artfully drape a white blanket over ET, disguising him as a Halloween ghost in order to engineer his escape. But ET isn’t capable of distinguishing reality from fantasy. Misreading the dummy knife in Michael’s head as real, he tries to repair the injury.  When a neighbouring child dressed as Yoda crosses him in the street, he identifies a fellow alien and mournfully wails for  “home”. 

 And maybe this is what modern Halloween costumes articulate best of all – the strange sensation of alienation that overcomes us all at one time another. We dress every day and step out, putting our best foot forward, but there’s no guarantee we’ll feel at home in the world and understood by others. On All Hallows’ Eve, we are invited to acknowledge and own that sensation of strangeness. In the end, nothing is stranger than death. The skeleton is the starkest memento mori, reminding us of the bare bones that we too must eventually become. Our Halloween costumes are an attempt to grapple with the inevitable reality of our mortal bodies – with laughter and ludic celebration.

 So, come October 31st, pull on your mask, dole out some chocolate and shriek at death. And if Wednesday Addam’s skinny black ensemble isn’t quite your thing, then there’s always the option of a full-length Cousin It costume: a “hairy bodysuit”, complete with trademark hat and glasses in yellow synthetic fibre, currently retailing at  £42.99, in case you’re interested. You’ll look amazing, darling.


Read more from our Halloween Issue:

The Metaphysics of Horror – David Livingstone Smith

The Dark Side – Stephen de Wijze

The Return of the Living Dead – Slavoj Žižek

The Search for Extraterrrestrial Life - Lynn J. Rothschild

Rest In Peace - Diane Purkiss

Why We Should Care About Our Corpses - Thomas Laqueur

See big ideas like this one debated live at the IAI’s online festival, HowTheLightGetsIn Global between September 19-20. Hundreds of events live-streamed from London, Delhi and New York, featuring the biggest thinkers in philosophy, science, politics, the arts and economics. Find out more here.
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