From Barbie to trash bag: Unmasking the horrors of Halloween costumes

If you haven't found your Halloween costume yet, don’t panic! I was just at Target the other day, and I think I saw a few Barbie costumes left.

I am not a fan of Halloween. I don’t have a Scrooge-like distaste for the holiday; it just doesn’t excite me anymore. I hate shopping for clothes, so why would I find any joy in picking out an outfit for one very specific occasion? I also have no appetite for chemical-laden candy bars filled with ingredients that I can’t even pronounce.

(In case you are wondering: Yes, I am fun at parties.)

The most recent memory I have of dressing up for Halloween must have been during the early 2010s, when other girls my age were just leaning into their sexuality and arriving at the age where scary and elaborate costumes were no longer “cool.” I, on the other hand, was dressing up as trash. I wish I was lying when I said that I took a trash bag, hot-glue-gunned old food wrappers to the outside, looked in the mirror and gave myself a nod of approval. How my mother let me walk out the door looking like that is a whole other story.

Nowadays, I find that my conflict with Halloween has taken on a different meaning.  Whenever I stare at blue-collar uniforms that have been over-sexualized by bombshell blonds, all I can think about is waste. Somebody is going to buy that costume, wear it for a handful of hours and then either throw it away or shove it into the depths of their closet, only to see the light of day, years later, when it will then be thrown away.

One study estimated that the UK produced about 2000 tonnes (equivalent to 83 million plastic water bottles) worth of waste from Halloween costumes in 2019. Now apply that to the rest of the world every year.

I am already a casual crusader of fast fashion, which means I seek to reject the conventional fashion model that relies on low-prices, cheaply constructed clothing and quick-turn-around times. I do this by being intentional when making a new clothing purchase and by shopping second-hand or locally. I do not let myself fall prey to the whims of the fashion trend-buy-repeat cycle. So, for me, Halloween is just fast fashion on steroids — and even that feels like an understatement.

Most of those pre-packaged, scratchy costumes are designed to end up in a landfill. They're poorly made, ill-fitted and plain uncomfortable. So yeah, who would want to wear that again? Not to mention the fact that these types of costumes will run you about $60, as reflected by the costs of most of Spirit Halloween's popular costumes. But why does such a sad excuse for clothing cost so much when the make of the garment feels like it should cost a quarter of the price?

Unfortunately, it’s not because the makers of that costume are being paid fairly. The disconnect hinges on the fact that the entire commodification of Halloween (and any holiday for that matter) is subject to a short selling season. Retailers like Spirit Halloween and Party City have to squeeze a lot out of those six-ish weeks leading up to Halloween. Any product that doesn’t get sold becomes worthless in a span of 24 hours, resulting in heavily discounted items, thrown-away costumes or packing leftover inventory away for the next season.

Because of this, you can see why the cost of Halloween costumes is not proportional to their quality; for the company, the numbers have to make sense. Contrary to regular clothing, companies do not place a purchase order of certain costume styles with the assurance that they can sell through at least most of the stock they order. Seasonal clothing is a gamble subject to the volatility of consumer demand for that costume style. So if, for example, Spirit Halloween doesn’t sell through all their stock of Barbie costumes, at least they had a pretty good profit margin on the ones they did sell.

I hope that this Halloween, one less costume is purchased because of this column. I am not saying to not dress up, however; I want to encourage creativity and self-expression. There are plenty of ways to be festive without relying on Target or Sprit Halloween to fill that gap. Although you probably haven’t used Pinterest since 2016, it does have some good inspiration for making your own costumes. In Durham, check out The Scrap Exchange and Scrap Thrift to find good used clothing and decorations.

Although the convenience of store-bought costumes may be tempting for a time-crunched college student, this Halloween, do your part to make it a little less scary for the environment.

Morgan Foster is a first-year master's student at the Nicholas School for the Environment. Her column typically runs on alternate Fridays.


Share and discuss “From Barbie to trash bag: Unmasking the horrors of Halloween costumes” on social media.