It will be a homespun Halloween for many families this year, stitching outfits and crafting decorations they usually buy at a shop, or online. Supply chain shortages and port congestion have disrupted the ritual of dressing up children as Star Trek characters and Disney princesses.
This is a pivot for Halloween, as celebrated both in the US and around the world. The American way of trick or treating has been exported to many countries in the 21st century. Modern Halloween is sweeter, less scary and more commercial than Samhain, the Celtic festival from which it descends.
Americans intend to spend $10bn on Halloween this year, purchasing costumes, decorations and sweets to put last year’s pandemic-limited event aside, according to the National Retail Federation. Some 1.8m children in the US plan to dress as Spider-Man on Sunday night, while adults celebrate as witches, vampires and pirates.
But sought-after decorations, such as Indiana Bones, a 12-foot skeleton sold at Home Depot, have run short and character costumes have had to be run up on domestic sewing machines. The fast fashion parade of Halloween, with its Sassy Scarecrow and Sexy Bride outfits, will be more artisanal this year.
This is hard to regret. Halloween, John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher film that spawned 11 sequels including this year’s Halloween Kills, is the best-known Hollywood portrayal. But recall another one — the scene in To Kill a Mockingbird when two small children are attacked in the woods on their way back from a Halloween pageant.
Scout’s costume, which obscures her view of the assault, is a cured ham made of chicken wire and brown fabric, and the pageant is a harvest festival event to celebrate county produce. The scene is set in the Great Depression and has a distinct flavour of Samhain, which marked the onset of winter.
By 1962, when the film of Harper Lee’s novel appeared, Halloween was evolving from craft to mass manufacture. Costume makers such as Halco and Ben Cooper licensed rights to film and television figures, from Snow White to Superman, and their outfits reflected pop culture as well as ghouls.
A vast array of disposable tat is now produced annually for Halloween, to be worn or displayed briefly, then discarded. Indiana Bones was scarce, but families could have instead bought a $199 five-foot bone throne from Home Depot that has a distinct feel of Game of Thrones.
Halloween meets anime and manga in Japan, where a love of dressing up in cute costumes fits with the occasion, and Tokyo holds parades. The candied example set by American expatriate neighbourhoods in London such as Hampstead and St John’s Wood has spread Halloween across the city, squeezing the darker and more dangerous Guy Fawkes Night.
It is as far from Celtic tradition as Starbucks frappuccino is from Italian espresso, but so what? Halloween is fun for children and for adults who want to show off or flirt and, as Russell Belk, who pioneered the study of consumer culture, once wrote: “Celebrating harvest and the return of the flocks no longer have much meaning, even as nostalgic anachronisms.”
The difficulty is the waste that the night of partying involves. Halloween is not one of the world’s great environmental challenges in itself — it only comes around once a year, after all. But the masquerade outfits of the 1960s proved a precursor to a broader global shift to fast fashion. Zara, Boohoo and Shein have turned everyday life into a festival of discount costumery.
“Halloween is the one night where anything goes. No rules, no limits, no restrictions. You’re free to be anything you want,” promised Rent the Runway, the fashion rental site that went public in New York this week. But it is not just one night any more — fashion is an ever-present commodity.
Rent the Runway pledges “a new frontier for fashion, one in which women buy less and wear more”, rather than the average American buying 70 items of clothing a year. But its $135 monthly subscription enabling members to rent clothes (followed this week by a Jean Paul Gaultier rental launch) is a tough sell. It wants millions of subscribers but had 127,000 in July.
Robert Gentz, co-chief executive of Zalando, Europe’s largest online fashion retailer, said this week that fast fashion needed to be abandoned within a decade to solve the industry’s “global sustainability problem”. But it will take a lot to stop consumers buying more clothes than they need and shoving many to the back of wardrobes, or disposing of them.
We could start with Halloween. When I lived in Brooklyn, the majority of costumes on the Park Slope streets were made at home, which made the festivity sweeter and more personal. More families have been forced this year to revert to this practice. Producing all our own clothes would be too much but once a year is reasonable.
A long time ago, Samhain marked the seasons of the ancient world, with its dangers and its bounty. If Halloween adapted that spirit to the modern age, it would be worth celebrating.