Being topical’s harder when digital taste-makers declare us ‘over it’ almost as soon as we’re into it.
She is moderately mortified to admit it, but in mid-September, Stephanie Lough spent $150 on a custom Halloween costume that looked like Miley Cyrus’ MTV Video Music Awards outfit.
But the Scottsdale, Ariz., woman will not be wearing the foam “No. 1” fan finger and sleeveless leotard with drunken teddy bear’s face on it to Saturday’s $50-per-ticket party at the Hotel Valley Ho. Not just because she says it’s “really unflattering,” but because her idea that seemed so current in September has been rendered outdated, and worse, by the instant, incessant dissection of social media.
This year, dressing up for Halloween has reached a specific Internet-influenced turning point. Just as Facebook photos and status updates replaced the need to physically show up at a high-school reunion to see who transformed from an ugly duckling to a swan, so has social media made actually dressing up for Halloween almost passe.
Costumes are celebrated and critiqued as fast as Internet memes, bits of viral culture that quickly rise then flame out. And while any cultural anthropologist — or person with a pulse — could have guessed that Cyrus’ made-for-controversy performance would spark debates about hypersexualization and cultural appropriation, few would have guessed that her fashions would spark a conversation about when a Halloween costume is topical or tired.
Spirit Halloween wouldn’t finish manufacturing the Miley Cyrus costume for 26 more days, but the MTV awards-show look was being digitally derided and digested DURING the Aug. 25 performance as viewers tweeted jokes and counterjokes.
The cycle of going from loving to hating a meme moves ever faster as people try to show they’re on the leading edge of opinion, upping their cultural capital, said Nathan Jurgenson, a social-media theorist who wrote about the topic in an essay for the New York-based New Inquiry digital magazine.
“If you can be the first to be over something, or the first to joke about an idea, it shows you have good taste,” Jurgenson said in a phone interview. “Ten years ago, something in September would’ve still been relevant in November, but that’s just not the case. Unless that meme started October 25, you shouldn’t probably base your costume on a meme.”
Lough scrapped the Cyrus costume on Sept. 24, just a few days after she bought it. She saw a picture of the mass-produced version (Twerkin Teddy Adult Women’s Costume, $39.99) uploaded to the social-media site Reddit and to the news and diversions website BuzzFeed with the headline “This Halloween is going to be the worst.”
“When I saw that they mass-produced one, I was really disappointed,” Lough said. “I didn’t think they’d have time to get it on the shelves. They were, like, making it while the show was on.”
Beating social media
Costumes are now “called” on Twitter: “Who wants to be #300feministsandwiches with me,” showing followers that just a few hours after the topic’s source material hit the Internet, the tweeter was in on what had yet to become a joke.
And they’re shared on Facebook: “Look at all these cute family costumes! Better start sewing,” expressing a new level of mom-costume-making anxiety that compares creativity not neighborhood but nationwide.
And they’re categorized on popular websites: from the Huffington Post, “29 Halloween costumes that will make you nostalgic.”
And they’re pinned over on Pinterest: Dozens of online pinboards, titled “Halloween Costume Ideas,” have hundreds of photos. They show that, essentially, everything has already been done, and cleverly, too, including turning a child into a deer head mounted above a fireplace.
All this has Halloween enthusiasts wondering what’s the point of a timely costume when all the congratulations, criticisms and knowing nods have been made online already.
Being original and topical is increasingly hard, said Alanna Okun, who has posted lists of dozens of DIY costumes at her job as associate do-it-yourself editor at New York-based BuzzFeed.
“If you’ve seen your own costume on Twitter for two months, it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s over.’ The social-media infrastructure that we have built is: You only get to experience that for two seconds before everyone tramples all over it. Everyone knows what was on their Twitter feed or the Today Show. We all make five jokes about it, and this is how we process all news,” Okun said.
“I feel like people are trying harder with their costumes, because now, with the Internet, costumes can already get wrung out before the night.”
For example, New York Magazine culture-section editor Amanda Dobbins wrote a preemptive plea Oct. 9: “Please don’t be Miley Cyrus for Halloween,” in which she catalogs what’s wrong with the idea.
“It’s really hard to show intention in a Halloween costume,” Dobbins explained in a phone interview.
“You can be doing it ironically; you can be doing it in support of Miley Cyrus, saying she’s funny and good at her job; you could be supporting her music, saying ‘Wrecking Ball’ is the jam; you could be trying to support a child star making a way for herself in the world on her own terms as an adult. You could be supporting any one of those Miley Cyrus things — but no one on Halloween will be understanding those things. You can’t give a speech on Halloween.”
Watch pop culture, news
These concerns feel increasingly immediate as the pace of cultural consumption increases, but they’re nothing new. Topical costumes have always been trendy.
Political elections and scandals make presidential masks popular, from post-Watergate Richard Nixon in 1973 to post-Lewinski-gate Bill Clinton in 1998; Star Wars characters have been favorites since the first movie debuted in 1977; and every time a Batman movie comes out, related costumes top best-seller lists, according to several costume experts.
In 1984, the cool kids went as Freddy Krueger; in 1994, they went as one of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers; and in 2006, they were Barack Obama, according to a 30-year look back at best-sellers from Spirit Halloween, the largest seasonal Halloween retailer in the country, with 725 locations across the United States and Canada.
The perfect topical costume references a cultural event close enough to Halloween to be obvious and pairs it with absurdity or humor, experts say.
“We keep our eye on pop culture all year round,” said Lisa Barr, senior director of marketing for Spirit Halloween, based in Egg Harbor Township, N.J. “I can’t give away all of our methods, but when something continues to stay relevant in the news …”
This is how her company developed a Lady Gaga costume and a “winning” T-shirt and Charlie Sheen mask a few years ago. And it’s why, this year, the company is promoting a classic shark costume as a Sharknado look and several officially licensed Walking Dead looks.
Last year, Phoenix-based Yandy.com CEO Chad Horstman said he “got really lucky” when Mitt Romney and Obama talked about putting Big Bird out of work during the presidential-election debates.
Yandy.com specializes in sexy, often ironic, versions of costumes, including french fries, Tootsie Rolls and hamburgers.
“We carried a Big Bird mask and a yellow dress, and we got so much attention on that, with some yellow leggings, you can make your own Sexy Big Bird or Big Bird Is Out of Business,” the Arizona State University alum said.
“A lot of times, it’s just luck,” Horstman said. “We have something that just fits the news.”
Be original with efforts
Being viral has gone viral, pushing an unsustainable obsession with novelty, said social-media theorist Jurgenson, who is also a sociology graduate student at the University of Maryland.
“Maybe, because of the Internet, there’s a chance that the ideal of a costume being completely unique isn’t possible,” he said. “And it never has been. You’ve never come up with something brand new. You just didn’t know about it. Now, we are just aware of the limits of our creativity. So, maybe the ideal isn’t uniqueness, it’s quality execution or relevance to your friend group.”
Rather than consuming and discarding costume ideas at the speed of a Twitter conversation, Americans might start prioritizing creativity and relevance over novelty.
Chela Mischke already does that and always has. The Phoenix artist makes her pop-culture costumes, dressing previously as Mr. Peanut, Steve Urkel and Mr. Spock, among other looks.
“I think pretty much any original effort that’s put into it is a good thing,” said Mischke, 34. “Anyone willing to dress up and put in the time on the costume, even if they buy it, they’re being willing to have fun and put themselves out there, and that’s great.”
Lough, who last year went as a “binder full of women,” hasn’t been thinking of Halloween costumes since July just to be thwarted by Miley Cyrus meme-haters, though.
She’ll be going as Fantasy Football, pairing a unicorn headpiece with a rainbow skirt, rainbow knee socks and football pads and a jersey.
The hobby is relevant right now, Lough said, as more Americans than ever draft teams.
And, she said, “it’s so darn cute!”