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Charting the Rise of the 'Sexy' Halloween Costume

From outrageous parties in Greenwich Village in the 70s to "Sexy Pizza Rat," the slutty Halloween costume has come a long way, baby.
A group of three women and one man wearing provocative Halloween costumes.
Image via Flickr user Nenortas Photography

For those of us who opt for costumes of the sexy variety, Halloween is the lifeblood of an estimated $2.5 billion costume industry built on our scantily-clad backs.

Now before we get too far, let's pause for a moment to emphasize that we're very pro-Halloween being whatever you need it to be in order to meet your spooky, scary, and/or sexy needs. Whether your nighttime party disguise takes the form of current events cosplay or some cleavagey iteration of a law enforcement professional, we embrace all manifestations of autumnal debauchery. Feminism respects choice, and our foremothers didn't torch their bras (while suffering the gnarly side effects of early hormonal contraception, no less) for naught. In all serious, we owe the 1970s women's lib movement the biggest thanks in facilitating our journey to such modern classics as sexy money pile.


The era defined in part for its tectonic shifts in women's and gay rights inspired the wildest, sluttiest, and most outrageous Halloween parties.

While sexy costumes in some shape or form date back to at least the Victorian era, demand for them crystallized in the age of disco and cameltoe. It shouldn't come as a surprise that the era defined in part for its tectonic shifts in women's and gay rights would also inspire the wildest, sluttiest, and most outrageous Halloween parties. According to the Halloween historian Lesley Bannatyne, prominent queer urban districts from Greenwich Village to the Castro added a more than a dash of wink-and-nudge to the annual affair. "Combine second-wave feminism with outrageousness and a general atmosphere of freedom, and you have this perfect storm of more outrageous costumes," she told TIME.

But according to a 2006 NY Times report, it wasn't until the turn of this century that the ostentatiously sexy Halloween costume became de rigour. In that article, the then-purchasing director for admitted that an estimated 90 to 95 percent of the retailer's costumes for women had at least "a flirty edge to them," which required the site to break down its "sexy" offerings into three separate subcategories. Perusing the site nine years later, I notice that now there are four.

The breadth of's sexy catalog is pure camp. There are Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in skintight emerald green lamé, model posed with a hip jutting jauntily to the side to remind us that, for a mere $24.97, you too can become one saucy Leonardo. There is the "Air Force Angel" in jumpsuited salute, and "Victorian Vamp" who meets precisely one half of her costume's description. The costumes aren't actually sexy so much as silly, jokey pastiches of pop culture iconography rendered in flammable fibers. The outfits are appealing, in part, because they suggest that their wearer doesn't take herself too seriously, that she understands and enjoys the process of having fun. In our precarious economy, it isn't hard to surmise why people might find that break appealing.

Advertisement might best represent what we've come to think of when we consider the sexy costume genre—that is, so overly much that we might abandon our sexy costumes completely. Not only in on the joke, the site's collection seems designed with Internet virality explicitly in mind. Sexy Trump, Sexy Pizza Rat, and sexy Nemo the Disney clownfish—all with copyright-skirting aliases—grace Yandy's costume homepage, their conceptual unlikelihood tailor-made for clicks and shares.

Sexy Trump, Sexy Pizza Rat, and sexy Nemo the Disney clownfish—all with copyright-skirting aliases—grace Yandy's costume homepage.

A recent report from Bloomberg Business backs the growing role of web culture on costume creation, but most consumers aren't opting for the obvious jokes. While a slutty costume rendering of a famous pizza-loving, subway-riding New York City rat may have gone super-viral, as of last week only around 100 had actually been sold. By official accounts, the most popular adult Halloween costume remains the season's trusty standby: basic-ass witch. Animals, zombies, pirates and vampires aren't far behind.

But for those looking to combine skin with headline relevance this All Hallow's Eve, inspiration isn't hard to find. "It's easier than ever for consumers to find creative Halloween costumes given the popularity of Pinterest and Instagram and the immediate access to pop culture trends," said Proper Insights Principal Analyst Pam Goodfellow in a media release from the National Retail Federation, which tracks American consumers' annual Halloween hankerings dollar by dollar.

However, like all things retail, sexiness moves in cycles. George Garcia, owner of the block-long Fantasy Costumes warehouse in Chicago's Portage Park neighborhood, thinks that the sexy costume might even be on a downturn. "I don't think they're as popular as they were four, five years ago," he says, reasoning that the rise in action and superhero film franchises has brought a more character-based costume back into the fore. Star Wars costumes are especially huge this year, he says, though he admits that the slutty go-to Catwoman suit remains a top seller.