Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Ghoul's Guide to Holiday Dressing

Halloween is legitimate identity theft.
Halloween is by far my favorite holiday, not because I’m a witch, which most people will say is a misspelling anyway, nor because of the spookiness component.  In fact, I’m quite the scairdy cat, as my sister will vouch.  What I love about Halloween is that it is carte blanche for everyone to be anyone or anything for a few hours without being concerned about social repercussions, a few hours to explore aspects of ourselves that we keep hidden due to fear, shame, or propriety. For me, Halloween is a celebration of exploration and revelation

The first Halloween costume I remember was Cinderella.   In my mind, I wanted to be the scullery maid, magically transformed into a princess for one night – life imitating art imitating life.  I was probably hoping for the horses as well, but there were no mice willing to participate.  My costume consisted of an acetate smock, tied in the back like a hospital gown, with a princess dress printed on the front.  It included a sweaty plastic mask that attached with an elastic band across the back of my head and cut into my throat whenever I lowered my head to see better out of the eye holes. I was a one dimensional princess, nothing near the magic I imagined.  My sister was a one dimensional skeleton. From behind, we looked identical.

When we were done trick-or-treating that night, I helped my mother distribute candy to the “big kids.”  Some of the costumes were scary, some clever, and some simple.  But I loved all of them, even the ones that made me run out of the room screaming, because they were “real.” They incorporated real, not printed, clothing, make-up, wigs, and on occasion, a latex mask.  The idea of actually becoming something for the night, in three dimensions made my mind spin.  I was already planning for the next year, when I could actually be someone, something, other than myself. 

Jelicle Cats wear red tennis shoes and pom-poms
on their tails.
I started out simply.  I wanted to be a cat, not Cat Woman, but an actual cat.  Since my mother doesn’t sew, it was the perfect beginning.   I wore a leotard (with long johns underneath to keep warm) and tights.  My mother stitched felt ears onto a black head band and attached a tail also out of felt, to the leotard.  The best part was that she painted a nose and whiskers on my face with her black eye liner.  I was thrilled.  I was a cat, sleek, sly, and stealthy.  Rrrrrowr!

The next few years bled together:  Mad Madame Mim, from Sword in the Stone (a bust since everyone thought I was a princess despite the giant hairy wart I painted on my chin and the wacky grey wig), a witch, a pirate, Venus.   All were familiar personas.  But, then a neighbor created a costume where he became Igor carrying a coffin.  Brilliant!  Suddenly, I saw costumes as a showcase for artistic talent as well as identity.  With a friend, the next year we created a horse using boxes, paint, and a sheet.  We took turns being the front and back.  It didn’t matter that it wasn’t the best horse, the knowledge that no one else had thought to do it was enough.

When I entered high school, my parents put the kabosh on me going trick or treating.  I was heartbroken, not because of the loss of candy, but because I wouldn’t have a predictable date to play dress-up.  Fortunately, because my friends were equally fond of dressing up, we moved on to Halloween parties.  I was ecstatic with the expectation of one up-manship of artistic endeavors.  I hosted the first party and dressed as a chamber maid.  The next year, I went to a party dressed as the Grim Reaper, with incredible face painting.  It was creepy, androgynous, and anonymous.  Just like Death itself.  I felt powerful and sinister.  And then I realized the hostess wanted to surprise me by inviting the boy on whom I had a crush. From then on, artistic genius was tempered with social opportunity.

While I was dating, costumes became a two-fer.  My boyfriends and I dressed as a set rather than solo.  Fortunately, the people I dated were willing if not active participants.  We dressed as dead Heathcliff and Cathy, 18th Century vampires, and dead Hamlet and drowned Ophelia – one of my favorite costumes until a friend informed me I could get chiggers from the Spanish moss I wove through my hair and clothing and the possibility that leeches might still be clinging to the rotting lotus leaves.

As I got older and my friends had children of their own, opportunities to dress up for Halloween dwindled.  Because giggling and ringing doorbells upset the dogs, we’re forced to stay home on Halloween night.  However, I still found other opportunities to don costumes:  the Labyrinth Ball, the various Victorian Balls, and an Art Deco dance.  However, when we moved to Northern California, the opportunities vanished.

In the spirit of the Highlands.
Then, a couple years ago, a co-worker held a party.  My usually very staid husband agreed to dress-up, mostly to humor me.  We went as Highland ghosts.  I asked my husband to take a picture of me so I might admire my handiwork, and I took a picture of him.  As a whim, I combined the pictures, and created a ghostly collage that included not only the two of us in the Highlands, but also all our dogs, including ones that had died.  Basically, it was the story behind the costumes. I showed it to him.  He glanced at it first, then started looking at it more closely, recognizing the other dogs.

“That would be nice,” he said.

“What?” I asked, puzzled.

“If when we died, we became ghosts and had all our hounds with us,” he said, although he looked like he was still reconciling himself with the thought.

“Maybe that’s what happens,” I said.
"Yeah, maybe,” he smiled.

I think he’s finally getting the spirit of Halloween.

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