UK

Halloween: How to navigate the crazy world of fancy dress

Woman in Halloween fancy dress Image copyright Phil Coomes

It is less than a week before Halloween and the queue for Angels Fancy Dress shop in central London is out of the door.

Store manager Andy Andreou says fancy dress is more popular than ever, with some going all out to impress.

But in recent years there have been a series of controversies over costumes that have offended people.

Earlier this month one students' union said it was developing guidelines on inappropriate fancy dress, warning it would not tolerate behaviour that seeks to offend a "particular race or culture".

Kent Union's draft guidance includes a list of banned costumes ranging from cowboys and Mexicans to Nazi uniforms and "any influential black person with black face paint (blackface)".

Retailers have also faced criticism for selling costumes including a "psycho nurse", a Jimmy Savile zombie and Holocaust victim Anne Frank.

So are there other costumes that are off-limits?

Image copyright Phil Coomes
Image caption Medusa perfects her scary stare
Image copyright Phil Coomes
Image caption And this guy looks ready for Halloween

Andy, who has worked in the fancy dress industry for 20 years, says customers seem to be increasingly cautious.

"There was once a thing called bad taste parties, we don't see much of that anymore," he says.

"We used to stock a Jimmy Savile costume but we stopped selling it. People didn't buy it anymore and it's not a very nice thing for us to sell."

The shop will not sell outfits it thinks would offend people, such as Nazi costumes, and it very rarely gets customers requesting them, he adds.

However, despite students' unions like Kent warning against costumes which stereotype other cultures, Andy says fancy dress inspired by traditions from abroad, such as Mexico's Day of the Dead and Bavarian Oktoberfest, remain hugely popular.

Halloween 2018: Top 10 bestselling costumes

Men

  1. Big Frankenstein
  2. Escaped Prisoner
  3. Pennywise the Clown
  4. Evil Jester
  5. Butcher Pig

Women

  1. Scary Mary
  2. Spiritless Cheerleader
  3. Gothic Ballerina
  4. Twisted Clown
  5. Gothic Fallen Angel

Source: Angels Fancy Dress

Image copyright Phil Coomes
Image caption Day of the Dead accessories are top sellers for the shop
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The celebrations, which take place from 31 October to 2nd November, see Mexicans dress as skeletons in colourful costumes

Tom Colsy, a 19-year-old student at the University of Kent, believes there is nothing wrong with dressing up as other cultures, provided there is no malice intended.

He has started a petition calling for the union's guidelines to be overturned and it has attracted hundreds of signatures.

While he agrees with the ban on Nazi costumes or blackface, he says equating those with dressing as a Mexican or cowboy is ridiculous.

"Universities are supposed to be places of freedom of expression and people should be allowed to dress the way they want just for a bit of fun," he says.

"A lot of the costumes banned by the guidelines are harmless. They're celebrating other cultures rather than ridiculing them."

Image copyright Phil Coomes
Image caption Imogen Mackenzie says she avoids costumes that could stereotype other cultures

However, at Angels Fancy Dress shop, customers are divided.

Imogen Mackenzie says she became more aware of the issue while studying at the University of East Anglia, when the students' union banned a Mexican restaurant from handing out sombreros at a student event for breaking a policy banning "discriminatory or stereotypical" imagery in advertising.

The 26-year-old says she would now avoid costumes inspired by other cultures, such as Day of the Dead.

"Maybe even two years ago I would have thought it was fine, but especially living in London where it's so multicultural I don't want to offend anyone," she says.

But Miles Moss, 19, says being too easily offended can "suck the fun" out of fancy dress.

"I'm Indian and if someone wants to dress up in an Indian costume like a sari, if it's just for fun then personally I wouldn't mind," he says.

"But people do need to know where to draw the line if it starts ridiculing other cultures."

Image copyright Phil Coomes
Image caption Superhero costumes have been popular with women this year

Andy says he's also seen a move away from "sexy" Halloween costumes.

Last month an online retailer pulled a "sexy" Handmaid's Tale outfit following a social media backlash.

The costume had been inspired by the TV series, based on Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel, where women are stripped of their rights.

"More women are wanting to dress as powerful figures - it's not all about skimpy outfits," Andy says.

Heroines like Wonder Woman and Maleficent, played by Angelina Jolie in the 2014 Disney film, have been particularly popular this year, he adds.

So what advice would Andy give when choosing your costume?

"The best costumes we get are people who just want to dress as something ridiculous like a flip flop or an avocado.

"Fancy dress is supposed to be fun, so just enjoy it."

Photos by Phil Coomes

More on this story