A Q&A with Take Back Halloween

It’s that time of year again. People are putting out pumpkins, the air is peppered with the smell of crisp autumn leaves (or so I remember from my pre-desert days), and the same dull, sexist, racist pre-packaged Halloween costumes are lining the shelves. I don’t remember ever getting a costume that came in a plastic package. My mom used to say that was for people with no imaginations who just give up.

And I know there are a lot of you out there who are interested in more than just another Sexy-[Blank] topped with a Geisha wig. In fact, I know there are some pretty darn creative folks working some magic this season. (Or perhaps still looking for inspiration from last year’s post of Awesome Ideas.) I’ve been trying to share some really great pics over on The Tired Feminist Facebook page, so check that out. (My fav is “Iron Maiden.)

In the spirit of the season, I wanted to spotlight the unique work of DIY costume site Take Back Halloween. With an emphasis on historical female characters — complete with compelling biographies — Take Back Halloween is a virtual treasure chest of inspiration and feministy goodness. And the intentions behind the site come from a refreshingly pure-hearted place. They don’t sell costumes. They give you a step-by-step guide on how to make them yourself! Many of them are pretty affordable, to even cheap! So now you have no excuse to not show up at the party wearing a one-of-a-kind costume that will be sure to get you noticed.

To learn more, I did a Q&A with site founder Suzanne Scroggins via email last week:

1. Tell us about Take Back Halloween and why you started it.

Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays. I started Take Back Halloween when I realized that sexy costumes for women had gone from being an option to being a requirement. None of my friends could find costumes in the stores that weren’t “Sexy” something. I was hearing the same frustration from teenagers and college women, too. What really pushed it over the edge for me was reading posts online from college women who were actually afraid to wear anything that wasn’t sexy. One woman talked about how she was dying to go as Gollum, and she’d come up with a really cool outfit, but she didn’t have the nerve because she knew she’d be ridiculed for not sexing it up. Other women posted about how they had worn non-sexy costumes, only to be harassed and ridiculed by men for “wearing too many clothes.” I thought, okay, time for an intervention.

2. Your website says that this is a venture of the Real History Project. How did that come about? And how does Take Back Halloween fit in?

I had been working on institutional bias in terms of how women are represented—or rather, underrepresented. The great women in history get short shrift in every venue, from museums to statues to currency. We need more statues of great women, we need women’s faces on the currency, we need to read about women’s accomplishments in the history books. And that’s important work, but I also wanted to approach the problem from a popular perspective. How do most people learn about history? Not from formal learning, but more from cultural osmosis. Everybody’s heard of Einstein, for example, even though most people couldn’t tell you exactly what he did. The goal of the Real History Project is to find ways to raise the profile of great women in popular culture. We want names like Lise Meitner and Grace Hopper to be ubiquitous. So when I decided to start a Halloween site with costume suggestions, it was just natural to focus on great women in history.

3. With a background in history and theater, tell us what your favorite Halloween costume(s) is/are — either from your site or from your own personal background.

Normally my personal taste runs to rhinestones and velvet, but this year I think my favorite costume may be the Morrigan. It’s easy to pull together but it looks really, really impressive. But I’m also crazy about two of our new queen costumes: Christina of Sweden and Liliuokalani of Hawaii. Christina is dashing but comfortable: fabulous boots, a gorgeous velvet shirt. Liliuokalani wears a beautiful dress and RHINESTONES! I love them all, really.

4. Why the emphasis on historical figures on your site? Americans aren’t known for being history buffs. Do you ever feel pressure to put more “famous” people or characters on your site?

History is what I know and what I’m passionate about. Most people seem to really appreciate the historical angle, because it’s not the kind of thing you find anywhere else. I get emails all the time from people saying how much they enjoy just reading the biographical sketches on the site, discovering all these amazing women.

We do get a few requests every year to expand into fictional characters, but at this point we simply don’t have the time or the resources. And the fact is, fictional characters are already pretty well covered. There are costumes for movie characters, there’s the whole cosplay community, and so on. Fictional characters don’t need any help from us. History and cultural mythology are what need attention.

5. I love that your site has a DIY (Do It Yourself) model. For me, making the costume from found and scavenged parts is half the fun. How have folks responded to that? I’m sure there are some that just wish you’d package it up for them.

Actually, the response to that has been overwhelmingly positive. People seem to really appreciate that we show how they can pull together a costume themselves. Especially since a lot of people automatically think homemade costumes = sewing. So it’s a revelation for them to discover that you can put together great costumes without any sewing at all. And because each one of our costumes is broken down into individual components, people can make use of what they have and only buy what they need. Everybody seems to love it.

6. Why Halloween? To play the devil’s advocate here: Why can’t you just have fun?

But this is about fun! That’s the whole point: bringing fun back to the holiday, instead of the insane pressure to be sexy and only sexy. If somebody wants to be sexy for Halloween, that’s fine. But for heaven’s sake, that shouldn’t be the only option. Not everybody wants to do that.

When I was in college, Halloween was wide open. Costumes ran the gamut, from scary to stupid to clever to bizarre to historical to mythological to whatever. But now, it’s like there’s this rigid uniform that all women and girls are supposed to fit into. Sexy Fill-in-the-Blank. And if you deviate from the uniform, you risk being harassed or ostracized or even hazed. Some fun.

7. Let’s talk about the Kickstarter campaign. Due to the runaway success of Take Back Halloween, you are looking for funding to continue bringing more costumes — with historically accurate information — to the masses. Why should people buy-in?

People who back our project are the ones who are making this whole vision possible. We don’t have a product to sell; our website and our costume designs are completely free. So our backers are the crucial players in bringing this to the world. And all our backers get a say in the new costumes going forward, by way of surveys and votes. Plus there are the goodies: we have beautiful theme posters as rewards for our Kickstarter backers. We have one poster that’s a timeline of women through world history, 50 women through five millennia. We have another that features all our goddesses on a world map. We have a poster featuring famous women pirates, another featuring great women in science, and so on.

8. Okay, it’s the day before Halloween and you’ve spent no time planning at all. With just the stuff around the average person’s house, give us an idea that could be whipped up by any non-sewing, not-so-crafty type, like myself.

That’s easy. If you have a bedsheet, you can go as pretty much any woman from ancient Greek and Roman times. That’s because the ancient tunic was just a rectangle of fabric folded around the body and pinned in place. A really great last-minute costume is Themistoclea, who was the Oracle at Delphi. That’s an excellent party costume if you want to do some fortune telling. The only thing you need is a bowl of water to look into like a crystal ball. If you want to drape something over your head while you’re staring into your bowl of water, you can use a sheer curtain panel or a shawl.

Demeter, the goddess of the earth and the harvest, is another easy bedsheet costume. You don’t have to have a cornucopia; you can carry any kind of basket. Put flowers or fruit in it (real or artificial), or even Halloween candy. Voilà — you’re Demeter.

With all our costumes, you can usually lose a bunch of the accessories and simplify to the basic elements if you’re in a last-minute rush. We did a last-minute costumes post in 2011 that’s still popular (Last-minute costume suggestions), and last year we did a Bedsheet costumes post. We’ll probably update both of those this month.

[Editor’s note: Due to a technical problem, the links to the costumes Suzanne mentioned could not be posted. I’m working on it, and will get those in as soon as possible. You can see all the costumes Suzanne mentions on her site, Take Back Halloween.]

Cross-posted from The Tired Feminist.

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