Slate has a short piece on why Hallowe’en costumes are so sexed up, attributing it to a “rogue holiday” partially appropriated by gays, kind of Pride in the fall.
The Victorians enjoyed a good costume ball on Halloween, and some daring get-ups, like Gypsy outfits, were popular. But risqué costumes were not pervasive until right around Gerald Ford’s presidency, when homosexual communities in the United States adopted Halloween as an occasion for revealing, over-the-top attire.
The Halloween parade in New York City’s Greenwich Village began in 1973 as a family-and-friends promenade from house-to-house organized by a local puppeteer and mask-maker. It quickly became a neighborhoodwide party, however, and since the Village was New York’s de facto gay district, the gay community cottoned to it. The event, with its drag outfits and otherwise rebellious costuming, became famous in New York and across the country, as did similarly bawdy Halloween parties in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood and in West Hollywood.
Over on Change.org, an article points out that “One Woman’s Costume Is Another Woman’s Nightmare“, and asks about appropriations of native American dress as sexy costumes.
…the “sexy squaw” stereotype and subsequent appropriations are dangerous for non-fictional Native women, considering that “1 in 3 Native women will be raped in their lifetime,” and “70% of sexual violence against Native women is committed by non-Natives.” Compare that figure to the 1 in 6 overall American female population who is a victim of rape.
Consider the “Chiquita Banana” stereotypes of Latinas, oversexed black Jezebels, or the seemingly pliant and sexually subversive Japanese geisha. All of those stereotypical costumes correlate with a tame, sexually pure image of white women, like the European colonist with her full-length skirt, the Scarlett O’Hara on the plantation.
(The Scarlett O’Hara comparison is a bit off, as Scarlett was definitely not the Southern white feminine ideal, just as Rhett was a rogue and a scoundrel.)
A cursory examination of the costume section of the Wicked Temptations online catalog reveals a lot of less-than-progressive language and imagery. There are “Gypsy” costumes, “Native” costumes (“Our Natives set of costumes and accessories will prove why everyone decided to move to and settle on your land.”), “Nuns” (a classic), “Alpine Maidens” and “Schoolgirls.”
I think that when people talk about ethnic costumes as sexual fetishes and compare them to real-life sexual violence, there’s the implication that if you somehow got rid of the sexy costumes, the violence would stop, or at least be diminished. I’m not convinced it would. I’m not even convinced that if you somehow got rid of the underlying attitudes and fantasies that make a costume sexy, some of which goes back centuries, it would affect the violence. Don’t confuse a symptom for a cause.