By sitting out the contest for the cleverest, most topical outfit, you develop a deeper connection to your dress-up identity. Also: You save money.
I have a friend who has dressed up in a black shirt and crisp white collar since way before the practice became known as Casual Halloween Priest. Something alternately holy and lecherous happens when he leans over a woman dressed as a casual bumblebee, hearing her confess at a crowded party—as if he's been doing it his whole life.
I can't imagine that he spent more than $20 on this costume. That's noteworthy when you consider that we have friends who will spend on costumes in the course of their lifetime what we spent on our first cars. Which is to say nothing for the man hours. For the comic-convention-going cosplayer, running the ever-growing gauntlet of costume events without looking like a party pooper is a labor of love. For the casual Halloweenist, however, it's a tedious obligation. That's why the lifetime costume is one of your great life hacks.
In wearing the same costume every Halloween, I've learned that the more exuberant costume wearers aren't particularly fond of this hack. Small talk at the party invariably goes:
"Are you something from Star Wars?"
"So what are you?"
"A Berber from the Atlas Mountains."
"What's a Berber?"
It should be self-evident. A Berber wears a fine djellaba and soft leathers slippers. A prayer cap, if he is pious. He has a gentle presence. There is a mischievous glint in his eye. Of course, what this person, who is dressed up as an elaborate Tagg Romney reference, really wants to know is: "Isn't this what you went as last year?"
We should dress up to bask in whatever's managed to hold our attention beyond the most recent meme. But in our disposable Bin Laden masks, we only develop fleeting relationships with our Halloween identities.
No matter how I explain the ways my Berber has grown over the past 12 months—over more than six total years—the Halloween purists suggest it's a cop out to wear the same costume every Halloween. (Oddly, nobody's ever called my Berber culturally insensitive—my family came from what's now Izmir—but I suppose the character has become so weirdly specific that it only vaguely constitutes a cultural identity.) Never mind the sustainability perks of a lifetime costume. There's a breach of Halloween etiquette, which comes down to having outwardly foregone the effort.
The difference between "dressing up as" and "going as" may be small, but there is a difference. What people don't see is the way I slowly slip into character mid-October, playing Gnawa tapes, drinking sweet mint tea, letting my beard grow long.
Dedicated cosplayers talk about homage and escapism and technical accuracy, about all the powers that come with taking on a new identity, and about the need to engage a narrative. But this competitive form of self-expression is becoming as commonplace and paint-by-numbers as slapping an Instagram filter on a portrait. Between the Comiket and San Diego Comic-Con, you can cosplay your way from Burning Man to Mardi Gras, through every manner of Renaissance Fair, Lebowskifest, and tween film opening night. Which is to say nothing for the Santa/Slut/Zombie walks and the mainstreaming of Pride. Cosplay now influences street fashion and pop culture. Halloween or Williamsburg cheekily pounded home just how total the transformation of dress-up had become.
Halloween, which is still the centerpiece for mainstream cosplay, is rooted in a quintessential American malleability. We don't quite do it like a harvest festival, nor do we offer prayers for our neighbors' dead in return for our treats, like the eve of an All Saints Day. We should dress up to bask in whatever's managed to hold our attention beyond the most recent meme. But in our disposable Bin Laden masks and cardboard Optimus Prime biceps, we only develop fleeting, superficial relationships with our headline Halloween identities.
My parents didn't believe in buying Halloween costumes. I went as the same ninja from grades four to six. My mom must have made it look badass enough the first year that a clown from the fifth grade challenged me to a fight. Nobody was more shocked than I when the clown was in the dirt, blood streaming from multiple gashes. There had been a rhythm to my movements that, to this day, I don't understand. (In addition to making my costume, mom let me pick out different ninja movies from the video store every weekend.) My hood was stained with the clown's blood. I had stake in this ninja costume, which my body grew outgrew.