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?"
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.
Halloween became unsettled for me after the ninja, drifting from one cultural reference and conceptual pun to the next, eventually clinging onto whatever the group was going to do. It took more than a decade to find something real to go as.
In a souk in Marrakech, I met a man wearing a robe similar to the ones I'd been eyeing. He asked how much I had to spend. I told him only 350 dirham, but had no desire to buy a costume. "These aren't costumes," he corrected me as we left the shop and took an elaborate path towards what felt like the medina's inner sanctum. An hour later, I had spent 300 DH for a sand-colored djellaba, which hung down below my ankles, and 70 for yellow babouche. The shopkeeper indicated that I should pick out a hat. I reached for a fez. He shook his head. "That's for tourists. It doesn't go with this djellaba." Ahmed, the man, who brought me, put a taqiyah in my hands. His unflappable demeanor became a little bit crushed when I began folding up my new garments. "Aren't you going to wear it?" he asked.
As I unfurled the robe over my cargo shorts and t-shirt, my shoulders seemed to straighten. I walked slowly. Ponderously. Ahmed pulled the baggy hood over my head. For the rest of the afternoon, I slipped through the medina without a second look. It was a kind of camouflage. I ended up drinking tea with Ahmed several times that week. He fed me a complex background story for the Berber from the Atlas Mountains.
But if you had to truthfully categorize my Berber, it was a last-minute costume. The djellaba had been abandoned in my closet for a couple of years, until a last-minute Halloween invitation that required more than a token effort at costume. I left the prayer cap at home that night, and didn't correct anyone who assumed it was a Star Wars thing. I also felt the most visceral sense of a soul I had encountered since Morocco.
It was out of laziness that the Berber from the Atlas Mountains reappeared the next year. I took on more of Ahmed's mannerisms this time. I began adding lines of dialogue right out of the medina, filling in the blanks with Wikipedia and Alberto Ruy Sanchez poetry.
And so as the character was brought more vividly to life each year, I learned to make pumpkin tagine and use the Obi-Wan hood to smuggle miniature Coffee Crisps. I began listening to a punk band called Mongoose, whose lead singer wrote a vest pocket book called "10 Steps to a Life Uniform" in which he likens the effect of finding a permanent costume to "that feeling when people order for you and it is exactly what you wanted." At which point I realized that I'd never wear any other Halloween costume.
None of this quite answered the question: Why do we dress up?
In my case it was the chance to tell a joke about a mouse and a cat, which Ahmed had told to everyone we met that week in Marrakech. "The cat chase the mouse around...the medina," he would always start, his face and shoulders scrunching to invoke both the concentration of the cat and the mortal fear of its prey. (You could see tables and stools and giant pyramids of saffron fly left and right in their furious wake.) "Chase and chase and chase...and chase," Ahmed would shriek, "until finally the mouse find the place in the wall where the paw of the cat cannot reach...what do you call it?"
"Yes! The mouse hole!" The mouse hunkered with a few crumbs of couscous as the cat's eye blinked hungrily against the hole. Ahmed would draw another long breath. "Theeeeen the mouse hear the barking—'Aha!' thinks the mouse, 'now the dog chase the cat!'" The mouse, believing all to be safe, crawls out of the hole into the waiting paws of...the cat. Ahmed would conjure the rodent's final puzzled gaze into its captor's eyes, and the cat's answer, as it licked its lips: "It takes many languages to eat well."
Where I come from, the mouse always outwits the cat.
In the end, we dress up to escape.