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Five Ways to Make Your Halloween Costume More Rhetorical

October 27, 2011

For years I’ve struggled to explain systematically why I like and dislike certain Halloween costumes. And yes, before you ask, this is the kind of thing that my brain actually tries to do on a regular basis. I can’t help it.

But now I understand! The best Halloween costumes (the really really good ones that you find yourself telling other people about later) are the costumes that have something important to say. In other words, all the best Halloween costumes are rhetorical. And here’s the best part: yours can be too. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Go political. Most of the “political” costumes available for sale are straightforward representations of political figures or images. Take it a step further and make a political statement. For example, create a terrifying political scenario and enact it with your costume. Are you Republican? Dress up as President Joe Biden. If you’re a Democrat, how about a zombie Ronald Reagan?

2. Create a social commentary. You can do this with almost any costume. Take something you dislike in our society and combine it with a cultural symbol. Tired of “sexy” Halloween costumes and over-the-top patriotism? Go as a sexy Statue of Liberty and then take it way overboard. Think the obesity crisis in America is out of control? Dress up as an overweight Captain America! A heavy dose of irony can help here, too. Why not dress up as Satan and then talk loudly about your support for same-sex marriage?

3. Add textual elements to your costume. Over the last several years, I’ve made a habit of adding homemade political buttons to my costumes. They don’t even have to be real buttons; you can just make a circle of paper, write on it and stick it on with tape. Going as a missionary? Add a button that says, “Missionaries do it missionary style.” Want to stick it to the hipster crowd? Add a button that says, “This costume is ironic.” I once took a “gay? fine by me” T-shirt and added the following: “lesbian? we need to talk.” My lesbian friends loved it, or at least claimed to.

4. Make a statement as a couple. If you’re taking a significant other to a party, go rhetorical by combining things that shouldn’t be together. This year my significant other and I are commenting on the weakness of class politics in the United States by going as the 1% and the 99% as a couple. Did I just blow your mind? Good. Here are some other ideas: Comment on our love affair with the meat industry by dressing up as a pig and a butcher in love. These are two groups that should not be fraternizing, am I right? Here’s another one: go as an oil barrel and a duck. Have them both hold “Drill, Baby, Drill” signs.

5. If all else fails, choose something absurd and make your audience figure out what you really mean. Go as a Tea-Party-supporting Scooby-Doo. What is the argument behind this costume? I have no idea, so just say this when people ask: “if you don’t understand it, I can’t explain it to you.”

Have more ideas? Add them below!

If you want to know more:

  • What does it mean to make a Halloween costume rhetorical? So far as I know, none of the well-known theorists who have defined rhetoric make any mention of Halloween costumes. So let’s just go with a classic and take Aristotle’s definition: “[Rhetoric is] the faculty of discovering in any particular case all of the available means of persuasion.” It’s Halloween and that means that our available means of persuasion are our costumes, which are a primarily visual medium. Halloween costumes do only a few things well: they scare us and they amuse us. If we’re going to use a costume to make an argument, it’s going to have to be based on fear or humor, the latter being my preference.
  • Halloween costumes can also impress. For example, you probably have a friend who goes way too far with his or her costume every year, spending insane amounts of money and time for the simple pleasure of having people react to their costume with awe. Their costumes usually have the secondary effect of making your costume look like crap. I see no reason to help these people in any way.
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