Embrace your dark side: Stylist explores the psychology of dressing up for Halloween

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Alexandra Jones
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Why on Halloween do even the primmest of us dress like a decomposing body? Stylist’s Alexandra Jones investigates

Photography: Sarah Brimley

At a Halloween party last year I got chatting to an accountant (29, homeowner) who had come dressed in crushingly bad taste as a ‘sexy’ Ebola nurse, complete with fake blood under her eyes. “So you treat Ebola, but you’ve also got Ebola?” I asked. “It’s Halloween, who cares?” she exclaimed before knocking back another blackberry mimosa and stomping off. The host raised her eyebrows and cast me an apologetic look. “Wow – she’s usually really… reserved.” Friends, if modern Halloween garb is anything to go by, the age of innocence is well and truly over.

When I was growing up, the best most could hope to muster come 31 October was a skilfully knotted bin bag and a £1 Freddy Krueger mask from the off-licence (the elastic would inevitably ping off and you’d spend the rest of the evening looking like a polyethylene Teletubby). In 2001, Halloween was worth a miniscule £12million to the UK economy; fast-forward to 2015 and it brought in almost £400million (which, admittedly, pales in comparison to the USA, where Halloween spend last year hit almost $7billion).

Since we waved goodbye to the last millennium, Halloween has become a veritable orgy of merchandise and money. In fact, thanks to what James Sharpe, professor of early modern history at the University of York, called “US cultural imperialism”, it has overtaken Valentine’s Day to become our third most celebrated festivity after Christmas and Easter.

Fittingly, many of us are now investing serious time and cash into clever costuming. Three years ago, a friend came to a Halloween party as the white rabbit from Alice In Wonderland (vintage waistcoat, hired top hat, homemade bunny tail, grandpa’s pocket watch). The idea, she explained, had come to her in late August and (much as l might approach an all-you-can-eat buffet: graze steadily over an extended period), she had begun “collecting appropriate pieces”.

I went as a cyber-worm (or Spandex condom, depending on who you ask). I’d queued with the rest of the disorganised hordes for 40 minutes to get into the fancy dress shop but by the time I was finally admitted, all that was left was silly string and Day-Glo body-stockings. The moral of the story is that, nowadays, getting a costume – a good costume – requires the same level of planning as your Christmas shopping.

Still, according to psychotherapist Dr Leslie Bell, author of Hard To Get: Twenty-Something Women And The Paradox Of Sexual Freedom, getting creative with a sewing kit might well be worth the effort. “Costume and masquerade have, throughout history, been an opportunity for people to express parts of their personalities that aren’t traditionally allowed,” she says. In fact, a host of studies have found that putting on a mask – with its relative anonymity – can be a very freeing experience. Freeing enough, it would seem, to turn our most reserved friends and colleagues (those whose entire yearly wardrobes consist of Peggy Olson separates in sober shades of charcoal) into busty tavern wenches or headless red riding hoods.

Admittedly, my friends and I have a history of ridiculous costuming. If you came of age in the feminist-wasteland of the mid-2000s, you’ll know that avoiding ‘sexy Halloween’ required concerted effort. Buying off-the-peg meant going as a pornified Disney character complete with corset and arse-skimming cape, so we went ‘couture’: one year as a herd of mythical cows, another as a troupe of killer sheep. Covered, sexless but fun.

The ridiculous, the macabre and yes, even the sexy, costumes push us to “express ourselves in new and different ways and perhaps even to understand the world from a different perspective,” says Dr Bell. And (Ebola nurse notwithstanding), that’s surely no bad thing.

Obviously, if you find yourself wondering if you’ll end up with polyfibre-induced thrush from the too-tight Sexy Donald Trump costume (which does, by the way, exist), you’ll know something has gone awry. Otherwise, Halloween is a free pass to indulge a wild, wicked or just plain weird alter ego. And, if one isn’t enough, here are four extreme make-up looks to try this year. Happy Halloween!

How to look horrendous

Nilofar Mussa, manager at the Illamasqua School of Make-up Art, gives her insider tips for creating four outlandish Halloween looks

The Manga Character

“Brush your eyebrows up and fix them flat using Pritt Stick. With an eyeliner pencil, sketch the upper lid of the manga eyes over your eyebrows. Use the lash line of your actual eye to mark out the bottom of the manga eye. Close your eye and draw the pupil in the centre of your eyelid. Use pigment-rich powder eyeshadows to create irises and whites, and gel liner for the outline. Finish with homemade cardboard lashes.”

Difficulty rating: 4/5

The Zombie

“Following your natural bone structure, use a brown eyeliner pencil to mark out contours under the cheekbones, at the temples and below the jaw. Use a highlighter in between, khaki eyeshadows over the top and, with a paintbrush, flick brown speckles of shadow onto the skin to give it a mottled effect. Add in the smoky eye, but take the black right up to the brow and along the inner corner of the eye-socket to give a hollowed-out look.”

Difficulty rating: 3/5

The half skull

“Start by smudging black eyeshadow along the top and bottom lash lines. Look in the mirror and, with eyes open, use shadow to circle the eye, following the natural creases. Ensure the shadow connects at the corners of the eye. Cover the mouth with a white concealer and set with white eyeshadow. Then use a black gel liner to draw in the teeth from the centre of the mouth.”

Difficulty rating: 2/5

The Vamp

“Keep the eyes simple – a strong liner and soft brown through the crease. Lighten the face with foundation and, using contouring techniques, hollow out the cheeks. Outline the outer edges of the lip with a black pencil, then fill the centre with red lipstick. Use a lip brush to go over the liner with black lipstick. Paint a dribble shape down the chin and finish with lots of gloss for a wet-look.”

Difficulty rating: 2/5

How-to video

Watch how Nilofar created one of these looks in our video below


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Alexandra Jones

Alexandra Jones is a freelance journalist and the former commissioning editor at Stylist magazine. She writes features on everything from dating to global feminism. She has bad taste in films, a penchant for pickled foodstuffs and a spiralizer that has yet to be unboxed.