What Your Halloween Spending—Particularly, Your Choice of Costume—Says About You

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Halloween is no longer a kid’s holiday. In fact, more money is now spent on adult costumes than outfits for children. If you’ve ever wondered what someone’s Halloween costume selection says about his or her personality, read on.

According to the National Retail Federation’s annual Halloween survey, consumers plan on spending $1.04 billion on kids costumes this year—and $1.22 billion for adults to play dress-up. (Another $330 million will be allocated to pet Halloween costumes.)

These figures may seem outlandish, but in fact the NRF report indicates that overall Halloween spending will decline this year, with the average participant dropping $75.03 to celebrate the holiday, compared to $79.82 a year ago. I’m skeptical about the forecasted spending decrease. Halloween 2013 falls on a Thursday (a.k.a. “Little Friday”), which is a top night for partying—for adults at least. My guess is that plenty of adult celebrants will actually wind up spending more on Halloween this year.

A big chunk of that Halloween spending will go to costumes. As a professor and consumer research psychologist, I know that adults put plenty of thought into their choice of costumes, and getting the most bang for the buck isn’t their primary concern. Putting years of psychological training to sort of good use, here’s my take on why so many adults dress up, and why so many of us are drawn to the same kinds of costumes.

Playing Pretend
Halloween is the ultimate role-play day, so it’s no wonder nearly three-quarters of adults ages 18 to 24 plan to wear a costume. Not only are people in this age group more apt to go to parties and not have to go to work the day after Halloween, young adults are in the stage of psychological development where trying on different roles has strong allure. When you’re in college, or just college-aged, it’s your job to figure out who you are. Experimentation especially makes sense before you’ve gotten older and matured—before you’ve “settled down.”

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Unsurprisingly, the percentage of adults dressing up for Halloween dwindles a bit with every age cohort. About half of adults ages 35 to 44 will don costumes, and one-quarter of the 55-to-64-year-old demographic is inspired to participate. By the time middle-age hits, people (hopefully) know who they are, and role play feels less exciting. Older folks might also simply get invited to fewer Halloween parties too.

Sex Sells
This Halloween, college campuses are sure to be awash with sexy nurses, sexy maids, and sexy schoolgirls, as well as muscle-bound superheroes and perhaps some bare-chested Tarzans and swashbuckling pirates. The obvious common factor is sexiness. But there’s something else these costumes have in common. The women’s costumes are characters with more subservient roles, while the male costumes represent more take-charge savior and hero roles.

Does that mean that young women dressed as sexy wenches have a secret wish to be powerless and rescued? Most likely it’s the opposite. Wearing a costume is a way to explore who you aren’t. For example, it’s unlikely a waitress will dress up as a sexy waitress — or any other type of waitress for that matter. Okay, yes, there has to be at least a tiny bud of interest in the persona and character behind the costume chosen, but that doesn’t mean there is a secret wish to become that character. The same is true with regard to the male roles. Batman and most other male power characters (especially the ones that show off their abs) tend to be unsuccessful in their love lives. They wind up solitary, and understandably dark and moody. That’s not the wish of most young men; instead it’s a one-night exploration during a time in their lives where they’re building an identity.

As to the sexiness requirement, on one level it really is simply about sex and showing off your body. But on another level, it’s related to the developmental task of preparing for partnership or marriage. Honing the skills and characteristics that attract suitors is a powerful instinct at that age. The other 364 days of the year might well be devoted to developing a good sense of humor, solid career prospects or any other number of characteristics attractive to a potential mate. Halloween is particularly well-suited to a display of one’s physical assets, without necessarily looking desperate or showy. As in: “I’m not flaunting — it’s the costume!” That was my excuse at least when I strutted around in my homemade belly dancer outfit in my early 20s. For $5 worth of coin trim sewn on a push-up bra and $6 worth of gauzy fabric for a sarong, I won runner-up in my dorm costume contest.

The Dark Side
Vampires, grim reapers, devils, witches and other powerful, predatory characters are top costume picks across all adult age groups this year, as they have been for the past five years. Yes, dressing up as something spooky and scary is traditional for Halloween. But there may be something else at work here.

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In a political and economic era where people feel less certainty and control in their lives, there’s a certain allure to being a character that’s unburdened by empathy and more likely to be the perpetrator rather than the victim.

Conversation Starters
Costumes are communication devices. They say something about yourself to others, and are meant to elicit a response. Nobody (normal) puts on a costume to sit home alone. Costumes are vehicles of social connection.

Choosing and crafting a costume takes imagination and creativity. It’s strutting around your mental assets and interests rather than just your abs or cleavage—though it’s possible to do both, of course. Playful, interactive costumes can be great successes. One young man I spoke to named Mike says the best costume he ever wore was a mass of purple balloons attached to a T-shirt. “I went as a bunch of grapes,” he said. “Girls wanted to pop one. Everyone thought it clever.”

Susan says the best costume she’s ever seen was a guy who wrapped himself in Kudzu, a vine that runs rampant in the South. “How smart was that? He called himself Kudzu Man and it was hilarious — plus cheap.”

Pop culture characters are particularly rich conversation starters. This year, we’re sure to see plenty of Miley Cyrus, “Game of Thrones,” and “Breaking Bad” costumes—whatever’s top of mind, whatever people are talking about lately.

Idols & Rock Stars
Another group of revelers will trot out costumes representing their favorite rock stars, athletes, and actors. Or outfits from idealized cultures like hippies, “Mad Men,” or the Victorian era.

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“I went as Joe Montana one year,” recalls John. “I was getting slaps on the back, and people were calling out ‘Hey Joe’ all night long. I gotta say, it was a rush.” Similarly, Serene said that she went as a hippie one year and felt transformed. “My mom was a hippie,” she said. “It felt like I was channeling her when she was young.”

Like those who pick costumes as a means to be clever and creative, this group hopes to gather some attention and connect and communicate with others. But they’re also adding in a dose of themselves, with some inner yearning showing through. Through their costumes, their fantasy lives are on display.

Kit Yarrow chairs the psychology department of Golden Gate University and was named the university’s 2012 Outstanding Scholar for her research in consumer behavior. She is a co-author of Gen BuY and is a frequent speaker on topics related to consumer psychology and Generation Y.