Halloween costumes, when I was a kid in the 1950s, were not store-bought, at least not in my in my family. Halloween was an opportunity to be creative; to bring an idea to life. My dad loved to scope out whatever interesting or unusual items he could find at Goodwill, Salvation Army, and thrift stores. (He once came home with a 1920s style rah-rah raccoon coat he’d bought for $5.) But I don’t recall the purchase of a whole costume.

three siblings in 1958 pose in their self-created Halloween costumes in 1958. A 5 year-old boy is dressed in a pirate's hat, sash and striped pants; the girl, Linda, is dressed in the image of a gypsy, with bandana, flowing skirt, sash at waist, colorful vest; the oldest boy, 12, is dressed in a buccaneer's hat, an oversized brocaded jacket, shimmery shirt with lace cuffs; two spotted dogs, father & son, named Buttons and Bows, are at their feet; Bows is a puppy, about 8 weeks old.

My brothers & I dressed for Halloween 1958; L-R: Billy, Linda, Paul. On floor, Buttons and Bows (Bows, the puppy, is about 8-10 weeks old. Buttons is the proud father), dressed as themselves!

I found this photo of my brothers and me, posing in our 1958 Halloween costumes. These costumes are a bit like “found art,” blending together various “found” bits of clothing. Mom probably bought Billy’s pirate hat (and maybe vest) at the dime store, but the yellow shirt, sash, and striped red pants, maybe from pajamas, were his.

My costume is created entirely from pieces we had on hand: headscarf, shimmery skirt, belt, bolero vest, and glitzy necklace. The heavy brocaded coat on Paul, the satiny shirt and lace cuffs- surely all are bits of clothing Dad picked up somewhere. My parents’ Depression mentality meant that few items were thrown out. We stashed all sorts of things. “We might need this some day,” was my parents’ (especially Dad’s) motto.

Halloween ~1958. Linda dressed as a “gypsy.”

I wonder if  in today’s world  dressing up like a “gypsy” would fall under “cultural appropriation” (or should it be “misappropriation?”) today? But back in the 1950s, it was considered totally ok for any of us European white kids to dress up as a Native American (called, of course, “Indians” at the time), a Mexican with a big sombrero, or an Asian Indian.

As today,  costumes of sports players or super heroes were popular at Halloween. No one even gave a thought to if it would be disrespectful to dress up as a “bum,” (a boy or girl would smear black dirt on the face, wear raggedy clothes and carry a satchel on a stick over the shoulder.

“Cultural appropriation” is a tough one. Of course, there are those who think the whole idea is ridiculous; (e.g., the controversy over the use of  sports’ teams’ names, like “The Washington Redskins” is polarizing).  Others, including 115 organizations, think the use of such sports names are harmful to Native Americans and promotes stereotyping. (Read more about that here.).

Back to my 1958 gypsy costume. Gypsies did not have a good reputation in my paternal grandparents’ home towns in what is today Romania, nor in my maternal grandparents’ home towns in Austria. We were told the women’s voluminous dresses were a clever method to sweep through a store and pilfer, hiding products among the rich folds and heavy real estate of a flowing skirt.

Despite these negative stereotypes, it never would have occurred to me, at age 9 (nor to my parents), that dressing up in this flamboyant manner was disrespectful.

(You probably know that today we refer to the people we called “gypsies” as “the Roma” or “Romani” people. I met many when I visited my grandmother’s home town of Grosspold, Romania. The Roma we met were gracious and welcoming. They lived up the hill from the main town in very poor conditions).

So what constitutes negative stereotyping and true disrespect, “cultural appropriation?”

I found this article (which includes a video) from The Atlantic Magazine. Please comment on what you think of its arguments. “The Dos and Don’ts of Cultural Appropriation.” 

I welcome your comments, but please read the article first. Whatever your opinion (and I look forward to hearing it), I do hope you and your children have a happy, and negative-free Halloween.

Redlined: Coming out April 3, 2018. Learn more about “redlining” and the book at LindaGartz.com

Redlined: coming April 3, 2018