Oct. 17, 2013 at 8:45 AM ET
This Halloween, no inanimate object is safe from being transformed into a "sexy" costume. Just add a miniskirt and a tight top and you can have a sexy corn, sexy pizza, or sexy bathtub ensemble.
And don't forget the showerhead choker.
The Halloween industry is scary big. Total consumer spending on costumes, treats, festivities, and even pets is expected to reach $6.9 billion this year, according to a National Retail Federation forecast. That's down from $8 billion last year because of the weak economy, but still 55 percent higher than 2005, and slightly higher than 2011. As the market has grown, so too have the iterations of "sexy" costumes.
"It's starting to get silly," said Mandy Mandelstein, a 23-year old filmmaker exiting a Spirit Halloween store on Fifth Avenue in New York City. "Why would you dress up as a bathtub?"
Upstairs in the adult women's section at the costume shop, few of the outfits appeared designed to keep away a crisp autumn evening's chill. Most incorporated miniskirts, boy shorts and bare arms in the pursuit of dressing up as characters like Sexy SEAL team member, Sultry Swat Officer, Dirty Cop, Snow White, or sexy clown, monster, or Mario Brother.
There was also a "sassy" version for woman of "Rick Grimes," the sheriff's deputy from AMC's Walking Dead.
The definition of what constitutes a "sexy" Halloween costume has been quickly expanding in the past few years, said Chad Horstman, CEO of Yandy.com, which, along with lingerie, says it boasts the largest online selection of sexy Halloween costumes. Previously limited to old standbys like sexy cop, sexy maid, and sexy nurse, in 2010 Horstman started to see the more unique designs drawing customer interest. So he began designing new costumes to capitalize on the trend, like a fox, watermelon—a dress with a hip-baring bite taken out of the side, and other food, like pizza and corn.
Not all the designs pop. "I still have 400 corn costumes sitting in the warehouse right now," said Horstman. But the odd outfit picked up viral buzz, building name recognition and attracting traffic from online visitors, some of whom bought other costumes.
The site's exclusive designs are sewn in Los Angeles. Other costumes it carries come from factories in China, Korea, and South America. Yandy's retail prices are twice its wholesale cost. Horstman says he targets women 18-34, especially those attending college Halloween parties, where "a lot of girls want to stand out from the crowd."
As the unusual costumes sell, it becomes a bit of an arms race for women to stay ahead of the next alluring flight attendant or wanton witch at a party. A costume usually get its best sales the first year it comes out and a good costume inspires knockoffs. So Horstman has to keep thinking of new ideas.
The sexy costume muse can strike anywhere.
"One day we were at a state fair and some guy had an octopus hat and was wearing it around and I thought it was really cool," said Horstman. He snapped a photo with his phone, sent it to a designer, and the "sexy squid" costume was born.
Dr. Deborah Tolman, a professor of social welfare and psychology at Hunter College, has interviewed young women for her research into adolescent sexuality. Her findings showed that women who might choose to wear revealing clothing often don't feel confident, but instead "worry about all these parts of my body exposed," she said.
There is also a double standard. "Men can come out in costumes that aren't revealing," said Tolman, but the expectation for women is that they "are supposed to be performing a certain kind of desire." That's even while dressed up as a food product.
Not everyone has a problem with eroticized farm produce. Maria Collon, a 46-year old shoe stocker at Lord and Taylor browsing for a Native American dress cut just above the knee said she thought the sexy corn costume was flattering and showed off the woman's curves. She said women might choose to dress up as, for instance, a sexy bathtub, "so they can be the main attraction at a party."
She's still going to keep an eye on what her 21-year old daughter wears this year.
"You need to be careful," she said. "If you're drinking, or hanging around people who are drinking, they might get too friendly."
Dr. Tolman doesn't think women should have to dress up in shapeless pillow sacks and cardboard boxes, but instead question what's driving behavior on All Hallows' Eve.
"It really begs the question of why has 'sexy' become such an important a thing to aspire to, particularly in a Halloween costume that could be clever, funny, tongue-in-cheek, could be so many other imaginative things, but instead has essentially rendered it weird and boring," said Tolman.
"We're sexually commodifying corn, seriously?"