More parents are turning to costume swaps and used-clothing stores as part of an effort to reclaim Halloween and define it as something other than another holiday centered on buying new stuff.
LOS ANGELES — At Halloween City on Sunset Boulevard, you can turn your daughter into an Asian princess for $22.99, your infant into Yoda for $19.99 and your son into Iron Man for $29.99.
And if your kids have spent the past three months talking about dressing as Harry Potter, Alice in Wonderland or a zombie ghost rocker, well, there are bags of those costumes too. To some parents, the proliferation of the store-bought costume is a time-saving godsend, giving overscheduled moms and dads an easy and relatively cheap way to fulfill a child's dream of being Dorothy or a Power Ranger or a puppy — no sewing machine required. Others, however, look at the rows of flimsy princess costumes and fuzzy baby outfits (a sweet pea!), made in China out of polyester and nylon, and can't help but see tomorrow's landfill waste.
"Halloween is like the poster child of unsustainable everything," said Corey Colwell-Lipson, mother of two and founder of Green Halloween, a program of the EcoMom Alliance. "There's a lot of waste and a lot of toxins."
But now a movement against the wear-it-and-toss-it Halloween costume is gaining steam. It seems more parents are turning to costume swaps and used-clothing stores as part of an effort to reclaim Halloween and define it as something other than another holiday centered on buying new stuff. Still, the quest to wrest Halloween from the clutches of consumerism will be hard.
According to the National Retail Federation, Americans are expected to spend $1 billion on new children's costumes this year, up from $840 million last year. An estimated $1.2 billion will be spent on adult costumes — many of which will be worn just once.
"It's kind of heartbreaking that people don't know what to do with their kid's costumes after Halloween is over," said Brooke Le Clear, a mother of a 2-year-old daughter and an instructor at Golden Bridge Yoga in L.A. "It's so wasteful."
Last year, she happened upon racks and racks of Halloween costumes at the L.A. used-clothing store Jet Rag and bought 10 of them to distribute at a Mommy and Me yoga class.
"I felt like if I didn't buy them, they'd be headed to the landfill," she said.
In his book "Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night," historian Nicholas Rogers explains that it wasn't always this way.
In the years after World War II, he writes, children were still creating costumes out of old clothes in the attic and making themselves up as hobos or robbers by smudging burnt cork on their faces.
Store-bought costumes weren't widely available until the late '50s and early '60s, and even then they were simple affairs such as masks and witches hats. Rogers suggests that not until the '90s did the store-bought child's Halloween costume fully take off.
Since Rogers's book was published in 2002, temporary Halloween stores have proliferated, popping up every fall in abandoned Circuit Citys, Mervyn's storefronts and other defunct big-box locations.
The growth of Spirit Halloween, one of the largest of these seasonal chains, reflects the trend. The company opened its first Halloween store in 1983. By 1999, when it was bought by Spencer's, it was running 63 stores. By 2010, the company had more than 850 stores in North America.
In the face of this growth, Colwell-Lipson started Green Halloween in 2006. It was a response to the candy given out by the fistful, and the organization's website lists organic and sustainable candy, as well as candy alternatives such as polished rocks and feathers. Last year Colwell-Lipson took on costumes too, starting National Costume Swap Day.
National Costume Swap Day, held on Oct. 8 this year, is just as it sounds: Friends or strangers gather to trade costumes at stores, churches or other neighborhood spots. If you bring a costume, you get a costume. No money is exchanged, and no packaging is required.
"What's great about National Costume Swap Day is it brings into the conversation a lot of parents who don't consider themselves green, but want to save money," Colwell-Lipson said. She said 70 swaps had registered on her site, though yoga instructor Le Clear said nobody brought costumes to her swap. "I think people are still learning about it," she said.
ThredUp.com, an online community that allows parents to swap boxes of gently used clothing, sponsored its second Halloween costume swap this year. A representative for the company said the company had 500 swaps last year. This year the number has grown to more than 1,500.
In Silver Lake, the used-clothing store Grow Kid Grow is doing a brisk business in Halloween costumes, which sell for $5 to $15. Co-owners Jonathan Siegel and Missy Gibson said they put out fresh inventory every week.
On a recent Friday, Jessica Isaak, mother of a 14-month-old boy, was at the store to pick up a $5 miniature three-piece suit complete with clip-on tie and pocket square. Her plan was for her son's businessman Halloween costume also to serve as his outfit for a wedding.
"We try to do costumes that we can reuse in real life," she said.
Gibson said it's a refrain she frequently hears in her store. Last year a customer bought a blue '60s-style dress that was the main piece in her 2-year-old daughter's Halloween costume, Mia Farrow's character in "Rosemary's Baby."
"She wondered if it was too much," Gibson said, "but I told her it was great. And her daughter would wear the dress afterwards too."
Perhaps costumes like that will be the future of Halloween: creative and green — and still no sewing machine required.