On Oct. 28, 2003, college sophomore Rob Morris faced a conundrum familiar to many young men: With just a few days to find the perfect Halloween costume, he couldn't come up with anything inspired. In search of an idea, he wandered into the room of one of his female housemates.
"I walked into her room, and she always had piles of clothes," Morris, a 23-year-old native of Wilmington, Ohio, said. "And I noticed in one of the piles were some more risqué clothes -- and I picked up a slip or something and asked her what it was. She said it was for her Halloween costume, and she was going as a dominatrix."
Morris and his housemate, both physics majors, soon decided they would match costumes and go out to parties together for Halloween as dominatrixes -- a costume play on the plural of the math term "matrix."
Morris went to a local costume store, purchasing fishnets, a mesh top, a mini-skirt and -- to complete the ensemble -- a pair of cherry-red stiletto heels, in size 11.
That Halloween eve he put on the get-up and had a great time.
"Girls can play dress-up so often, but guys, they're not allowed," Morris said. "I think there's a strong need to hide in a sphere of masculinity. When you're a guy, this is a chance to step outside that."
The idea that Halloween is a chance for girls to dress promiscuously and let down their sexual inhibitions is an idea satirized by the popular 2004 comedy "Mean Girls" and written about in papers ranging from college dailies to The New York Times. Girls in high school and young women in college all over the country can turn any drab outfit into a "sexy" costume by shortening the hem and increasing the cleavage -- or by sometimes forgoing clothes altogether and wearing only lingerie.
"We all have the urge to display ourselves once in a while," said Stanley Brandes, a professor of cultural social anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley. "When you are participating in a ritual activity [like Halloween], you have a little more freedom and can display in a way that is not a normal compartment. It wouldn't be transferred to some completely inappropriate space and time."
But women are not the only ones taking advantage of the costuming holiday to throw off social morés for a night. Like Morris, many men use the opportunity to step outside the "sphere of masculinity," something that has a historical background as well.
"In 18th and 19th century Europe, there were masquerade balls with lots of cross-dressing," said Valerie Steele, director of the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and author of several books on fashion, including "The Corset: A Cultural History."
"Swapping clothes, both for men and women was profoundly titillating, especially in Paris and London. It was something that was done all the time."
The history of "playing" in others' clothes still exists in Europe. At same-sex schools in Britain, said Steele, cross-dressing happens in the theater as well as on the increasingly popular Halloween.
And while the tradition of Halloween is growing in Europe, the relaxed European attitude toward cross-dressing seems to have reached the United States.