Boys Will Be Girls ... for Halloween

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.

"I've always thought that Halloween was the only time that men were allowed to show their feminine side," said Frankie Stein, owner of Frankie Steinz costumes, a popular costume rental store in Manhattan. "Half of the men that come in want to do something like that -- wear high heels and wigs and things."

And some do it well before the liberating days of college.

In his freshman year of high school, John Chernin, a 23-year-old native of Los Angeles, was Xena, the Amazon princess from the television show "Xena: Warrior Princess," for Halloween.

"It was a whole costume -- a big plastic bust, a wig, a skirt and a sword," Chernin said. "I looked terrible. I looked so terrible."

But the costume was a hit, and Chernin wore it all day at school, earning a spot in the last round of the annual costume competition.

For both Morris and Chernin, their foray into women's clothing was a part of a joke or a spoof, themes that bring levity and commonly accompany costume cross-dressing.

"We think and feel that these things are all fun and games," said Deborah Tolman, a professor of sexuality studies at San Francisco University. "But in the end there's a substantive meaning in what we do. Most of the time we're not aware of it -- it's the way we work."

Just as women use the holiday to act out the forbidden roles of a Playboy bunny or a scantily clad teacher, men can use the opportunity to cross gender boundaries.

"Part of what Halloween is, is getting to try on what you're not -- you're not a witch, you're not a devil," Tolman said. "We can go into these taboo parts of our society, and for men, that's dressing up as women -- men aren't supposed to want to be women."

Brandes agreed.

"What makes it safe is that rituals are bounded occasions, bounded by space and time, the neighborhood and party, by the date, by the evening hours. So there's nothing very seriously threatening to becoming a member of the opposite sex or gender, because everyone understands that it's a break from normal routine and that you'll return to your usual role after that," he said.

Both scholars agred, however, that it's a phenomenon that often does not crop up until after puberty and adolescence, when boys have become comfortable enough with their masculinity to experiment and bend the rules.

Despite the fun he had, Morris was adamant that it was not something he would ever feel comfortable doing outside of the holiday.

"I would feel adversity to dressing up as a woman in another part of the year," he said. "I only bust out the stockings once a year."