So You’re Planning To Dress Up Like A Dead Celebrity This Halloween

Photo: Illustration by Tristan Offit.
When I was a little kid, my dad thought it was funny to dress me up like Elvis for Halloween. I had aviator sunglasses, a tiny white suit with glam embroidery, and a mini pompadour. I could sing "Suspicious Minds" on cue. Still can. True story.
Looking back, I'm not sure it would have occurred to my parents to wonder if maybe there was some reason why they shouldn't dress their child up like The King. At that point, he'd been dead for more than a decade. And while there was definitely a certain amount of irreverence in my getup, I don't imagine anyone would have thought it was disrespectful. Kitschy, sure. Still, I'd like to think Elvis Presley himself would have gotten a chuckle out of it.
The thing is, there aren't really any hard and fast rules to channeling an iconic celeb on All Hallow's Eve (or really, any other time of the year, for that matter). But when you see something that crosses the line from harmless insouciance to poor taste, you know it. So while I don't think setting the P.C. police loose on Halloween is the answer, I do believe that — if you're contemplating dressing up as a late icon — there are some worthwhile guidelines to consider.
Here is one: Don't dress up in a way that makes fun of a celebrity's death, especially if it was tragic. I remember once, in college, seeing some bro on campus who claimed to be the ghost of Kurt Cobain (so, like, wearing flannel). He was also sporting a gory bullet hole in his head, courtesy of surprisingly realistic stage makeup. Dressing up as someone's suicide is not okay. Someone else's personal tragedy is not for your Halloween consumption. Resist that impulse, even if it seems mildly creative for a hot minute.
Another thought along those lines: There's a difference between an homage and a mean-spirited caricature. Channeling that classic Marilyn Monroe in the white dress look? Let's call that a tribute. Shaving your head and going as Britney Spears' meltdown era? Yikes. To borrow from another Elvis song: Don't be cruel.

There's a difference between an homage and a mean-spirited caricature.

Also — and again, no definitive rules here — there might be something to the idea of waiting a couple years before putting on a costume that resurrects someone who has died relatively recently. Let that loss breathe a little. The year that Amy Winehouse passed, I was newly in New York City, on Halloween, and I went to a bar full of what appeared to be Amy Winehouse impersonators. (This is Brooklyn though, so you can't be too sure of who was in a costume and who was in their normal messy beehive hairdo.) There was a zombie Amy Winehouse costume that was memorable, in part because it was actually really beautiful, and also because the person wearing it clearly had an Amy crush and was just trying to add a little more of the beloved singer back into the world.
But at the same time, I thought: Is it possibly just too soon for Amy Winehouse to become someone's outfit? I don't actually have a credible answer to that — just a gut feeling that maybe we could have used a little buffer between her death and Halloween that year, even though they were months apart.
Which brings me to my final point: This Halloween, I think it's fair to guess that David Bowie and Prince — both iconic and top of mind in 2016 — will be making appearances at parties across the holiday-observing world. For those contemplating the decision to channel their inner Ziggy Stardust or the High Priest of Pop: I can only imagine those two would be thrilled to see themselves inspire myriad ensembles. Go forth in good faith.
But if you do decide you're going to don someone's identity for an evening, I think the most important thing to remember is that you you do so with a responsibility to someone's memory. People continue to exist in the world based on how they are represented by the living and breathing among us. So what are you going to contribute to that legacy? Use your gut — and answer that question for yourself.
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