A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since boomers donned costumes and ran door to door in pursuit of as much candy as they could possibly gather. It seemed a simpler time, yet whether kids made their own costumes or wore the manufactured masks and apron-like coverings that their parents bought, lurking beneath the costume practice was a fair measure of cultural insensitivity at best, bigotry at worst.
Costumes that did not on the surface seem objectionable then would not be acceptable now. The Boomer Generation appeared right after World War II, so boomer kids were not going to be wandering around the neighborhood dressed as Nazis, or in black face, either (at least in Mister B’s neck of the woods). Nonetheless, Japanese Geisha costumes, Mexican sombreros and mustaches, and most prevalent of all, “Indian” princess and hobo costumes, were fairly common.
Cartoons from the 1940s and earlier perpetuated cultural stereotypes, and boomers watched them on TV all the time. In movies and TV Westerns, Native Americans were portrayed as “the Indian problem,” and the villain. That is why, in Mister Boomer’s estimation, girls wore Native American costumes more than boys; the boys generally preferred to be the cowboy “good-guys.”
By the mid-1960s, though, hobo costumes were popular with both boys and girls, possibly because it was a fairly easy do-it-yourself project. Every house kept old clothes for rags, so ill-fitting, worn-out clothes were on hand. Old shoes and perhaps one of dad’s old hats were added to it. Grab a bandana or dishcloth to tie up “belongings” and slip the knot over a stick, and the costume — a direct interpretation from cartoons — was complete. In some case, moms would toast a cork over the stove flame and smudge it on the child’s cheeks to simulate dirt or a four-day beard.
The movies (like Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” vagrant) and cartoons, if anything, romanticized a life where men (almost exclusively) set campfires to warm cans of soup before hopping trains from town to town. In that stereotypical portrayal, the idea of a homeless person was lost.
Store-bought costumes held their own degree of cultural appropriation and insensitivity. Ben Cooper, Inc., was the largest manufacturer of kids’ costumes in the boomer years. The company was among the first to license cartoon and movie characters from their beginnings in the late 1930s. While the company, and others like Collegeville and Halco, produced TV character costumes that included Zorro, Donald Duck and Davy Crockett, they also made Lone Ranger’s sidekick, Tonto, and “squaw” costumes for little girls.
This year there is a continuing discussion concerning Disney’s Moana and Pocahontas costumes for little girls. While the girls want to picture themselves as Disney princesses, others see cultural disrespect and insensitivity to a distorted historical record. In fact, in 2016 Disney removed a costume based on the character Maui, from the Moana movie, from store shelves. The objections raised said the costume promoted “brown-facing.”
Recent events have produced dozens of stories of people in prominent positions who had more than a few skeletons in their Halloween closet, and the pictures to prove it. However, despite the record of insensitivity in the boomer years, Mister Boomer can’t help but notice that in this latest rash of revelations, the named offenders were not children at the time they made their costume choices, and were not of the Boomer Generation, but later generations. These revelations prove that we still have a ways to go to live up to boomer-era sentiments of, “C’mon people now/smile on your brother/everybody get together/try to love one another right now.”
How about it, boomers? Did you wear costumes 50 years ago that wouldn’t pass scrutiny today? How would you feel about your grandchildren wearing these types of costumes today?