Costumes are a big part of Halloween, which is a favorite American autumn pseudo holiday. I say pseudo because it’s not a legal holiday and no one gets the day off from their job. Well, wait. I know of at least one exception. I once worked with a woman who called herself a witch. The good kind, of course. She insisted on taking Halloween off, but would not take other, more common religious holidays. Management let her. You go, Paty.
As I was saying. Halloween is a favorite American day and night of silly costumes, rustling in the dark, parties, and candy. Little children parade around in costumes at school, teachers dress up, and everywhere you go that day, you’ll find people doing their usual jobs wearing a costume. Or at least a silly hat. I myself am wearing my royal crown today. (No, I didn’t get it at Burger King. Mine is plastic, not paper.) Then there’s the trick or treating, where young children go door to door to have their costumes admired and receive candy. And finally, there are the parties. Bobbing for apples, going on hayrides, and playing games, plus costume contests.
Adults hold costume parties that often are rowdy. Masquerade balls have always been a staple of high society, which does not mean that proper behavior was the rule. To the contrary; being in disguise tends to bring out the wildness in people. And of course in Venice and other Italian cities, the pre-Lent period of Carnival was traditionally a time for disguising oneself in a domino, an all-enveloping, loose cloak with a mask. Such masks have frequently covered up a lot of adultery and thuggery. You’ll still see characters wearing dominos in operas taking place prior to the 20th century. Mardi Gras in New Orleans continues the tradition of religiously-linked costumed revelry in North America, and Carnival in Rio de Janeiro is the longest. Bottom line, all of these masquerades involve frisky goings on.
But for romance characters, the masquerade is a more purposeful event. Scared-but-excited heroines dare to be seen in revealing witch costumes à la Elvira, or strapless Wonder Woman uniforms, or short-skirted sexy nurse outfits (no orthopedic shoes allowed), or Princess Leia the Slave Girl metal bikinis. Why do heroines do it? Mostly in hopes of losing their inhibitions for just one night. Of being the belle of the ball. Of attracting attention as they never have felt comfortable dealing with in their regular lives. Do they get in trouble? You bet. Most romance heroines who wear sexy costumes attract exactly the kind of attention they can’t handle. And it all goes downhill from there. The virginal heroine suddenly has to make good on her slutty costume. Or run away from the handsome hero who takes her naughty wrapper for her real personality. It makes for a lot of fun in a romance. (Maybe not so much fun in real life if the outrageous costume is taken too seriously.) Flirting with a dangerous-looking man who’s dressed as a vampire could turn into an erotic encounter with a real vampire. And then, the masquerade ends and the heroine has to live with the consequences of her behavior.
But romance heroines aren’t behaving a lot differently from regular office workers. Every year, the media carries stories of how managers need to outline in advance what costumes are acceptable at offices on Halloween. And send employees home to change if they don’t adhere to the dress code. Still, there’s always somebody who learns the hard way that a stripper outfit is not suitable office attire.
Although heroes in romances usually dress in romantic costumes like knights or pirates, cross dressing can have its romantic side. Check out Georgette Heyer’s classic historical romance, The Masqueraders. Published in 1928, this is a romantic tale of a sister and brother who are hiding in plain sight in London society after the 1745 rebellion in Scotland. Their method? Switching genders. It’s a delightful comedy of manners that at the same time is extremely romantic.
Today we’re more likely to see a hero or heroine as a spy in disguise, with romance not part of the original plan. The amazing part is when the female agent manages to pull micro-sized weapons out of her extremely tight or almost nonexistent costume. She’ll bemuse the competitive co-agent, entrap the lustful villain, and fulfill her mission despite the seeming impossibility of even moving in her costume.
But there’s another kind of masquerade that is common in romances that does not involve Halloween or a grand ball. It’s the classic makeover. A hitherto-dowdy heroine gets a good wardrobe, a good haircut, and a chance to shine in her social sphere. And she makes the most of it, at first masquerading as a more confident woman. Then becoming one. Romances featuring this kind of situation are too numerous to cite specifically, but we’ve all read them. They can range from the simple country girl goes to town plot to a marriage or engagement of convenience, to any other plot device that requires that a modest-dressing heroine suddenly breaks out into a sexy new look. Sometimes, though, authors go overboard trying to establish a contrast. In Emilie Loring’s In Times Like These, the heroine is wearing mourning before she gets her new outfit. Mourning! In 1968! I don’t think so. Still, the heroine duly receives a Brand New Outfit, which makes her feel like a new woman and restores her feminine self-confidence. Not to mention makes the hero fall for her.
And that’s the point of all this disguising. Regardless of the reason for running around Rio or New Orleans in a costume, the purpose of costumes in a romance is romance.