What Do Halloween Costumes Say?

This lesson, adaptable across grades, can help students think critically about the ways Halloween costumes are marketed and how certain costumes perpetuate stereotypes. For school Halloween celebrations, the activity can be used to develop guidelines for acceptable costumes.
Grade Level


At the end of the lesson, students will be able to:  

  • critically examine stereotypes and biases in visual media promoting Halloween costumes.  
  • practice listening and speaking strategies to contribute to group and class discussions.  
  • apply key skills and strategies of the writing process to write about costumes worn for Halloween. 
Essential Questions
  • Are there any ways in which a Halloween costume might represent something hurtful or harmful to people’s ideas or feelings? 
  • Why might it be important to carefully review and analyze Halloween costumes before purchasing or deciding to wear one?
  • Enduring Understandings:
    • Halloween costumes are designed for fun, but some costumes perpetuate stereotypes or reinforce limited and/or hurtful ways of thinking about people. 
    • Analyzing the messages that a Halloween costume can reveal harmful ideas beneath the playful surface
  • Copies of Halloween costume catalogues, printouts of product pages from the internet, or access to catalogue websites, such as Party City. Note: If class time is limited, select pages of a catalog showing a variety of costumes for student analysis or ask students to bring in pictures from catalogs ahead of time.


  • appropriate [ap-pro-pre-ate] (verb) to take something for one's own use, typically without the owner's permission. (from The Oxford English Dictionary
  • costume [kos-toom] (noun) a style of dress, including accessories and hairdos, especially of styles peculiar to a nation, region, group, or historical period, character, or famous person 
  • gender identity [jen-dur eye-dent-uh-tee] (noun) how you feel as a boy, girl, both or neither (from Welcoming Schools)
  • Halloween [hal-uh-ween] (noun) a secular holiday on the evening October 31 (the day before the Christian holiday known as All Saints' Day), observed especially by children wearing costumes who ask for s treats, sometimes along with threatening minor pranks.  
  • stereotype  [ster-ee-uh-type] (noun) an oversimplified, unfair belief that people have particular characteristics or are the same


Suggested Procedure

1.  Ask students to describe Halloween costumes they have worn in the past, or to describe costumes they've seen others wear. Ask: “How do you think people select their Halloween costumes?” Divide students into groups of six. Ask them to analyze a Halloween costume catalogue for each of the elements listed below. Assist students by applying guidelines for their small group work, as needed.  

  • Category: Ask students to review the types of costumes for sale. Have them note categories, including these: animals; types of workers (firefighter, doctor, etc.); consumer brands (i.e., "Star Wars" or "Ninja Turtles"); superheroes; fairy tale roles (i.e. "princess" or "prince"); violent or military costumes (i.e. "G.I."); death and evil creatures (i.e. "the Grim Reaper" or "Devilish Barbie."); others. Note: Costumes can fall into more than one category.  
  • Gender representation: Ask questions like, “Based on the pictures of models and the names of the costumes, which costumes appear to be intended for boys/men, for girls/women or for all?” 
  • Racial or ethnic representation: Ask questions like, “Based on the pictures of models, do certain costumes appear to be intended for white children or for children of color? Do any of the costumes represent a specific racial or ethnic group? “ 
  • Age representation: Ask questions like, “Based on the costumes' sizes, which appear to be intended for infants, toddlers, young children, young adults and/or adults?” 
  • Appropriation: Define the word "appropriate" for students. Tell them that for Halloween, sometimes people take things from other cultures to use as costumes. Give an example of something that you have seen someone dress up as that does not come from their culture. Ask students for other examples from the catalogue or from their own experience. Have them share with a partner how they might feel if they saw someone dress up as something important to their culture, religion, beliefs or family.

2.  Highlight or place check marks next to the costumes in the ad that students have pointed out. Construct a large graph from butcher paper with the names of those costumes listed at the top.  On the left-hand side of the graph, list each of the five elements from above. Guide the whole class, starting with the first costume, to report on their findings about each specific costume. Record responses on the chart.  

3.  Encourage students to discover and explain the patterns emerging between the costumes. For example: “Animal costumes are intended almost exclusively for infants and toddlers”; “Only a few of the photographs depict models of color”; “Costumes portraying Asian culture tend to promote subservience or violence, depending on gender”;  “There are a lot of 'princess' costumes for girls/women.” Ask students, "How might you feel if you identify as a girl but want options other than princess?" "How might someone who identifies as neither a boy nor a girl feel about these categories?" 

4.  Introduce the concept of a “stereotype” to the class. Discuss the following questions: “What kinds of stereotypes do these costumes promote about boys and girls? About people of color? About people of different ages?” As a class, brainstorm a list of ways to identify stereotypes represented in Halloween costumes—and pledge to think about this list in selecting costumes to wear at school or at home.

Common Core State Standards: ELA-Literacy. CCRA. R.1; W.1; W.2; W.4; Sl.1; SL.2; SL.3; SL.4; SL.5.


Extension Activity

1.  Guide students as a whole group to write a class letter to parents and guardians sharing what the class learned and asking families for their support. Send copies of the letter home with students.

2.  In schools where Halloween is observed, write and deliver a similar letter to other classrooms, for a student audience, or write an editorial or story for the school newspaper. Students also can present their findings to other classrooms or in a school-wide assembly. 

3.  Subject Activities

  • Math: Students can apply basic concepts of statistics and data analysis by selecting methods to represent and describe patterns revealed in the class-generated graph or chart. For example, students might select pie charts as a way to display a disproportionate representation of male models in violent costumes.
  • Social Justice: Invite the class to write letters to the editor of local newspapers, expanding their sphere of influence beyond their own school, and/or to the catalogue publisher.
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