The District of Columbia is the capital of the topical Halloween costume. Concepts can be ripped from the headlines; delve deeply into the arcana of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s headbands or hair clips or scrunchies and a Washingtonian will get it.
But something happened in 2011 that has stymied costume vendors and partygoers alike. Where are our Joe the Plumbers? Our demon sheep?
“This has been a very dead year as far as political stuff goes,” said Sandra Duraes, manager of Backstage, the Capitol Hill emporium. “We really don’t have Sarah Palin. Nobody’s asking for her.” Duraes spoke wistfully of 2008, when the Alaska governor burst onto the political scene just in time for Halloween celebrants to embrace her red suit, updo and spectacles.
The following Halloween saw a local boomlet for the Salahis, whose combo of sari-style dress and tux made for a no-frills, gate-crashing gag. And last year, ersatz Christine O’Donnells took to their brooms alongside bands of Chilean miners roaming the pumpkin-strewn sidewalks.
In 2011, however, the political gloom lies too heavily across the land, according to Ron Faucheux, a local pollster who surveyed 1,000 Americans and found that they would rather dress as Lady Gaga or the Geico Caveman than Palin or President Obama.
“There’s so much negativity. There’s so much money. There’s so much polarization that it’s not something that people can step away from as easily and poke fun at,” said Faucheux, who was surprised by the results.
In this grim year, satirical minds recoil at all the touchy subjects. “A few people asked for Arnold Schwarzenegger masks,” said Duraes, wanly, since the Governator’s travails summon thoughts of his wife’s heartache. Charlie Sheen’s excesses have been drained of their mirth, like a hangover. (And yet, what the heck, his glasses and various goddess-y accouterments are still selling at Spirit Halloween on Wisconsin Avenue, according to retailer Tyisha Kirby.)
As for happier allusions, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and Beyonce Knowles added baby bumps to their almost spectral silhouettes, though many women balk at the immodest challenge of impersonating such glamazons. Then there are Capitol Hill exhibitionists, such as former representatives Chris Lee and Anthony Weiner, but to do them justice (or injustice), impersonators need similar corporal assets. Otherwise, the joke is on you. (Advisory for those doing SEAL Team 6: Months of push-ups are more important than camo fatigues.)
Scanning the world headlines is hardly fruitful. Anything related to Japan’s cascading catastrophes is as funny as cesium-induced organ failure. Dictators had a bad year, but could anyone draw laughs as Hosni Mubarak, wheeled around in a bed-cage? Duraes has seen a run on black curly wigs and mustaches, in service to Moammar Gaddafi get-ups, but the Libyan despot was hard to look at in his last cruel hours, and Duraes said that customers have amended the look to make it more pop-culty: “They’re doing zombie Gaddafi.”
On the political stage, neither Obama nor House Speaker John A. Boehner is a study in sartorial outrage. But one suggestion has emerged: Pair up with a friend and portray them with golf garb and cigarettes.
As for the colorful phalanx of possible Republican presidential contenders, each choice is fraught. A Rick Perry could include standard J.R. Ewing suits or could go chaps-and-Carhartt, but it still needs one identifying gag, and the obvious reference to his hunting camp compounds the bigotry. A Chris Christie costume is that same tired fat joke. Either Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman Jr. could be portrayed like the clean-cut, short-sleeved missionaries in “The Book of Mormon,” which could be this year’s pregnant nun.
For Romney, Holly Shulman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party suggested “Millionaire Mitt,” with a visual cue from the archives: “There’s an infamous picture of Mitt Romney displaying dollar bills with some Bain Capital colleagues.” By “displaying,” she means protruding from all the pockets of his pinstripe suit.
It’s hard to be a recognizable Michele Bachmann since she wears vividly colored power-suits like so many Washington women.
“Wait, how about Herman Cain?” asked Eric Schaeffer, the Signature Theatre co-founder and artistic director, thinking bigger than the expected pizza boxes and black-walnut ice cream tubs. “He could have three curtains on his chest. Behind each curtain is a nine.” Or do his viral-video-famous aide Mark Block, suggested Mark Rozzo, an editor at Town and Country magazine in New York: “Bad eyeglasses, mustache and cigarette. Done!”
This city is known for twisting difficult concepts into an entire semiotics study of visual cues. Unemployment was hailed through the donning of pink slips from Victoria’s Secret. The Bureau of Printing and Engraving’s contributions during the fiscal crisis was celebrated through Monopoly money costumes.
But how does one depict a debt ceiling? Or American exceptionalism?
“I have to pass on that,” Schaeffer said. Arab Spring? “These are hard ones.” Buffett tax? “You can cover yourself in dollar bills and have the Buffett glasses on. Like a mummy.”
Hearing the names Steve Jobs and Elizabeth Taylor, Schaeffer threw up his hands. “Because they’re dead people and it’s too soon, and you can’t embrace them and salute them at Halloween,” he said, noting that he has switched his annual Halloween party to Christmas this year. “This is why I don’t dress up for Halloween. I put a witch hat on and get a cocktail in your hand, and that’s enough.”
In years past, political figures have been known to dress up as a sexy cat (Michelle Obama) or a non-sexy Underdog (Al Gore). The man whom Christine O’Donnell defeated in the GOP primary, then-Delaware Rep. Mike Castle, turned some heads on Capitol Hill by donning a convincing Frankenstein costume. In 2008, puckish political reporters teased the GOP ticket they were following by sporting baseball jerseys that read “Major League A’s” on the front and “Big Time” on the back, in tribute to Dick Cheney and George W. Bush’s live-mike slam of a Fourth Estater.
Going wonky and witty at the same time is another of those classic Washingtonian bargains, where one false note could tip the balance. Will any yoga-themed costume arouse uncomfortable feelings about the Lululemon killing? Is it appropriate to let a child dress as Michael Jackson’s doctor?
And what if clever curdles? Celebrants, who requested anonymity so as not to be excluded from future guest lists, reported costumes such as Twitter dashboards, fuzzy math, soft money, Harriet Miers, “General Betray-us,” the War on Christmas. Suffice it to say that each was rather involved. Crudites at one death-themed party a few years back were called “Persistent Vegetative Plate.” A fur-draped woman dragging baby dolls from her heels was No Child Left Behind. One “Cloudy With a Chance of Showers” actually ran into another, in a Halloween perfect storm.
In the end, there’s a standby mask that is both recognizable and available. “Nixon’s always a seller for some reason,” said Duraes, of Backstage. “He’s like a werewolf.”