I would imagine that this year, we won’t be able to swing a dead cat without hitting someone dressed as Lady GaGa. Personally, I’m thrilled–how often do you get to see a bunch of kids running around wearing gyroscope hats? But when I was a wee lass, the requirement was to dress as the original Halloween Queen. And while the story in the following post may not seem to be conventionally scary or gory, believe me, there is nothing scarier to a seven-year-old girl than wearing the wrong costume. There just isn’t.
I looked in the mirror. It was just as I’d suspected.
I didn’t look anything like her.
“Mom, she doesn’t wear purple button down shirts,” I pleaded, my sparring partner clearly not in the mood to negotiate. “She wears dresses and lace and bracelets and her hair has mousse in it. A lot of mousse. Like, way more mousse than I have now. I don’t think you put any in!”
“Yes I did. A lot.”
“No you didn’t! My hair isn’t even crunchy. It should crunch.”
I was definitely reducing my negotiation tactics down to some serious desperation. But the issue was dying, and my attempts at a whiny kind of CPR were proving extremely futile.
“Dana, it’s this or nothing. Over my dead body you’ll look like her.”
“Mom, I’m supposed to be her for Halloween, so I have to look like her! Exactly like her! Can’t I at least wear three, no, two black jelly bracelets?”
“No,” she snapped, in her unmistakable “case closed” tone.
There I stood, sickened by the sight of my reflection in the mirror, powerless to change it. A jean skirt that fell below the knee. The purple button-down oxford buttoned all the way up—untucked. A metallic belt over the shirt that might as well have had “1972” embossed all over it. A pair of high top sneakers …in white. And hair that was nowhere near stiff or crunchy enough, swept up in a side ponytail, held in place with a banana clip.
This was going to suck so hard.
It was 1985 and I was seven. The requisite Halloween costume for all girls everywhere that year was universally understood and was not up for debate. There simply was not another thing to be for Halloween. I begged and bargained for months, terrified that if I showed up as anything but Her, I would Amishly shunned for the rest of the year. The planet would have imploded if I were forced to be the lone Mary Lou Retton. The Cyndi Lauper. Or, God forbid, the Clara Peller. But in the costume I was being sent to school in, it didn’t matter—no one was going to know I was Her without an explanation. Your costume should do the talking for you, but mine didn’t. Mine had taken a vow of silence.
I looked nothing like Madonna.
I got to school, and my worst fear was realized. Every little girl in that room had me beat by a mile in jelly bracelets, lace, mousse, and makeup. She was everywhere but in me. Madonnas on my left, Madonnas on my right, and the one in the middle is…
“What are you supposed to be?” I was asked for the fifth time in three minutes.
“You look nothing like her.”
I had to stand my ground. There was no way I could acknowledge that I knew I looked nothing like her. Then it would have appeared to everyone who meant anything to me that I let my mom run my life. Big second grade no-no. So I spat out the only comeback that immediately came to mind.
The lace drenched diva continued. “She doesn’t wear white LA Gear high tops. And she wears jelly bracelets. And does your hair even have mousse in it?”
“Yeah, my mom said it does.”
“Does it crunch?” Damn! I knew this was going to be key.
“No, but, so? I’m still Madonna.”
“How can you be Madonna if you don’t look like her?”
“I just can. Besides, you don’t look like her either. She’d never wear a t-shirt under her wedding dress.”
Mini Madonna #5 smarted, turned on her jelly shoe, and walked away in a huff. Suddenly, the last thing in the world that I thought was supposed to mean anything now meant everything.
Being Madonna had nothing to do with my actual costume or how I looked at all.
It wasn’t in what I was wearing. Being Madonna was about something else, something I couldn’t slip into or paint on in tangible terms. It was more about an attitude and an assuredness and there was suddenly a big difference between “who” and “what” I was for Halloween.
Halloween is a wish, a subconscious desire to be a “who” just as much as a “what.” As seven-year-old girls, we wanted to “be” “Madonna”, and at the time it did just seem to be all about the clothes. We thought that by throwing on a tattered wedding dress and leggings the costume would stop there. But it didn’t. It really was more the desire to be what we thought was cool, now, happening, revered. We wanted to be edgy, striking, noticeable. We wanted the boys to stare with the intensity they usually only reserved for baseball cards. We wanted to stop traffic—even as children nowhere near mature enough to understand what that meant. We just knew we wanted to emulate everything she was. And Madonna put a concrete look to all our concepts of cool and our wishes to become them. We wanted to slip into the whole persona—if only for that day.
That being said, Madonna herself is the Halloween Queen, and it’s beyond obvious that she revels in playing dress up. She loves inhabiting characters and cloaking her person in a persona. Her career could be mapped out in outfits just as recognizably as albums. Ask any Gen-X woman or gay man which album went with the wedding dress and “Boy Toy” belt and they would immediately be able to answer Like a Virgin. She slipped in and out of looks as her music slipped in and out of styles. In her history of costumes and adopted looks, we’ve seen the Warhol-era party staple, the Peron-era power player, and the Chopra-era enlightened spiritualist. She’s done the Geisha Girl, the Cowgirl, and the Disco Girl. She was a master of the vamp, the tramp, and the retro camp. But behind her masks, beneath her hats, and under her clothes, who was she trying to show us she really was, and more importantly, what did she want us to understand about the woman and the life behind the look? With each reinvention, there was always a difference between her mere “looks” and her specific costumes and fully-fledged personas. The looks showed us she had one kick ass stylist. But the costumes and personas showed us something else entirely, a desire to notice the person under the flashy fabric. And to recognize that the person in there was letting us in on a little secret—sometimes we’re at our most naked when we’re wearing costumes.
In a brief 1983 interview on American Bandstand, Dick Clark asked Madonna what she wanted to do next. A look of coyness mixed with superhuman ambition came over her face. She bit her lip and said, without hesitation, “To rule the world.” She didn’t disappoint. But for that initial goal she needed drive. She needed street smarts. She needed mystique, intrigue, and enigmatic pull. She needed poise. She needed the wild abandon of a party girl. She needed calm and serenity. And let’s face it—the woman needed old-fashioned balls.
The costumes were just gravy. Because try as she may have to disguise herself, and try on a character and personality she wanted to inhabit if only for the time it takes to promote an album, we still knew that what lay beneath and supplied the pulse to her astounding success was something so powerful, so magical, so otherworldly we had no choice but to pay attention and recognize her every time, regardless of each new disguise. The elaborate versions of funny nose glasses were a nice try, but no dice.
We’d know her anywhere.