Legally Blonde. Mean Girls. Bridget Jones’s Diary. What do all three of these films have in common? Aside from being hugely popular with teenage girls and women alike, each movie contains a scene in which a key character dresses up as a Playboy bunny at Halloween. For those unfamiliar with this concept, the outfit was first introduced by the Hefner Playboy industry which required women working in its clubs to wear a tight corset, a pom pom tail, and bunny ears as a uniform.

Originating over 2,000 years ago, it is likely the Celtic inventors of Samhain would be struck with Halloween-like horror if they saw our contemporary traditions of their once-religious festival. But how did an evening celebrating fertility and harvest become — to quote Cady Heron of Mean Girls — ‘the one time a year when a girl can dress like a total slut, and no other girls can say anything about it’? And what does it reveal about society throughout history?

Halloween is how old?

Far from the trick-or-treating celebrations of today, the roots of Halloween date back to the inhabitants of the UK, Ireland, and Northern France in 100 BC. The festival of Samhain took place at the end of the harvest season and symbolised Pagan belief in the convergence of the physical and spirit worlds. It was also during this time that fancy dress was popularised. Families would dress as animals and monsters to prevent themselves from being kidnapped by fairies from the mythical world. Sound vaguely familiar?

Yet it was during the Christianisation of England in the 10th Century that the etymology and traditions of Halloween became more widely popularised. Simhain became ‘All-Hallows’ and the day before it was named ‘All Hallows Eve.’ During this time and throughout the following hundreds of years, poor people would visit wealthier families to receive ‘soul cakes’ in return for a prayer made to the ancestors of the house.

In another religious sense, All Hallows Day came to mark an occasion when people prayed for the dead, but also for fertility — referring back to the origins of Samhain. It was during these fertility prayers that boy choristers would be dressed up as the Virgin Mary, beginning the initial tradition of dressing up. However, playboy bunnies and haunted houses were nowhere to be seen … yet.

Trick or Treating on the Rise

It was in the 18th Century when the Halloween that we recognise today fully came into being. A popular Robert Burns poem instructed Victorian England on throwing a successful Halloween party, playing on the 18th and 19th-Century obsession with ghosts, ghouls and spirits. The poem is set in rural Scotland and describes a rugged world alien to many of its readers. And so, Halloween became a night recognised by an aura of mystery and fear of the unknown.

Then, Halloween chaos descended. An influx of Irish immigrants to America in the 19th Century widely popularised the celebration and led to the introduction of Halloween pranks, parades, and generally antisocial behaviour. Tensions with local authorities peaked in the 1930s when trick-or-treaters swarmed the streets and a Purge-like sentiment of lawlessness swept across cities. The first piece of Halloween-restricting legislation was published in Baltimore in 1930, banning the use of masks and weapons in an attempt to control the celebration. This launched the birth of Halloween parties; the adult alternative to knocking on doors and collecting sweets.

A Playboy Revolution

Fast forward to the 2000s and Halloween for the young adult symbolises house raves, heavy drinking, and a scandalous costume. The popularisation of seemingly sexy Halloween costumes is credited to the sexual revolution of the 1970s and the strong wave of feminism in the 1990s. Parades returned in the form of LQBTQ+ Halloween celebrations which celebrated self-expression and female sexual empowerment.

But it all took off with Hugh Hefner and his glamorous Playboy mansion and girlfriends. Designed in 1960 for the women working in the Playboy clubs, the overtly sexual outfit became symbolic of Hefner’s sexual exploitation of young women and the sordid lives they were forced to live while under his employment.

In an attempt to reclaim power after the fall of the company, the Playboy bunny became the newest trend in Halloween costumes. With the decline of traditional ‘scary’ outfits, the tendency to dress up as anyone else has become common — hence the increasing popularity of Donald Trump wigs. Ironically, women now walk the streets on the 31st of October to flaunt their defiance of conservative social norms; a sign to the world that no one will own their sexual behaviour again.

Halloween 2023 is a far stretch from the fertility festival of the Middle Ages and a shocking transformation of the innocent Soul Cake collections of Victorian times. Still, the Playboy popularisation of Halloween is a powerful and meaningful reflection of the liberal society in which we live. Our Samhain ancestors should be proud.

By An Mei Rawlings

DISCLAIMER: The articles on our website are not endorsed by, or the opinions of Shout Out UK (SOUK), but exclusively the views of the author.