“Kids are a lot harder about gender roles than adults,” Erin Armstrong tells me as we stand in the vast lower level of Ricky’s at 375 Broadway, a few blocks below Canal. Armstrong, who is rail thin and has pink hair, is the manager of Ricky’s newest store, the lower level of which is devoted year-round to costumes. “It’s easier for girls—it’s more acceptable to be a tomboy than a sissy.”
I’ve come to Ricky’s to talk to the staff because it’s Halloween, and since I’m no fun at all, I have been worrying about sexual stereotyping in costumes—so many sluts versus superheroes, vixens versus vampires. Is it just me, or are buxom lassies and virile jerks pretty much the order of the day? Are they being worn, at least in some cases, without the sufficient dollop of irony? In short, are we heading back to the 1950s, at least costume-wise?
My mounting distress is further fueled by a recent TV commercial featuring an annoying little boy zooming around in a Tonka truck, the centerpiece of an ad campaign with the ungrammatical tag line, “Tonka Toys . . . Built for Boyhood! After All, Boys Are Built Different!” (What, girls don’t drive? Where are we, Saudi Arabia?) Then, a few days later, I walk past the windows of Toys “R” Us and am treated to the nauseating sight of the Disney Enchanted Talking Kitchen. It seems that this item, which is being ministered to on the box by a pair of miniature fairy princesses, offers an oven that lights up and chats. (But what does it say? “Read Susan Faludi”?) Exploring further, I find myself in the Barbie department, and knowing that this doll is usually gainfully employed, I check to see what she’s up to lately, and I find out that she continues to be attracted to ill-paying professions like baby photographer, pet sitter, art teacher, and ballet teacher. Her best bet is a job that Mattel coyly calls baby doctor.
I believe this occupation usually goes by a different name. In fact, it’s the very job held by Dr. Willy Phister, whose costume is available at Ricky’s, right next to the enema-nurse outfit. (Hey, Barbie, thought about that career option?)
As it turns out, Ricky’s is the perfect place to air my gender-bias concerns, since, according to Todd Kenig, the guy in charge of costumes, the store has had to struggle with various fuddy-duddy companies to get what it wants. “I told the costume people, ‘You should make a guy tooth fairy!’ They say, ‘Wal-Mart won’t buy that.'” Kenig, who is the brother of the iconic Ricky himself, continues, “The costume people are weird—they’re not as hip as you’d think. I have to push them. It’s always, ‘Is Target gonna buy it?’ Now that Ricky’s is bigger, we can order 400 or 500 of a costume ourselves.”
Which is perhaps why Ricky’s has recently found companies willing to make up Kenig’s two favorite new options: “This year we made Rehab Reject jumpsuits—on the back it says, ‘Intervention My Ass!’ And we did Astronut—messed-up hair and a diaper!”
Ricky’s actually got into the costume business pretty much by accident. A friend of the owners wanted a giant Frankenstein for his lawn (don’t ask why), but the monster-character company had a $5,000 minimum. So the guy bought Frankie for $2,000 and Ricky’s ordered $3,000 worth of costumes, pretty much on a lark. They flew out of the store.
Kenig says he thinks Ricky’s was instrumental in bringing change to the costume business. Even five years ago, the market was overstuffed with Dracula, witches—your standard Halloween fare—until, says Kenig, “we started bringing in sexy. We saw our customers’ needs.” These needs apparently evolved swiftly from basic boas and man-sized fishnets to full-scale getups reminiscent of the outfits in the famous Beach Blanket Babylon show (it’s in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City), in which the entire San Francisco skyline balances on a hat.
Unfortunately, the life-size Hollywood-style superhero statues Kenig has ordered for decoration haven’t arrived yet—”Catwoman, too!” he says in a bow to my gender concerns. So we content ourselves with weaving around the costumes, a startling number of which resemble fairly closely what people on the street outside are actually wearing. (Hey, we’re in lower Manhattan.) There’s a Harajuku girl ensemble that looks disconcertingly like what I have on, and a Psychedelic Suzy ensemble that consists of an Op Art jumpsuit. When I ask to see the beatnik costumes, Kenig shakes his head, then says that’s a good idea—a French beret, a cigarette holder—”but would anybody know what that was supposed to be now?”
This sets me reeling—I mean, “Beatific Soul: Jack Kerouac on the Road” opens at the New York Public Library on November 9, and I’m pretty excited about it—but my nerves are calmed by the outfits greeting me at every turn: life-size Peeps, Wheaties boxes, infant-size M&Ms (at least food is
gender-blind). As we wend our way upstairs, I silently ponder which is more offensive: the yarmulke and prayer shawl meant for a doggie, or the bloody hands and feet Saran-Wrapped and ready for the meat counter?
We pass quickly by the stuff meant for people who want to signify that they know it’s Halloween while making as little effort as possible—a red T-shirt that says “Devil”; a set of cat ears—and stop to admire a black pinstriped gangster suit. Does it come with the machine gun in the picture? “Oh, no,” Kenig says, reminding me of the New York City law that makes selling a toy gun that looks like a real gun illegal; it has to be painted a frankly fake color.
OK, perfect! I think. Even the toughest gangster will have to pack a pink gun.