Nothing is more evocative of Halloween than pumpkins, black cats, and skeletons. Should you want to dress up for maximum effect this season, consider that nobody looks good in a pumpkin outfit and only certain, lovely shaped bodies should go out as cat women. For most of us, that leaves skeletons, which not only allows us to reveal our inner selves but also to reenact a bit of history.
Frescos, paintings, and woodcuts depicting dancing skeletons appeared in the 15th century. There were many of them, so they must have been popular. Artists portrayed royalty and commoners cavorting with corpses and skeletons to remind the living of life’s fragility and the inevitability and universality of death. This allegorical genre became known as danse macabre—dance of death.
Over the following centuries, many musicians adopted the theme, the most famous of which was Camille Saint-Saens’ symphonic poem by the same name. It prominently features the xylophone to simulate the dancers’ rattling bones.
The descriptions so far are representations of skeletons dancing, sometimes naked, sometimes clothed. Far less well documented is the converse—live people dressing up as skeletons. One early depiction comes from an 1831 French lithograph titled the Political Carnival. (Any resemblance to current affairs is purely coincidental.)
Another representation appeared in 1896 newspapers, only weeks after the discovery of X-rays. The article notes that a reigning beauty showed up to a ball in Munich wearing “…a watered silk skirt and close-fitting basque, upon which had been deftly painted the principal bones of the human frame. The ribs, collar bones, arms, thigh bones and spine were outlined in black upon the white background. The idea was not carried above the neck, nor below the knees, and a pair of roguish eyes peeped through a satin mask. The whole thing was dainty in its conception and execution.” At about the same time came the costume depicted above in the lower right, certainly not dainty, from Tibet. A Buddhist monk danced in it to illustrate the impermanence of life, and by extension, of everything.
From my viewpoint as an orthopedic surgeon, I find each of these skeleton costumes wanting in anatomical correctness and completeness, and I cannot recommend any of them to you for your Halloween costume. Rather, I would like to help you choose from current options at Amazon. Possibilities abound, and to ease the burden of the discriminating buyer, I have restricted my selection to costumes for adult humans. Children and dogs are so cute that they can get away with styling cartoonish, anatomically incorrect bones. Adults who want to pay proper respect to the dead and to the beauty of the human skeleton need costumes that to some extent simulate nature, at least enough to keep orthopedist and radiologist party-goers and trick-or-treaters from shuddering.
To begin with, the bones must be white, not multicolored or decorated with psychedelic patterns or bogus arterial patterns. You can select among costumes that are printed just on the front, which I guess are OK if you are staying home and dispensing treats to neighborhood children while just facing forward. For party goers who plan to shout and twist, I advise an outfit that is printed front and back. Some have paint that glows in the dark. Whether this is a plus or a minus is up to you. As a bone lover, I insist that your costume extend at least to your wrists and ankles. You will score extra points with all bone aficionados if your outfit also covers your hands and feet. Get even more points if it has an all-in-one hoodie with a see-through and Covid-approved mask displaying a frightening skull. I know the following are available, but please, no open shoulders, short sleeves, T-shirt dresses, fishtail skirts, body suits with thigh-high stockings and garters, or plunging necklines. One description says “from naked to awesome in just one zip.” You decide whether that’s for you. Another description indicates “concealed fly.” At least that one has an out. Not explicitly described, but other offerings appear to require pretty much stripping the onesie to the knees to relieve oneself.
The fabric is typically nylon or polyester. Some include Spandex. One description indicates “stretchy to fit most builds.” Another says, “shows your figure.” Think seriously about these likely true statements and decide if that is what you want. Also, assess your height in comparison to the costume’s size. Several of the Amazon ads depict models who are height-challenged when compared to the length of their costume’s legs, which gives the leg bones down near the ankles an extremely unnatural, crumpled up appearance.
Finally, the devil is in the details—anatomical correctness. For example, the historical images depicted above are all wanting. Regarding the first image, humans have twelve pairs of ribs, not six. In the second, the rib cage is naturally oval, not busting out in front as on the beautiful Munich fraulein. In the third, a monk with upper arm bones that thick would be weighted down too much to dance.
Among the current offerings, some have no cervical vertebrae at all. You would risk your head falling off. I can cut some slack to the artists that did not get the ball-and-socket nature of the shoulder and hips exactly right, but those joints should be at least at the proper level, not half way up the neck, half way down the chest, or at the waist line. The knees are equally problematic and give me the creeps because in reality the kneecaps are in front of the leg and thigh bones. (Remember the song. It is not “ … the leg bone connects to the kneecap, the kneecap connects to the thigh bone, …). Some artists missed that day in health class and have positioned the kneecap between the two main lower limb bones like a big dot separating two dashes. And then there are the hands and feet. True, the numerous ankle and wrist bones are complexly arranged in nature, and probably nobody will notice any errors if you keep gyrating, but please, at least let’s have five digits on each foot and hand. Then there are several subtleties. From the internet I can’t tell that any of the available costumes have included the hammer, anvil, and stirrup bones residing in our ears; but I can overlook that, since they are too small to concern anybody other than ear doctors. Of great interest to bone doctors, however, is one costume that depicts a broken thigh bone, which has been anatomically aligned and surgically secured with a metal rod. This would support an early return to dancing and would definitely be a conversation starter with any bonehead, especially if the costume is just one zip from awesome to naked.
A final note. This shopping guide is not just about preparing you for Halloween. Many of the advertisements say that your carefully selected skeleton costume is also suitable for theme parties, Mardi Gras, clubbing, and even Christmas. Wouldn’t that be a surprise for Santa. In the meantime, Happy Halloween.
Launching October 20. Available now for pre-order.
“This is how science writing should be done. I loved this book. It has everything I want in science writing: plain explanations, conversational tone, a little bit of the author’s journey, and a fair amount of humor. The book was hard to put down … “ Goodreads.
304 pages hardbound $27.95 Kindle $14.16