By Gabriel Gonzalez
Just in time for Halloween, Ben Cooper, the company that for over 50 years made frightfully fun costumes for kids on the queerest night of the year, is sashaying back into our lives! As noted on the official website; the Cooper family will soon be bringing back the original, trendsetting, famous Halloween-in-a-box costumes pioneered by brothers, Ben and Nat. In ghoulish anticipation, Flagrant looks back at Ben Cooper’s reign as the high priest of Halloween monster drag for kids.
The idea was hatched in 1937, when a young Ben Cooper took his talent for creating glamorous costumes en masse for chorus girls at The Cotton Club and Ziegfeld Follies and parlayed it into fashioning fabulous costumes for kids. Together with his brother Nat, Ben met with an up-and-coming studio and landed a licensing deal for the film company’s entire catalog of characters, including the princess that inspired all princesses; Walt Disney’s Snow White. Halloween would become the night of a million princesses.
Ben Cooper Costumes were a hit and soon the small Brooklyn company was knocking out thousands of classic monster and Disney cartoon costumes well into the ‘50s. The decade also debuted some decidedly grander and ‘gayer’ icons for fierce little girls and boys to impersonate; Dorothy and the Oz gang, Carmen Miranda (complete with fruity ‘do) and The Southern Belle (possibly Scarlett O’Hara/Vivian Leigh herself?). There were also some rather questionable ‘exotic’ ladies introduced, including an Asian Princess and a Dragon Lady.
The stakes were higher in the ‘60s and the Cooper clan dug deeper into the diva cauldron to bring kids some dress-up masquerade realness. It didn’t matter that the silk-screened plastic masks were uncomfortable AF, or that the vinyl and rayon smocks, capes, playsuits and ponchos were ill fitting. These flame-retardant frocks came in flimsy cardboard boxes with cellophanes windows to showcase the costumes for screeching and hair-raising (some came with wigs) effect, and they slayed it at the cash registers. Ben Cooper was also dipping their toes in some wicked directions. Only the most cut-throat baby drag would take an All Hallows Eve bow as Miss America, or as Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra (a movie that had just nearly bankrupted Fox studios), or even as the sullen and sexually vague TV vampires Lily Munster (The Munsters) & Barnabas Collins (Dark Shadows). In one of the company’s biggest nightmares, costumes of JFK and Jackie were introduced in 1963 only to be quickly destroyed after the president’s assassination twenty-two days after Halloween.
Enter the ‘70s and Ben Cooper was ready for two monstrous wars. First, two companies were out for Cooper blood. Collegeville and Halco had each grown as Halloween costume purveyors, however, neither could match the depp licensing catalog of Ben Cooper. The Cooper crown would be glued-on permanently when the company landed what would soon become the hottest property in the universe; Star Wars. Again, Ben Cooper was ahead of the dead man’s curve, selling over a million Darth Vader masks alone. Princess Leia costumes were also covering girl’s and fearless boy’s mugs all over the country and Chewbacca masks were the perfect gateway drag for cubs-in-training. But disco dancing tots were also feeling the fantasy as Cooper and competitors capitalized on Saturday fright fever with costumes of the queens and kings of the era; The Village People, John Travolta and even Disco Dazzler (Marvel’s roller-skating super-heroine)! It wasn’t a stretch then, when in 1979 People magazine dubbed Ben Cooper, “the Halston of Halloween,” after the famous gay fashion designer who was dressing millions of women and androgynous glamour boys all over the world.
But disco and Ben Cooper would soon feel the wretched conservatism of the ‘80s. It began with the biggest love hangover and headache for Halloween when seven people died from taking tampered Tylenol. Parents understandably weren’t willing to let their kids trick-or-treat when they feared the trick could be deadly. The queerest night of the year when little boys could kick-ass like the Bionic Woman and little girls could bring it as She-Hulk was losing a huge old friend. The Coopers struggled along, bringing Reagan-era kids some hero and She-ro camp (He-Man, Shera, Jem), but ultimately the macabre magic was gone and Ben Cooper closed its doors in 1992.
Fear not, baby queens and kings across the land, Ben Cooper is putting on her face and making a ghastly comeback! For now the legendary costume company is selling tee-shirts and stickers. Boxed costumes are scheduled to return next year. Maybe a RupAulloween line is in the werks?
What costume would make you screech in delicious horror?