PHOENIX - Four weeks before Halloween, Dominique Fiacco tried on the costume that its creators hope to turn into one of the holiday's hottest and stepped in front of the camera in a small photography studio.
The tanned, dark-haired model was the first to wear "Miss Impeachment": A clingy peach halter gown with a high slit, a low neckline and a pageant-girl sash across her torso. Also, a princess crown, clear plastic heels (sold separately) and, on a string around her neck, a finishing-touch accessory to take the costume over the top.
"Blow that whistle!" said designer Pilar Quintana-Williams as the camera flashed.
Of course there is a sexy impeachment costume. Yandy, a lingerie and costume company where Quintana-Williams is the vice president of merchandising, can hook you up with pretty much any kind of sexy costume you want - sexy witch, sexy nurse, sexy pirate, sexy Buzz Lightyear, sexy Supreme Court justice, sexy clown from "It," sexy pizza, sexy Minion. In recent years, the company has specialized in costumes with highly topical themes taken from politics and pop culture, so when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi initiated an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump, it took Yandy barely a week to turn around its Miss Impeachment outfit.
"Can you do a little bit of a surprised face? Like, I just won my pageant!" Quintana-Williams asked Fiacco.
"Like, I'm going to Disney World!" said photographer Brittany Gentile.
"Or jail!" added Quintana-Williams.
A perfect segue to Fiacco's next costume: Sexy college admissions scandal. It consisted of an orange prison uniform, but with leggings and a crop top. "INMATE" was stenciled across the chest, under the crossed-out text reading "Mom of the Year."
"Handcuffs or no handcuffs?" asked Quintana-Williams. "They're plain, though - they're not furry, right?"
An important distinction, because for the other 11 months of the year, Yandy primarily sells sexy underwear and fetish toys, like whips and ball gags. But Halloween is a big season for a company whose slogan is "Own your sexy," with prices from $12.95 (a French maid) to $259.95 (the "Viking Deluxe.")
Our Halloween traditions in their earliest form sprang from the ancient Celtic practice of donning animal-skin costumes to confuse the spirits roaming the Earth on their way to the afterlife. But nowadays, the living might find some of the season's risque and highly meta costumes confusing as well.
The rise of the sexy Halloween costume probably began sometime after the 1960s, but its biggest pop culture moment came in the 2004 movie "Mean Girls." Cady, the naive heroine, arrives at a Halloween party dressed as a gory bride of Frankenstein only to find the popular girls dolled up as a sexy bunny, sexy cat and sexy mouse. Oct. 31, she realizes, "is the one day a year when a girl can dress up like a total slut and no other girls can say anything else about it." Sex-advice columnist Dan Savage once called the yearly display of flesh a "Straight Pride Parade." "Halloween is now the big public celebration of straight sexuality, of heterosexual desire," he wrote in 2009.
If a shopper is in the market for a sexy Halloween costume, there's a good chance their search engine will deliver them to Yandy.com, which since its founding in 2007 has become the most prominent online purveyor of attire for sexy witches, zombies, Catwomen and nuns.
Those aren't the ones that have made the company infamous, though. When a video of a New York City rat eating a piece of pizza captivated the internet in 2015, Yandy stuck pizza-shaped pockets on a skimpy mouse costume to make a sexy pizza rat outfit. When a mild-mannered man with a red cable-knit sweater and a funny name went viral for asking a question during the 2016 presidential debates, Yandy turned out a Sexy Ken Bone costume (the sweater was a crop top).
This year's of-the-moment costumes include the "Nicest Neighbor," a.k.a. sexy Mister Rogers, timed to the upcoming biopic starring Tom Hanks; a sexy Beyond Burger, which is based on Yandy's regular sexy burger costume, plus a hat that says "Plant based"; and Sexy White Claw, which replaces the mega-popular hard seltzer's name with"Outlaw" in its logo, printed on a crop top with matching panty, so that Yandy won't get sued. Two weeks before Halloween, they put out a sexy sold-out Popeyes chicken sandwich.
"Even though some of these may not be sexy, we have to make them sexy. We have to figure it out, whether it's giving it a high cut . . . cleavage, or a plunging neckline," said Quintana-Williams. She is "98%" certain she could "make anything sexy at this point." (Sexy garbage can? Sexy Rudy Giuliani? Sexy Tylenol?)
That brings us to the sexy Halloween costume's most evolved form: The ironic sexy costume, which came into life as a meta punchline for cool girls who wanted to mock the trend while indulging in it with their own increasingly ridiculous DIY costumes. Sexy Abe Lincoln. Sexy Pepto-Bismol. Sexy Mormon missionary. Sexy Jar Jar Binks. Sexy Bernie Sanders. But then the big costume companies started doing ironic sexy, too, and now the whole thing has gotten murky: Is that woman wearing a sexy Mister Rogers costume because she is in on the joke? Or does she actually want to be a sultry version of America's kindest children's television host? Either way, Yandy wins.
Quintana-Williams, 38, graduated from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising and tries to keep the silhouettes on trend. "A few years ago we were doing everything with rompers. This year, everything is in a bodysuit style," she said.
Witches are coming back now after several dead years. Pirates, once a big seller, have dropped off. "Ninjas tend to be a little bit more naked, so they sell really, really, really well," she said.
Quintana-Williams and her staff brainstorm ideas, sometimes with the help of spouses and friends, inputting one-line pop-culture concepts onto a Google spreadsheet with a separate field for the pertinent links to memes, news stories, and movie release dates. A recent list included some fairly contrived pitches - Sexy Little Lies (a nod to "Big Little Lies"), "Detective Pikachu," sexy Fyre Festival and "Vape Goddess," probably too risky now that there's a vape-related lung disease. And if you want to be Fat Thor from Avengers, you'll have to make it yourself. Same goes for "sexy AOC," an homage to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that was scuttled before the design phase.
"Some of us thought yes, some of us thought no, some of us thought, 'Well, I think [she] would like it.' We'd make it cute," she said. "You know you've made it when there's been a costume."
Your feelings about Yandy might depend on what type of feminist you are. Perhaps you hate the notion of a sexy Halloween costume because you think it objectifies women and contributes to unrealistic beauty standards? Rebecca Bigler concurs. The retired professor at the University of Texas, Austin, who has written about female sexualization and Halloween, found in a 2014 study that pre-adolescent girls who care about looking sexy have lower grades: "They spend less effort trying to be competent because they're trying to look sexy and putting that effort to their appearance." And Bigler argues that trends for adult Halloween costumes end up influencing the design of girls' costumes, which, in turn, prime girls to obsess over appearance in their teen and adult years.
Yandy doesn't sell children's costumes, but a peek at any website that does reveals its influence: a girls' SWAT team uniform with a skirt and cropped pleather vest, a shiny police minidress, a stormtrooper costume with a skirt, a "charming pirate" nearly identical to Yandy's "sexy swashbuckler" get-up.
But another group of feminists begs to differ. Feminists like Quintana-Williams. Who think the backlash to sexy costumes reeks of slut-shaming.
"We're empowering women to be themselves and whatever it is that they want to do, and if it's wearing your costume that has more coverage or if it's wearing a costume that doesn't, do you, girl," she said.
Lucy Powell, 27, a 911 dispatcher from Herriman, Utah, owns two Yandy costumes: A sexy paratrooper and a sexy ninja. "I'm going to get a costume that's going to accentuate my curves and make me feel strong and confident," she said. "I want to embrace what I have. I think we should be empowering each other to feel that way." (This argument induces a sigh from Bigler: "It is the patriarchy that benefits from women's massive spending on cosmetics and plastic surgery and sexy costumes.")
Last year, Yandy came under fire for its "Brave Red Maiden," i.e., a sexy riff on the Margaret Atwood-inspired TV series "The Handmaid's Tale." In an alternate universe, it might have been clever. But in this one, where protesters have borrowed the red cloak/white hood garb of the dystopia's sexually enslaved women to make a serious point about challenges to reproductive rights - well, it didn't go over so great. Yandy took it off its website and apologized.
"We were seeing it everywhere, obviously, during [Brett] Kavanaugh," said Quintana-Williams, recalling the scene outside the 2018 Supreme Court confirmation hearings. "We didn't think of it, to be honest. It was something that we were seeing out there, so we just came up with our own version."
Native American activists have protested outside of Yandy's headquarters several times over the company's multiple iterations of sexy indigenous attire. "There are higher rates of violence and sexual violence against Native women," said Amanda Blackhorse, a Native American advocate who is a Diné and a member of the Navajo Nation. "Costumes and mascots, they dehumanize Native people, in general. They allow people to make fun of us, use us as tokens, and treat us like animals."
Late this summer, Yandy quietly removed the Native American costumes from their site but did not apologize, according to Zoe Dejecacion, a member of the Choctaw tribe who started a petition for Yandy to remove the costumes. "The least that they could do is issue a statement that they were wrong." Quintana-Williams declined to comment.
Yandy has other costumes just waiting to be called out for cultural appropriation: There's a geisha costume still active on the website, as well as a "men's authentic Mexican tequila costume" - basically, a poncho and a sombrero.
As Halloween gets more woke, "maybe there's gonna be some backlash and some costumes or different opinions," said Quintana-Williams, who noted that she is of Mexican descent. "Any time that we're putting stuff out there, that's what's going to happen."
Halloween costumes are not very sexy in a warehouse. At Yandy's massive clearinghouse on Phoenix's northern fringe, they are balled up in plastic bags inside canyons of brown boxes. Workers scurry around the floor fulfilling orders, but things don't get super busy until the weeks leading up to Halloween, when Quintana-Williams says they will ship as many as 9,000 orders a day. (During nonpeak season, it's closer to 1,000 per day.) The National Retail Federation anticipates that Americans will spend $3.2 billion on Halloween costumes in 2019. Yandy's annual revenue totals approximately $50 million, about a quarter of which comes from Halloween sales.
The prop genie lamps are shelved under the five-piece "soft cuff hogties" sets, near the sexy Statue of Liberty costumes. Boxes are labeled with cheeky names like "Officer Lauren Order," or bland ones designed to evade infringement: What's obviously a Cher costume is "70s Icon," and it's a "Playtime" bunny, not Playboy. The company has recently branched out into dog costumes, too.
"I was actually telling the girls to make sure the search engine optimization says 'sexy pet costumes," Quintana-Williams laughed, though sexy dog costumes are, mercifully, not yet a thing.
It's the default word. Sometimes they try "sultry" or "sassy." But "Sassy Tariff" doesn't have quite the same ring as "Sexy Tariff," which of course is just a skimpy money-print minidress with the word "Tariff" printed across the bust in red and "import" printed on the butt.
"It looks really cute," said Gentile, the photographer, to Fiacco, asking the model to turn around. "Show off that import!"
This article was written by Maura Judkis, a reporter for The Washington Post.