There are two types of characters on display during the month of October: those who plan their Halloween costumes six months in advance, and those who find themselves power-walking around a Spirit Halloween on Hallow’s eve looking for cheap lingerie to be turned into something generically suggestive, like “sexy cat” or “sexy alien.” Last year, I was the latter: frazzled, a vape in my mouth, hoping to find resolve in a cloud of nicotine that purported to taste like “blue raspberry ice” but didn’t, and a marked-down costume that was supposed to mean something to me but wouldn’t.
Medieval knights, canceled politicians, Flintstones...the offerings were uninspired. Such is the despair of procrastinating. But on a corner rack, I found something that sparked my interest—a relic that, culturally speaking, should have been boxed up in the basement.
If I showed you photos of my Halloween costume that year, you’d be led to believe I had dressed in earnest as the deceased hellion and former Playboy emperor Hugh Hefner. On that day in October 2021, we already knew who “Hef” really was. The man who claimed Playboy magazine was both the answer to sexual repression and the engine of the women’s liberation movement had weaponized the desire for tasteful pornography into something much more sinister. We also knew that he used the women he propped his legacy upon, affixing bunny tails to their bottoms only to ensnare them in hare-sized traps.
But I wasn’t dressed up as Hugh Hefner. Ignore the silk robe, the pipe, the purple belt at my waistline. With the addition of Bunny ears and blonde tresses, I was, instead, a Playmate freshly emerged from the gruesome murder of her captor. “I killed Hugh and stole his stuff, oopsies,” I wrote in an Instagram caption from the night. The costume was intended to be subversive, or so I told myself.
My colleague Audra Heinrichs, as it turns out, also once told herself a story in order to don the iconic Playboy Bunny costume for Halloween. Nearly a decade ago, when she was 20 years old, she dressed up as Gloria Steinem conducting her undercover reporting assignment as a Bunny. And amidst Playboy’s efforts for all-inclusive rebranding, young people today seem to be following suit. One woman dressed up as feminist icon Elle Woods dressed up as a Playboy Bunny in Legally Blonde. One chose to fashion herself as a dead (or bleeding?) Bunny, while another took on the role of an ironic Hefner and demanded her male friends dress up as her Bunnies.
We tell ourselves stories to feel justified in wearing the Playboy Bunny costume. But for a garment that’s inextricable from the poisoned legacy of its creator, I’m not sure why we believe them.
Holly Madison, former star of the E! reality series The Girls Next Door and Hefner’s ex-girlfriend, told Jezebel of the first time she laid eyes on a unny costume. As an “80s baby,” she at some point owned a Garbage Pail Kids doll named Armpit Britt, who had “hairy armpits” and, at least in Madison’s memory, was dressed in a bunny costume.
Her second run-in with a Bunny costume would be the one to make a lasting impression. As a teenager, Madison watched a documentary titled The Bunny Years that aired on A&E in 1999. Based on former Playboy Bunny Kathryn Leigh Scott’s memoir of the same name, it chronicled the little-known achievements of women who had once worked in Playboy Clubs across the globe. Former Bunnies touted how they had out-earned their peers with $1,000-a-week salaries; spoke of the impressive rolodex of post-Bunny pivots (including computer programmer, social worker, and immunologist); and recounted their experiences unionizing and striking to demand better working conditions.
By the time Madison was exposed to the satin corset worn by waitressing Bunnies, the Playboy clubs had mostly closed down, giving way to more profitable revenue streams. To her, the Bunny costume was always a “retro thing” worn by women she admired like Anna Nicole Smith, Jenny McCarthy, and other winking buxoms in Playboy commercials. “I just remember thinking they looked so glamorous and glowing and happy, and thinking, ‘That’s what I want to look like,’” she said.
Madison, as the story goes, would wind up looking like those women, much as she’d wind up living like them. She moved into the mansion (only after she had obligatory sex with the Playboy founder, she would later allege), and said Hefner crowned her the favorite, grooming her to be compliant by praising how mature she was for her age and pitting her against other women in the house. “Hef,” Madison wrote in a heartbreaking 2015 memoir detailing her time in the house, had offered her Quaaludes on the night they first met (he called them “thigh openers”). At her lowest point, she had contemplated death by suicide after losing her sense of self-worth amongst the velvet walls of the Playboy mansion. It was the idea of the Bunny costume—the ability to dress up and dissociate—that kept her going.
“I have this thing where I hold onto most of my clothes from my years at the mansion, which may seem counterintuitive, but I do it because one of the things I truly enjoyed during my time at the mansion was designing or making clothes for events or parties,” Madison told Jezebel via email. “It was like an escape for me and a way to express myself, even though I was doing so within narrow boundaries. So even the Bunny costume, for me, is something I think of more fondly than one might assume.”
Just as Madison recounts the Bunny’s symbolism with a degree of dissonance, today’s women, too, have struggled to reconcile the outfit’s place in modern iterations of feminist thought, where it is viewed as at once degrading and emblematic of a means for women to acquire wealth, sexual agency, and class mobility. But as Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell wrote in The Atlantic, “if feminists are still arguing over whether the Bunny suit was constricting or liberating, it’s because it was designed to be both.”
Hefner chose the rabbit as the company logo or its “humorous sexual connotation,” and added the tuxedo to suggest “the idea of sophistication.” The Bunnies, then, bore a similar double entendre: a fuckable fantasy designed to elicit desire that club members could never, legally, act on, as they were forbidden from touching the Bunnies or honking their cottontails.
The costume debuted on employees at the Chicago Playboy Club in 1960, and despite its blatant appeal to the male gaze—guiding the eyes from the point of a pump to the top of the hip bone, crotch obscured by a thin satin strip—it was shaped by the hands of women. Playmate Ilse Taurins is said to be the one to suggest a hyperbolic feminine version of the company’s logo for practicality’s sake: It would be easier to light cigarettes in as little fabric as possible. Ashley Kechter, president of global consumer products at the PLBY Group, told me over email that Black fashion designer Zelda Wynn Valdes designed the suits for New York’s Playboy Club, which opened in 1962.
The next year, Steinem went undercover as a Bunny for Show magazine. The Playboy Bunny onboarding, she reported, included testing for venereal diseases and an invasive exam performed by a doctor who couldn’t help but comment how “beautiful” the Bunnies were. Hefner also made clear that his fascination with “liberated” women should only be extended to those who were quiet and cooperative. “These chicks are our natural enemy,” Hefner wrote in 1970, whilst commissioning a story on feminists in his magazine. “What I want is a devastating piece that takes the militant feminists apart. They are unalterably opposed to the romantic boy-girl society that Playboy promotes.” The Bunny costume, to Hefner, signaled the perfectly pliable ideal—the very thing the “feminists,” he believed, wanted to destroy.
Nearly 50 years later, former Playboy model Chloe Goins accused Bill Cosby of sexually abusing her at the Playboy Mansion in 2008 and sued Hefner for allegedly enabling his buddy. (Hefner continued to defend Cosby to his death.) In 2015, Madison released her memoir. When Hefner died in 2017, he was considered a #Legend by the likes of Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, but the demands for a rewritten legacy were growing louder. In January of this year, A&E dropped a 10-part docuseries called the Secrets of Playboy in which former employees, playmates, and more revealed new damning allegations, including sexual abuse at the hands of Hefner’s friends Roman Polanski and Cosby, a former girlfriend of Hefner’s claiming she was used as a drug mule, and a horrifyingly high suicide rate amongst Bunnies. In those 50 years, the reputation of the Bunny costume itself went from glamorous to trashy—Kate Moss wore it, but so did Shelley Darling in The House Bunny.
Still, the Playboy brand forged ahead, renouncing all ties to its dead founder. “The Hefner family is no longer associated with Playboy, and today’s Playboy is not Hugh Hefner’s Playboy,” a company spokesperson said in a statement, noting that the brand is looking to expand to an ambitious market of “all young people,” with a decree for everyone to “pursue pleasure.” Today’s Playboy, as I see it, is a sexy digital storefront that sells lingerie, streetwear with a corporatized Venice boardwalk aesthetic, and accessories from weed paraphernalia to lubricated condoms. The new Playboy has even delved into the world of crypto with Playboy Rabbitars, NFTs that give owners access to the MetaMansion in the metaverse. Right now, its website is having a last-minute sale on Halloween costumes.
“Gen Z and younger Millennial consumers really identify with Playboy’s long-standing values of freedom of expression and equality, and the Bunny suit is a physical representation of that,” Kechter said. “We see people of all genders wearing the Bunny suit who are confident, sex-positive, and of course, looking to turn heads.”
Playboy anointed Bretman Rock as the first openly gay man to appear on the cover of its digital magazine, in a Bunny suit, in 2021. The sizing on the company’s official Bunny Halloween costumes extends up to 3x (that’ll run you $175) with several products designed specifically for plus-size bodies. The brand has contorted itself to meet the moment. But the threads of what the costume once represented are still stitched into its whalebone ribbing.
We grapple with the Bunny costume the way we’ve grappled with bimbos and balloon tits and girly culture and the word “cunt.” Just as much as it represents voicelessness, it also represents desire, uncomplicated glamour, and the frailty of drooling men. The garment had meaning for its original wearers. One Bunny wore her costume for her induction into the U.S. Air Force. Another got married in a white Bunny corset. Madison, after all these years, has kept the three Bunny costumes she acquired as artifacts. A grandmother shares photos of her younger self in her Bunny costume with her granddaughter, who posts them on TikTok to prove she comes from a long line of “baddies.” Through them, through the life the women breathed into those bodices against all odds (and clasps), the costume wound up meaning something to us. So, we choose not to let it go.
Playboy shaped the way we see ourselves—why women once allowed balconettes to dig into our ribs, hoisting our breasts to the sky. We wanted to look like them. And much in the same way, we don’t want to believe that it was all just the predatory vision of a man, that it must’ve been more glorious than that. By injecting irony into last year’s Halloween costume, I gave myself an excuse to wear something that otherwise might have suggested I condoned Hefner’s limited definitions of freedom and equality. To genuinely dress up as Hef, or to dress up as a Bunny without a whisper of social criticism, might’ve suggested I was complicit in reducing the fullness of our humanity down to the fullness of our breasts and the accessibility of our vulva. It also, perhaps, meant outwardly admitting that despite fashioning women as meek, caged animals, slipping on the fur of the bygone Bunny can feel good.
Madison now co-hosts the Girls Next Level podcast with fellow former Playmate Bridget Marquardt, unpacking their days spent in the mansion. She’s a mom and a Disney adult. And though she worships Halloween, she can’t picture wearing the Bunny costume today, opting not to serve as a “walking billboard for a company.” But she understands why others grapple with the costume’s meaning.
“I don’t think wearing something as a Halloween costume means the wearer fully, or even partially, condones what they are representing. People dress up as all kinds of things for Halloween, from serial killers to a handmaid from the Handmaid’s Tale,” she said. “It doesn’t mean the wearer endorses the acts or the social parameters the costume represents. Sometimes we want to masquerade as the opposite of what we are.”
A new generation of young people have reclaimed the Playboy symbol, if only with irony, nevertheless proud to hang a gold bunny pendant across their sternums and stick a poof upon their tailbones. So long as we don’t forget what the Bunny once was: a silent girl bending over backwards in three-inch heels to make sure a man’s drink never, ever ran low.