It’s Halloween. Here’s What’s Haunting the Runways.

Salvjiia is a beautiful fright. The Instagram persona of Lilith Morris, she is posed in a recent post as a mutant, her eyes dark pits, her wheat-colored hair cascading to the floor, her torso fused with the fur-covered legs of a deer.

Salvjiia, 19, is part of a subculture of self-created oddities proliferating online and, more recently, leaching into the world of style.

The most baldly subversive among them, Instagram personalities with mysterious or sometimes off-putting handles like Fecal Matter, Forbidden Knowledge and Genesisfawn, are turning to prosthetics, extreme makeup, props, bodysuits and digital effects to mask or make hash of commonly held notions of what it means to be human.

If their otherworldly appearance seems familiar, the likelihood is that you’ve seen it in a tamer form before. Versions of this spectral look date at least from the 1970s, when David Bowie introduced Starman, his pallid alter ego, and appeared as an alien in “The Man Who Fell to Earth.”

In her 2011 video “Born This Way,” Lady Gaga took on the guise of a celestial freak haloed in broad beams of light.

Today there is Maleficent, Angelina Jolie’s archvillain, back just in time for Halloween, her character’s steeply angled cheekbones and imposing crown of horns suggesting some demonic alien race.

Now comes fashion, intent on mining this eerie aesthetic for impact by releasing onto the runways streams of bloodless-looking models who seemed to have beamed down from Neptune or Mars.

The look’s latest champion, Demna Gvasalia of Balenciaga, introduced a phalanx of these human anomalies in his spring 2020 show, all chalky complexions and vulcanized lips and with prosthetics augmenting their otherwise sunken cheeks. His intention, according to his show notes, was to “play on beauty standards of today, the past and the future.”

Magazines, too, have clambered on board, not least of them Vogue, which posted an online feature last year about Fecal Matter, the Instagram handle of Hannah Rose Dalton and Steven Raj Bhaskaran.

They are a Canadian couple who make liberal use of prosthetics and props to sculpt scythe-shaped shoes, Mount Rushmore cheekbones, mini-horns and other reptilian protrusions. Tentacle-like breathing tubes dangle from their mouths.

To what end? Is fashion’s appropriation of alien chic a celebration of a forward-looking, highly evolved form of humanity? Or is something more self-serving at work? In recent seasons, fashion, in the guise of diversity, has made a near fetish of parading black, transgender, old and plus-size models in their shows — and in the case of Tommy Hilfiger, people with disabilities as well.

Have designers and marketers simply run out of ways to jolt spectators from their seats?

“I never do anything for shock effect,” said Carine Roitfeld, the high-profile editor of CR Fashion Book.

But her statement is at odds with a feature in the current issue that makes a deliberate spectacle of demi-bald, spectral-looking models disjunctively dressed in a bourgeois pastiche of starchy plaid skirts and blazers. Her aim, Ms. Roitfeld said, was to “push cultural boundaries and start a conversation about inclusivity.”

Maybe so, but there are indications that the fashion establishment may be operating from more adulterated motives. Some were hinted at, if only obliquely, by Rick Owens, who commissioned Ms. Morris (Salvjiia) to create makeup for his fall 2019 runway show and ended by introducing a succession of ghostly Salvjiia look-alikes on his catwalk.

His intent struck some as boldly progressive. But there was something glib, not to say disingenuous, in his program notes, in which he wrote that for a young generation, body modification is the new tattoo.

Such comments appear to make light of Instagram users’ intentions.

“We always went into this knowing that people see us as a joke or click bait,” Mx. Bhaskaran, 26, of Fecal Matter said. “That’s why it’s so important for us to integrate a message more than just a look.”

Part of the couple’s objective, Ms. Dalton, 24, said, is to confer on social outliers — “the trans girl, the plus-size girl in high school” — a sense of belonging. “We want to offer a more tolerant space for anybody to explore their identity,” she said.

Robert Reed, a 26-year-old designer in Brooklyn, creates second-skin costumes — wearable art, he calls them — with horns, masks, winged shoulders and elevator shoes in reaction to what he views as an over-stratified society. He documents his work on Instagram.

“I want to be seen as an artist, not someone who’s male or female, gay or straight, black or white, fat or thin,” said Mr. Reed, who has collaborated with François Nars, Opening Ceremony and their influential like. “My persona kills that conversation about gender identity. It kills race, it kills any suggestion of the human form. For me, it’s like being an enigma.”

Such aims are more in line with those of Alessandro Michele, the creative director of Gucci, who anticipated the alien incursion more than a year ago with a spring 2018 collection modeled by anemic-looking women, their faces veiled or masked by balaclavas, some toting replicas of their own heads.

As an aesthetic, it represents, Mr. Michele suggested, a coming golden age of pan-gender, post-racial, post-sexual identity. “We are in a trans-human era for sure,” he said at the time of his show. “We have to decide what we want to be.”

Pop culture’s embrace of such sci-fi extremes comes and goes. Earlier this year, FKA Twigs and ASAP Rocky collaborated on a video in which they appear as glamorous extraterrestrials flashing talons and neon-tone masks.

Lately, variations of the look have emerged on TikTok, where a stream of cosplay devotees masquerade as mutants from outer space.

“The alien aesthetic has historically been most popular during extremely conservative periods,” said Daniel L. Bernardi, a documentary filmmaker and a professor of cultural studies at San Francisco State University. “It reflects and addresses the tensions of a divided society.”

For fashion in particular, he said, “it is a means of grappling with a fairly radical shift in what it means to be beautiful. I don’t think anyone has identified that yet.”

It may also be a way of coping with the pressures of the bottom line. “Fashion is good at identifying where peoples’ stresses are and interested in exploiting those stresses,” Dr. Bernardi said. Its ultimate aim: “to get you wrapped up in an image and to buy that image.”

It’s an aim rejected by these Instagram mavericks. Referring in particular to Mr. Hilfiger’s use of models without limbs, Mr. Reed asked, “Was he genuinely interested in those models or just using them to seem ‘with it’?”

Others argue that the fashion establishment has encroached on their turf, reaping the benefits without the risks. Their work requires a commitment, Ms. Dalton of Fecal Matter said. She and Mx. Bhaskaran routinely take their message to the streets, shopping for produce or stopping for a latte dressed in full regalia, and as often as not exposing themselves to the taunts of strangers.

Fashion, Ms. Dalton said, trivializes that kind of audacity. “What is so personal for us has now become a global trend.”

“The fashion community needs a trend, something they can use to sell product, to garner attention, to be different from competitors,” she said. “You could say that fashion’s just tagging along.”

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