Laura Dean Bennett
One thing’s for sure – Americans love to dress up for Halloween.
Halloween costumes have been a thing since the 1800s. And like everything else in our culture, the styles have changed dramatically over the years.
Ghosts, witches, zombies and princesses are always popular with both youngsters and adults, and this year will certainly be no exception. But there are always fads in Halloween costumes, too.
This year we’re bound to see lots of adults in Barbie and Ken costumes and children are said to be favoring superheroes like Spiderman, Batman and Mario.
As modern as Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce costumes may be, dressing up for Halloween dates back at least 2,000 years.
It actually began with the Gaelic harvest festival known as Samhain (pronounced Sow-en).
Samhain was celebrated in Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Mann on the last day of October. A similar celebration was held in Wales, Brittany and Cornwall.
It was believed that Samhain was the time when the invisible border between the worlds of the living and the dead was at its weakest.
Spirits would walk the earth to perform supernatural mischief and threaten humans with evil.
People disguised themselves with animal skins and heads so that wandering spirits might mistake them for one of their own.
Under their masks, villagers went door to door begging for food. They often played pranks on one another, and put the blame on the spirits.
As Christianity replaced paganism, Samhain became the day before All Saint’s Day (November 1) – All Hallow’s Eve – and, eventually, complete with costumes, pranks and begging for treats – it became known as Halloween.
By the late 15th Century, the people of what would later be known as the British Isles celebrated the festival of All Hallow’s Eve with a custom known as “souling.”
Dressed up in costumes symbolizing the souls of the dead or winter demons, they’d go from house to house performing little plays, reciting verses and singing songs in exchange for baked treats laden with spices called “soul cakes.”
As Irish and Scottish immigrants arrived in the New World the traditions of Halloween – costumes included – came with them.
The costume wearing, which had been mostly an adult activity in the old country, was usually left to youngsters as the holiday took hold in the young American culture.
With so many settlers living on farms with great distances between houses, going door to door begging for treats and coins took a while to take hold, except in the larger towns, where village children usually dressed as ghosts, goblins, and famous personages performed an early version of trick or treating.
Children wore get-ups made at home with whatever was on hand – sheets, straw, feathers and improvised masks and wigs.
Through the Revolutionary War and even long after the Civil War, the holiday was mostly celebrated as a family-oriented holiday.
Masked and costumed revelers gathered in each other’s homes – often with children in one room and adults in another – to enjoy hot apple cider, games like bobbing for apples and the telling of ghost stories.
By the mid-to-late 1800s, children were still the primary costume-wearers, but more and more adults were taking part in the fun of dressing up and, of course, costumes were always handmade.
Witches were once a taboo subject, even, or maybe, especially at Halloween, but witches’ costumes began to be popular in the Victorian era and have never really left the American imagination to this day.
By the late 1800s, probably as a result of historical characters’ lives being taught in school and famous explorers making expeditions to faraway lands, Halloween costumes began to evolve from the supernatural to other subjects.
Each year, more children and adults alike were costumed as pirates, gypsies and characters from Egypt and the Far East.
Costumes evoking famous pharaohs, Egyptian princ-esses and Chinese warlords stayed in fashion for Halloween through the beginning of the 20th Century.
By 1910, newspapers were covering costumed children going door to door, “guising” on Halloween. The youngsters would ask for treats and sometimes threaten pranks if none were forthcoming.
A new term for guising, “trick-or-treat,” appeared in print for the first time in an Alberta, Canada publication in 1927. The expression caught on and another Halloween tradition was born.
It didn’t take long for business owners to realize the potential of Halloween and postcards and décor such as paper skeletons soon joined commercially – made costumes on store shelves.
In the early 20th Century and for many years afterward (and to this very day) children favored dressing up as soldiers, firemen and police officers.
The Roaring 20s and the 1930s saw the continued rise of Halloween costume contests and masquerade parties for both adults and children.
The witch costume was a favorite among flappers. They wore pointed black hats and painted masks with their bobbed hair cuts and their ultra-modern flapper dresses.
American audiences were increasingly drawn to movie theaters in the 1930s. Some of the biggest box office draws were Universal’s monster pictures, which brought us our first Dracula and Frankenstein costumes.
Just as radios made their way into nearly every home and early “picture shows” were capturing the public’s imagination, several major costume manufacturers arrived on the scene.
The Dennison Paper Co. sold a popular line of paper aprons featuring common Halloween images like black cats and witches. These costumes were made to be worn once, over street clothes and came complete with hats and paper masks.
One of the first large-scale costume manufacturers was the J. Halpern Company (later known as Halco) of Pittsburgh.
It brilliantly capitalized on the popularity of fictionalized characters by licensing the images of Little Orphan Annie, Popeye, Olive Oyl and the like… and Halloween costumes would never be the same.
A.S. Fishbach, Inc. provided some major competition when they purchased a license from Walt Disney to produce costumes based on his characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.
The first dedicated costume shop was established by Broadway costume designers Benjamin and Nathaniel Cooper in the 1930s.
Cooper bought A.S. Fishbach in 1937 and with it, their Walt Disney licenses.
After World War II, with a TV in so many homes, the choice of Halloween costumes for children and teenagers became a huge part of 1950s American pop culture.
As they had in the Victorian era, masked balls were once again all the rage in the 60s and 70s with adults wearing elaborate costumes evoking famous names from history.
Schools hosted costume parties and communities held costume contests and parades.
When Julie Newmar debuted her famous skintight catsuit it became an overnight Halloween costume sensation and Wonder Woman was the best selling female costume choice of the 1960s.
Sci Fi movies and TV shows like Star Trek and Star Wars, with their casts of heroes, heroines, aliens and droids, provided inspiration for both homemade and commercially made costumes in the 70s and 80s.
By the 2000s, Halloween costume fashion had definitely made a complete turn from scariness to sexiness. Adults sported provocative witch and warlock costumes and in addition to sexy vampires, sexy nurses were all the rage for the first decade or two of the new millennium.
In the 2010s the debate over cultural appropriation in costumes began to change the way some Americans thought about the appropriateness of their Halloween costumes. But the popularity of Halloween and dressing up for Halloween has never been greater.
Halloween spending this year is expected to total more than $12 billion – up from 2022 by $2 billion, and the largest share of that whopping number will be spent on costumes.
And it’s not just humans who dress up for the spooky holiday. Our pets apparently enjoy dressing up, too, as spending on pet costumes was $700 million last year.
The original intent of dressing up for Samhain may have been to trick evil spirits, but today’s Halloween is more about treating ourselves. It’s about the irresistible chance to masquerade as someone or something else, even if it’s just for one day.