You can probably recall some of your most memorable Halloween moments from childhood. You likely remember some of the most amazing costumes you wore in addition to going from one home to the next to trick or treating. Chances are you went to Halloween parties and may still go to Halloween work functions, or you may have decided to host a party. However, the one thing you need to do when you attend any Halloween function is to wear a costume, and you may wonder why wearing it is part of the Halloween tradition and what some costumes many people wear mean. Let’s discuss why people dress up for Halloween.
The Meaning Behind Halloween Costumes
Many may believe Halloween is a pagan holiday because it originated through Samhain, which Celts started celebrating two millennia ago. And even though Halloween is not a pagan holiday, as it is one that anyone, regardless of faith and culture, can enjoy, Samhain plays a vital role in today’s Halloween celebration, including wearing costumes. As you know, Samhain is a holiday celebrating the rich harvest and the commencement of winter.
The belief is that Samhain is the day when the veil is the thinnest between the spirit and the mortal world. Therefore, it was the day when the dead and the living could mingle. However, because some spirits don’t have the best intentions for the living, people would begin to wear costumes to scare them away. They also feared that spirits and some ancestors would attempt to kidnap them. Samhain rituals included celebrating harvests and offering food to keep the ill-intended spirits at bay because of the positive energy emitted by doing those acts. Low-level spirits do not like anything that is higher vibrational.
However, those who wore costumes in the earlier days to scare away spirits with malicious intentions did not dress in makeup, hats, and other costumes you would see today. They wore animal skins to disguise themselves and to keep away any malicious entities, and they did it to play tricks, too.
Eventually, mumming became common as children wore garbs to appear like frightening creatures, but kids would dress up in exchange for treats. And those kids dressing up in fur for goodies established new Halloween traditions for America as over the 19th century, you would see an evolution of Halloween rituals.
Eventually, communities would create harvest events and gather around to share ghost stories, and they would sing, dance, and keep dressing up to keep warding off the evil spirits from Samhain. Towards the end of the 19th century and into the 20th, many Irish immigrants came to North America and brought their Halloween traditions to North America, including trick-or-treating in costumes. That was when Halloween costumes evolved from being a form of protection to keep away evil spirits to everyone wanting to be creative and scary.
As you know, many people wore animal skins to ward off evil spirits, but let’s now look at the evolution of standard costumes starting from the late 19th century. Halloween costumes you see today are like night and day from the ones that started becoming popular in the late 1800s in America.
Witch and Ghost Costumes Were Standard in the 1870s to the 1890s
Store-bought costumes in the late 19th century were not a thing. Therefore, people’s Halloween costumes represented what you see associated with the celebration today, such as ghost and witch costumes. They were handmade, involving white sheets of black clothing and black pointy hats. Therefore, when Halloween was approaching, you would find that people would gather up clothing or white bed sheets that would be appropriate for the holiday so they could prepare them to wear as costumes. It was pretty simple at the time, but with the need for more technology and innovation, it is unsurprising that Halloween costumes would be so essential.
Americans in the Early 20th Century Wore Costumes Associated With Asia and the Middle East
You would never see Americans wearing costumes that have associations with other cultures because of the awareness of cultural appropriation in current times. However, in the late 19th and early 20th century USA, people wore costumes associated with Asia and the Middle East. For example, kids would wear costumes related to Chinese culture by wearing clothing and accessories worn in China.
Girls would wear outfits that resembled what their Egyptian peers would wear by wearing apparel, jewelry, and makeup. Those Halloween costumes were typical during Victorian America because they were fascinated with other cultures, mainly Middle Eastern and Asian. You may have seen children occasionally wear those costumes even in the later part of the 20th century and the early part of the 21st century, but as mentioned, you will not see it today.
Paper Costumes and Buckram Masks Were a Hit Between 1900 and 1920
Between 1900 and 1920, Halloween was becoming more popular, and even though many people wore Middle Eastern and Asian clothing and accessories for Halloween in the early 20th century, you saw many kids wearing paper costumes and buckram masks, too. You saw more of that once the cultural costumes fad was fading. The Dennison Paper Company mass-produced disposable crepe paper costumes that consisted of aprons with cats, hats, and paper masks. They also had color, and the colors used in the paper were purple, black, orange, and yellow, standard for Halloween. This was when you would see mass Halloween celebrations in schools, and everyone wore these disposable paper costumes, particularly from 1910 to 1920.
In the 1930s and 40s, Boxed Character Costumes Became Popular
During the Great Depression and WWII, Americans became hooked to radio and books that featured cartoons and other well-known characters. Therefore, the typical Halloween costumes featured ready-to-wear boxed costumes with a rayon and plastic mask depicting those famous characters. However, before WWII, those costumes were luxuries; after the war, they became more affordable so everyone could afford them. During the Great Depression, only wealthy people could afford those costumes. However, some crafty people who could not afford those boxed character costumes before the war ended would be able to create them.
Halloween Costumes in the 1950s and 60s Had to Do With Television
Radio and books evolved to television during the 1950s and 60s, so Halloween costumes at that time had to do with popular television shows. Therefore, that quickly became a fad, so you would see plenty of little girls wearing costumes for Halloween resembling Little Orphan Annie, Tinkerbell, Snow White, Minnie Mouse, and so on. Little boys would wear costumes depicting Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Peter Pan. It is not a surprise that those costumes featured Disney characters.
The Halloween costumes in the 1960s continued to depict popular television characters, such as Flipper the Dolphin and The Addams Family and even expanded to rock stars. There were plenty of Halloween costumes depicting band members of The Beatles. Therefore, Halloween costumes evolved heavily between the 1940s and 1960s, which led to more creative ones in the latter part of the 20th century.
Movies Inspired Halloween Costumes in the 1970s and 80s
During the 1970s and 1980s, you would see that Halloween costumes depicted movie characters, such as many kids wearing costumes resembling the coneheads from Saturday Night Live and John Travolta’s character from Grease. That means kids would have to apply a lot of makeup and wear apparel resembling those characters. However, many kids also wore plastic masks depicting these characters.
In the 1980s, the movie trend continued, and in 1982, everyone wore E.T. costumes because the movie won many Oscars, and the E.T. fad lasted for a long time. You would also see other costumes depicting standard horror flicks from the 1980s, such as Freddie Kruger or Jason from Friday the 13th. Plenty of red makeup was used for gore in the latter part of the 1980s.
Costumes Went Dark in the Late 1980s and 1990s
As horror films became popular, you saw gory costumes, but it became more of a fad in the late 1980s and 1990s. Those who were inspired to wear gory costumes found inspiration from John Carpenter’s 1978 movie Halloween, and it took almost a decade for the movie to catch on regarding influencing Halloween costumes. However, at that time, television shows and films were not as censored as they were decades earlier. Therefore, it is not a surprise that Halloween costumes would follow suit.
You can see the fascinating evolution of Halloween costumes from when they became popular in the late 19th century, as people made basic ghost and witch costumes out of clothing and white sheets. Then, in the early 20th century, you saw children wearing apparel, particularly in the Middle East and Asia, for Halloween because of the fascination you would not see today. After that, disposable paper costumes with color became popular, followed by costumes depicting book and radio cartoon characters.
From the 1940s onward, you saw Halloween costumes depicting television and movie characters in the 1970s. Halloween costumes were tame until the later part of the 1980s when horror movies were popular, and there was inspiration for it by John Carpenter’s Halloween. It is fascinating to see the evolution of Halloween costumes over nearly two centuries.