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The spooky evolution of the Halloween costume

ByLaura Hendry

Oct 28, 2017

Every Halloween, hordes of people flood the streets in fancy dress to celebrate the festival of All Hallow’s Eve. Or, more likely, as an excuse to dress up in weird and wonderful costumes. Today, anything goes if you add a little fake blood to it – but how did this tradition come to be and how has it evolved over time?

Halloween is said to have originated from the ancient pagan festival of Samhain, a celebration for the Celtic new year on 1 November. Many dressed up as souls of the dead and were understood to be protecting themselves from malevolent spirits by impersonating them. On 31 October they would burn crops and animals as a sacrifice to their gods and, wearing costumes made out of animal skins, they would try to tell each other’s fortunes.

Halloween is extremely popular in the USA and this has had a large influence on our attitudes in Britain today. However, the holiday wasn’t popularised in America until the mid-1800s when large numbers of Irish migrants came to the USA to flee Ireland’s potato famine, bringing the tradition with them. The new immigrants helped to make Halloween a national holiday, and Americans started dressing up in costumes and going door to door looking for food or money – a practice that is now known as trick-or-treating.

In the early 1900s, most costumes were made by hand with papier-mâché and fabric material. Throughout the ‘roaring 20s’, people continued to make their own costumes from home, where they became much more lavish and polished, reflecting the glamour of the era.

The 1930s saw a marked change in the way Halloween costumes were manufactured when Ben Cooper, Inc. started mass-producing costumes for the wider public. With the increasing dominance of Hollywood, people began to dress as their favourite characters from films and literature. Walt Disney first drew Minnie and Mickey Mouse in 1928, which inspired many Halloween costumes throughout the 1930s, as did Frankenstein costumes when Mary Shelley’s novel emerged in 1931.

War impacted the celebration of Halloween in the 1940s, with sugar-rationing putting a halt to the tradition of trick-or-treating. It was also during this time, however, that women’s costumes started to become more daring and revealing, with Halloween-themed pin-ups featuring models dressed as glamorous witches and black cats.

The 1950s saw the rise of people dressing as television characters, as it became more common for the middle classes to own a television set. In the 1960s, Halloween costumes reflected the changing times of political upheaval, particularly as women felt inclined to dress more liberally following the release of Betty Friedan’s revolutionary 1963 book The Feminine Mystique. Three years later, Julie Newman debuted as Catwoman in the Batman TV series, which became a go-to for female Halloween costumes.

Pop culture trends continued to dominate at Halloween throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, as superheroes and political figures became a particular inspiration. The popularity of Richard Nixon costumes grew after the Watergate scandal at the beginning of the 1970s and paved the way for dressing up as political characters today.

In the 1990s, it became common for people to coordinate group costumes, particularly following the success of pop groups like the Spice Girls and cartoon characters such as Power Rangers.
Finally, we arrive at the new millennium; costumes have become more controversial than ever before.

From Harambe to the ‘internet breaking’ Kim Kardashian, there may no longer be anything ‘scary’ about our costumes in the classical sense, but this does not mean to say that they are any less entertaining. Halloween may have morphed from an ancient event into a commercial beast, but it brings a hefty celebration with it regardless.


Image: Kat Cassidy

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