It is believed the earliest mention of wearing a costume at Halloween dates back to 1585 in Scotland; however, the practice was most likely common place before then. The tradition of costumes originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts. Wearing costumes on All Hallows Eve, aka Halloween, came from the belief that supernatural beings, or the souls of the dead, roamed the Earth on October 31st. People dressed up to impersonate the dead and go house-to-house reciting verses or songs in exchange for offerings on behalf of supernatural entities. Impersonating these beings was also a means of protecting oneself from them.
In other parts of Western Europe, Halloween costumes developed from the custom of poor people going door-to-door collecting offerings as representatives of the dead or in return for saying prayers for them. As the centuries progressed, various Pagan and Christian rituals mixed and blended to form the basic celebration of the Halloween we know today.
In North America in the 19th century, Halloween was often celebrated with parades and mostly gothic or ghoulie homemade costumes worn primarily by children. By the 1930s, companies began mass-producing costumes for sale in stores as trick-or-treating became popular. By 1937 A. S. Fisbach, a New York company, held the license to Disney characters such as Donald Duck, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, and the Big Bad Wolf. So, it’s been over 80 years of Disney owning American childhoods.
Even though popular animated characters have been a basis for children’s costumes for most of the 20th and 21st centuries, the traditional monster getups like vampires, werewolves, zombies, ghosts, skeletons, witches, goblins, trolls, and devils are still prevalent across generations, genders, and cultures. In fact, these spooky costumes lend themselves to a multitude of variations from zombie prom-goers, to Casper the friendly ghost, to the witch from Narnia, or Queen Poppy from Trolls.
Speaking of Trolls and Narnia, in more recent years, science fiction and fantasy-inspired characters, as well as superheroes and aliens, have begun to take the place of the historic supernatural beings and beasts from earlier costume traditions. There are also costumes that pay homage to pop culture figures, athletes, celebrities, and characters in film, television, and even literature. Dressing up as “Wizard of Oz” characters takes both from the film and literary buckets, as well as Broadway, if you’re going as the Wicked Witch of the West.
Halloween is now a shared holiday for both children and adults, and while you can buy just about any costume in the store or online, there has always been a testament to the creativity of homemade costumes. Halloween allows individuals to express themselves as well as pay homage to their interest and push their craft skills. From sewing to papier mache to makeup, Halloween offers a chance to come up with some off-the-wall costumes. Last year on my street, a little boy was dressed as a toilet, and he’d lift the lid to put the candy in the bowl. His mother made the whole thing from cardboard. Odd? For sure! Impressive? Definitely!
Of course, not everyone is skilled at costume-making or interested in purchasing a head-to-toe character. Even small touches like cat ears and wearing all black is a totally acceptable, low-maintenance costume. One year, I just wore butterfly wings and glitter; well, not just, I also had on jeans and a sweatshirt as I walked my daughter around to trick-or-treat. Parents, especially accompanying children, need functional costumes if they choose to dress-up at all. Here these past few years, there’s been a rise in family costumes. Whether worn to a party, trick-or-treating or just for photos to post on social media, many families costume around a theme or related characters. Last year, my husband, our daughters, and I all dressed as pandas. Another family down the block dressed up as The Incredibles, and I saw on Instagram the Addams Family with the dog as Cousin It.
So, while costumes originated as part of Celtic festivals to ward off or pay homage to the dead, hundreds of years later, they are now a means of expressing creativity, humor, and paying homage to favorite characters or historical figures. This year, I think we’ll be seeing a lot of folks dressed up as Ruth Bader Ginsburg because all you need is a black robe, crochet collar, pearls, and glasses. And we’ll also see a lot of Baby Yodas and maybe a few Tiger Kings.
From mythical creatures to pop culture phenomenon, the history of Halloween costumes runs the full gamut.