The History of Halloween Costumes
- Origins of the Halloween Costume
- The Spread of Christianity
- Late 1700s–1800s
- In the United States
For centuries, costumes have played a central role in Halloween celebrations around the world. Today, consumers are afforded a wide array of costume options, both simple and complex, limited only by the extent of their imagination. This allows both children and adults the opportunity to dress as their favorite characters (or creatures) each year. As with many traditions, however, the origins of the Halloween costume are often lost to the process of time itself.
The historical roots of the Halloween costume have been masked (no pun intended) in a shadow of obscurity that few understand or acknowledge. This article explores the origins of the costume in an attempt to understand not only the significance of this special holiday but also the social and religious precepts that are embedded in its history.
Origins of the Halloween Costume
Halloween can trace its origins to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (history.com). The Celts, who lived nearly 2,000 years ago in the regions of England, Northern France, and Ireland, celebrated Samhain as part of their “New Year” festivities. November 1st marked the beginning of the Celtic new year and winter and was a time often associated with death. On the night before their new year (October 31st), the Celts believed that “the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred,” allowing spirits of the dead to return to Earth for a brief span of time (history.com).
Because the Celts believed that these spirits caused mischief (and damaged crops), druids (Celtic priests) would often light large bonfires for the purpose of animal sacrifice. While making ritual sacrifices to their deities (in the hope of appeasing the spirit world), the Celts believed it was necessary to “disguise” themselves against these spirits by dressing in costume. These disguises were often simple in design and were likely created from animal hides or heads. Costumes, in turn, served as sacred “icons,” and played a major role in the exchange (sacrifice) of animals for good fortune during the winter months that followed.
Following the Roman conquest of 43 A.D., these customs continued to flourish for the next 400 years but were combined with the Roman celebrations of Feralia (the commemoration of the dead in late October) and Pomona (the Roman goddess of fruit).
The Spread of Christianity
By the Ninth Century, Christianity had spread throughout much of Europe (including former Celtic lands). Although many of the Celtic beliefs remained intact, the arrival of Christianity slowly began to supplant many of the Celts’ older traditions. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church, well aware of its need to incorporate (and appease) non-believers established “All Soul’s Day” (later known as All Saints’ Day) as a holiday to be celebrated on November 2nd in place of Samhain. Despite the change in name, however, many of the same traditions of the Celts—including the large bonfires and dressing in disguises—persisted with only minor alterations (history.com). Costumes, for example, continued to be worn in an attempt to disguise ones’ self against evil spirits, but were done within the realms of a Christian perspective; eschewing animal hides and heads in favor of costumes that depicted saints, demons, or angelic beings (history.com).
Over the centuries that followed, festivals surrounding “All Hallows’ Eve” continued to evolve and incorporated many elements of modern-day trick-or-treating. During the 1600s, for example, individuals continued to dress as saints or spiritual beings (to hide from spirits), but also went door-to-door in a manner referred to as “souling.” Dressed in their spiritual garb, individuals would approach houses where they would then recite religious songs or verses in exchange for “soul cakes” (similar in texture and appearance to biscuits). It was widely believed that households that donated food would be blessed during the months that followed, while those that refused would incur misfortune for their inhospitable behavior.
Historians remain divided over why costumes and “souling” became so embedded in Christian beliefs during this era. However, it is widely believed that elements of the Celtic belief system continued to play a pivotal role in the decision to disguise one’s identity during All Saints’ Day and All Hallows’ Eve. Many Christians (Catholics in particular) believed that souls of the departed wandered the Earth once a year, and that All Saints’ Day provided them with one final opportunity to seek revenge against individuals that had wronged them during their Earthly life. To protect themselves from vengeful behaviors, therefore, early Christians would don masks or costumes to hide their identity from evil spirits bent on their destruction.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, costumes and the celebration of All Hallows’ Eve were relatively rare in Colonial America due to the strict laws and beliefs of the Puritan church and Protestant-based immigrants. Throughout Europe, however, costumes continued to play a major role in festivities; albeit with a far darker undertone than celebrations of the past. In Ireland and Scotland, for example, guising and door-to-door interactions continued to flourish. Instead of “souling,” however, individuals increasingly shunned costumes that personified religious characters or beings in favor of more evil and threatening figures. After painting or blackening their faces (in an attempt to appear more sinister), individuals would often go door-to-door demanding various treats (or money) in exchange for peace to the homeowner. For those who refused, mischief and pranks often followed (one of the first recorded instances of the modern-day concept of “trick-or-treating”).
Costume selection varied significantly from culture to culture during this period. In Wales, for example, it was common for men to dress as ferocious beings known as a “Gwrachod,” while in other areas of Europe it was common for young people to cross-dress (Hutton, 382). Nevertheless, a clear preference for the scary and gruesome elements of the imagination often prevailed in the majority of localities, with costumes depicting an assortment of devils, ghosts, and ferocious beings.
In the United States
The emergence of Halloween and guising in the United States was a direct response to immigration (particularly from the Irish who were fleeing Ireland due to the Potato Famine) and the declining influence of the Puritans in the late-1800s. As millions of European immigrants entered the United States during this period, “a distinctly American version of Halloween began to emerge” as the meshing of cultures helped to produce a unique blend of traditions and customs that continue to flourish in the present day (history.com). It wasn’t until the mid-1900s, however, that Americanized trick-or-treating began to take hold throughout the United States; complete with wild outfits and the custom of receiving treats door-to-door. Instead of representing religious or sacred elements though, costumes in the 20th Century lost most of their “superstitious and religious overtones” as community leaders sought to secularize the holiday. This was particularly true during the 1950s, as the celebration “evolved into a holiday directed mainly at the young” (history.com).
As the holiday's focus shifted in the United States during the mid-1900s, retailers such as A. S. Fishbach and Ben Cooper recognized the profitability of the holiday and began to mass-produce Halloween costumes in the late 1930s. Early costumes continued many of the traditions formerly practiced during the Middle Ages and included designs that imitated both the supernatural and spiritual world (such as ghosts). Due to the influence of Irish customs and traditions, however, scarier concepts emerged soon after, including vampires, zombies, skeletons, witches, devils, and werewolves (ideas that would have been inconceivable during the Puritan era). True to the holiday’s creative spirit, costumes continued to evolve in the decades that followed and began to incorporate designs based around science-fiction and superheroes. In more recent years, costumes favoring politics, television, and literature have also become quite popular, along with those considered either “sexy” or “revealing” by modern standards.
“A person should always choose a costume which is in direct contrast to her own personality.”— Lucy van Pelt (It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!)
In closing, costumes have played a pivotal role in the celebration of Halloween (or related festivities) for centuries. Although rooted in spiritual and religious precepts, the Halloween costume has slowly evolved over the years into a highly-profitable and secular concept. The National Retail Federation estimates that Americans plan to spend nearly $3.2 billion on dressing up for the 2019 season alone, making October 31st one of the most profitable holidays of the year for retailers (nrf.com). While current costumes remain shrouded behind high-profits and fanciful thinking, however, elements of their original purpose and intent continue to showcase themselves in modern designs. For those willing to look beyond the costume’s outward form and appearance, Halloween costumes possess a rich history that embodies the heart and spirit of countless cultures throughout time.
“Halloween.” NRF. Accessed October 17, 2019. https://nrf.com/insights/holiday-and-seasonal-trends/halloween.
History.com Editors. “Halloween 2019.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, November 18, 2009. https://www.history.com/topics/halloween/history-of-halloween.
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© 2019 Larry Slawson