Halloween Costume Trends Through a Historic Lens

By Julie Hansbury

A mask you ask? Optional I find! Masks lend appeal of a mysterious kind.— E.A. Bucchianeri

On the last night of October, dusk descends upon an ancient Celtic settlement. The late autumn air chills the bones, and the scent of cold, wet earth and decaying leaves assails the senses. Jagged outlines of leafless trees are softened by a smoky haze. Folks congregate to celebrate Samhain, a Gaelic festival marking the transition of seasons — fall to winter; harvest to hibernation. Communal bonfires, symbolic of the sun’s power, illuminate hilltops. In the garish orange glow radiating from the flickering flames, festivities of folk song and dance commence. People thrust torches into the scintillating inferno to take its fire back to light ablaze the hearths in their homes. The smoke and ashes from the fire are thought to cleanse and protect the people in the cold months to come.

The prevailing belief is that on this night, the “veil” that separates this world from the next thins, allowing fairies and spirits of the dead (known as the Aos Si) to emerge from doorways opened to the “Otherworld.” And thus people leave food, drink, and remnants from the harvest outside their front doors in order to placate and satiate the Aos Si. When leaving their homes, they don masks to imitate and disguise themselves as fellow Aos Si.

Fast forward to the 8th century. Early Church practices influence and merge with ancient traditions. As the sun sets and darkness falls on the eve of All Saints’ Day (observed on November 1), the Church begins its vigil celebration. This celebration lasts through All Souls’ Day on November 2, and honors saints, martyrs, and the souls of the departed. This observance, lasting three days, was known as “Allhallowtide.” And thus is born “All Hallows’ Eve,” shortened later to “Hallow E’en” and then to Halloween.

The precursors of modern-day trick-or-treating – “souling” and “guising,” can be observed in the bustling streets of medieval England during this hallowed celebration. The sweet scent of “soul cakes,” given to “soulers” in exchange for prayers for deceased relatives, wafts in the air. The soulers’ sweet, solemn prayers can be overheard departing their lips. “Guisers,” or young people dressed in costume, go door-to-door hoping to receive treats in exchange for recitation of poetry, performances of song and dance, and relaying of stories and jokes.

Immigrants and migrants alike came from costume-wearing countries to the United States, and they brought with them their own unique traditions. As the 19th century unfolded, Scottish immigrants transported their customs to the New World. In Mexico, a similar celebration, Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, has been observed for centuries, and it too has taken root (and transformed) in the United States. Much like the ancient festival of Samhain, this celebration comprises the giving of gifts and offerings to the deceased (including ethnic food and treats) and the wearing of sugar skull masks called calaveras. As people from these countries came to the United States to travel, work, and live, elements of their own cultural traditions fused, and the seeds of modern-day trick-or-treating and costume-wearing were planted.

In the mid-20th century, today’s commercialized version of trick-or-treating materialized. Prior to the 1950s, tricks were more common than treats. Costumes depicting characters from popular culture emerged alongside a shift toward a kid-friendly and family-
centered holiday. Not until many decades later did adults begin to more actively participate in costume-wearing and other Halloween festivities. Since the advent of these phenomena, the Halloween costume industry has grown exponentially — in the United States alone, it draws revenues exceeding a half trillion dollars each year, with nearly half of that coming from costumes sales alone.

Costume trends since the 1950s appear to be guided by Hollywood and other areas of popular culture. Some common themes remain consistently popular over time, such as heroes, superstars, favorite television and/or Disney characters, horror film ghouls, and famous personalities. For example, “Star Wars” soared to the top of the list in the 1980s, made a comeback in the 1990s, and will likely be popular again this year with new episodes recently released. Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean has been a smashing hit since the turn of the century. In recent years, costumes depicting Lady Gaga, Snooki, and Disney’s Princesses Anna and Elsa became popular. These themes have all coalesced into the
modern holiday.

Popular fads aside, the stuff of folklore, legend, literature and myth remain fashionable. Witches and werewolves; skeletons and swamp creatures; monsters and mummies; ghosts and goblins; vampires and villains — the spooks that have haunted imaginations for centuries — continue to influence the psyche of Hollywood, the Halloween industry, and costume selection. And speaking to residents in the local community, it appears that timeless trends will persist this year. When asked what costume her middle-school aged son would wear for Halloween this year, one Fairview mother responded, “Anything that scares other people to death!”

As the Halloween costume industry grows, so too does the Halloween costume frenzy. We’re increasingly inundated with, and overwhelmed by, a greater selection. Costumes and accessories become more expensive (and in some cases, more elaborate) each year. A Fletcher resident recalls nearly all her friends making costumes growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. She says, “It was just simpler then. My mother helped us put costumes together, handmade.” Today, many people head to specialty costume stores for their costumes, push through frantic crowds, and wait in long lines just to assure that they secure the perfect ensemble for Halloween night.

Many, however, maintain customs of old while still relishing in the new. Trunk-or-treating, organized and offered by many local churches, is a relatively new (and typically safer) alternative to traditional trick-or-treating (which is still common is many area neighborhoods). Bobbing for apples, navigating corn mazes, lighting bonfires, roasting marshmallows, telling spooky tales, and making creative costumes can all be done in good fun, and on a budget (especially with the advent of e-commerce).

Costume-wearing traditions of the past are akin to those we’ve forged today. Modern traditions, such as trick-or-treating, trace their origins back to ancient Celtic, medieval, and other ethnic celebrations, both secular and sacred. Those who celebrated the harvest all those centuries ago paved the way for Hollywood-inspired trends and a multi-billion-dollar costume industry. Though they’ve evolved over time, some costume trends (especially stock, scary ensembles) outlast the test of time. Whether we don our masks to mimic or to spook; to stand out or to fit in; to enlighten or entertain; to escape or to feel more connected, one thing’s for certain — we all do it to have fun. And surely, it’s a tradition that will continue to evolve but remain the same in many ways for years to come.

What will your guise be this year?

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