Every October 31st, millions of people leave their ordinary, day-to-day clothes hanging in their closets and instead, don costumes. Only on this day is it acceptable to wear outrageously fun and spooky clothes out and about. We call this celebration Halloween and many of us look forward to a night where we can forget ourselves and pretend to be someone, or something, we are not. Although most of us celebrate this holiday in costume, the origins of dressing up are usually forgotten.
Halloween started as a Celtic tradition, the festival Samhain, celebrating the end of the harvest and beginning of the dark, winter months. The Celts believed that on this night, the dead’s spirits came back to Earth. One part of the festival was for the Celts to dress in costume, usually animal skins, to dupe the spirits.
In 609, Pope Boniface IV declared November 1st as the day to celebrate the Saints and Martyrs of the Christian faith. By 1000 AD the church dedicated November 2nd to souls of all Christians, All-Souls Day. By now, Christianity had spread to Celtic lands and in order to assert dominance, many Christian celebrations were held around the time of Pagan festivals to assimilate the Celts to the Christian religion by replacing their festivals with church sanctioned holidays. Now, every November 1st and 2nd, people dressed up as saints, angels, and demons during the festivities. The night before All-Saints Day, or All-Hallows Day, was called All-Hallows Eve, and later, Halloween.
During the All-Saints Day festivities, the poor would go to the houses of the wealthy, offering prayers for the deceased in exchange for small prayer cakes. This tradition morphed into a practice known as guising. Young Scottish and Irish youths would dress in costume and perform for treats.
Halloween came to America with many different ethnic settlers, creating a uniquely American celebration, where people held parties, told ghost stories, danced, and enjoyed the harvest. While not celebrated all around America, most parts of the country had some sort of fall harvest festival. With the Irish Potato Famine during the second half of the 1800s, millions of Irish refugees came to America, bringing their guising tradition, as well as other Halloween practices, with them.
Around the turn of the 20th century, parties for adults and children were common to celebrate the holiday. At these parties, people were encouraged to dress up and play games and enjoy treats. Costumes from this period are interesting. You can find some photos of Victorian and Edwardian Halloween costumes. They typically are normal clothing of the time with “spooky” themed fabrics or add-ons, like bat wings and a hat. Because of the strict morality of the Victorian era, costumes had to follow the strict dress code of the day and usually were based on gothic imagery. Yes, the great Halloween tradition of showing off more skin than is otherwise deemed appropriate, is a modern phenomenon.
About this time, Halloween became secular, with a push to disassociate the day from its ghostly, superstitious, and religious beginnings. In the 1920s and 1930s, trick-or-treaters would go out into the neighborhood, in costume, and ask for treats. This practice was encouraged by civic leaders and parents alike, because it was thought to stop the vandalism that was beginning to become rampant. Halloween truly became what it is today during the 1950s, with the Baby Boomer generation. It was around this time retailers started realizing that they could sell prepackaged Halloween costumes to children. Originally, these costumes were based on spooky beings, like ghosts, witches, and demons. Over the years, different retailers began to get licensing rights so they could sell costumes based on pop culture figures, like Disney characters or superheroes.
The Ben Cooper Company was one of the first major firms that licensed characters to create Halloween Costumes. Originally, Ben Cooper’s company supplied theater costumes, but around 1937, as the holiday tradition of trick-or-treating became more and more popular, Cooper found a niche market to sell spooky themed costumes to. His costumes became popular throughout the 1940s and 1950s. In the 1960s, he began selling costumes based on popular superheroes like Batman and Spiderman. The company went under when the September 1982 Tylenol poisonings caused many parents to prohibit their children from going out on Halloween night. Eventually, the company was bought by another costume producing firm. His costumes usually consist of a plastic mask and a smock with an image of what the costume is supposed to be of. Example: If a child wanted to be Darth Vader, a mask resembling him would be accompanied with a smock with a picture of Vader plastered on the front. While ridiculous today, it was revolutionary during its time.
The modern Halloween is a far cry from its Pagan roots. Instead of celebrating our passed loved ones and rejoicing in the end of harvest, we get dressed up in costumes and go door-to-door demanding candy from our neighbors. Growing up, this holiday was always my favorite. I relished getting into my Halloween costume for the year, listening to “The Monster Mash”, and going out into the night looking for treats, coming home hours later to count and enjoy the spoils of the evening.