Over A Century of Halloween Costume Evolution

Halloween is going to look a little different in 2020. Many of us will still be under social distancing restrictions and planning a more low key, home based celebration. However, this doesn’t mean the tradition of planning and constructing a costume is dead! We’ll be using our time in lockdown to come up with terrifying disguises to spook trick or treaters from 6 feet away.

Halloween costumes have been part of the festivities for a long time. The tradition has its origins in ‘mumming’ and ‘guising’ – costume ceremonies from 16th century Scotland and Ireland. Until the 19th century, costumes drew influence from the gothic and were crafted at home. Now that we are in the era of mass production of costumes, we want to take a look at how the 31st October festivities have evolved over the decades.

One of the oldest surviving Halloween photographs, London Stereoscopic Company 1865


A woman and five young boys in costume, 1890 


A teacher in the early 1900s greets her class in costume


Hand sewn costumes continued to be popular in the 1910s


Another trend from the 1910s was the addition of wheels, allowing the wearer to move like a ghost


Animal masks and costumes were also common in the early 1900s
By the 1910s, costumes were more polished. Halloween had previously been viewed as a country holiday linked to the harvest, but in the 1910s it began to gain popularity in cities


By the 1920s, costumes were again more polished. They were likely to still be home made, but the techniques were more accessible. Many people made masks from paper mache.
Although most people in the 20s still made their costumes, Pennsylvania-based company Beistle Company began releasing accessories and party decorations.


As the 1920s progressed, the tradition of throwing lavish costume parties became more established.


The 1930s is when Halloween began to be viewed as a holiday for children to enjoy. In this decade costumes became more common commercially and large public organised events became more popular.


Whereas costumes had previously been made at home, mass production of costumes and particularly masks began in the 1930s.


The concept of Trick or Treat took off in the 1930s. Originally it was a response to widespread vandalism and rioting on the Halloween following the crash of Wall Street – proposed as a more wholesome Halloween activity for young people.


The 1930s was also the first time licenced costumes came to market. The iconic Ben Cooper company partnered with Disney to create the first costumes based on characters such as Mickey Mouse.


In the 1940s, store bought costumes for adults grew in popularity.


No longer restricted to sewing their own costumes, women in the 40s started to purchase more ‘sexy’ variations of witch, cat and pirate attires.
Children also had more options in the 1940s, as department stores began carrying licensed costumes from Ben Cooper and other companies. Stores also began advertising their costumes directly to children using recognisable characters.


Post WWII, and the end of sugar rationing saw the creation of many sweets and candy brands that are still associated with the holiday. While trick or treaters had previously been given baked items, fruit and nuts, suppliers began launching Halloween themed candy in this decade.


More professional costumes are seen in the 50s. As more households had access to television, major Halloween parades and celebrations were broadcast – events with larger budgets than seen before. This photograph is from a Halloween Parade in Anaheim, CA in the 1950s.
Costumes inspired by science fiction and space exploration also came to market in the 50s due to increasing interest in these fields.


As television became more a part of everyday life, TV characters and franchises were becoming household names. Costumes inspired by Batman, Catwoman and Superman became popular with children of the 1960s.


The 1960s was also the point that most people bought complete costumes in stores. Costume sets – containing perhaps a suit, mask or makeup, hat and gloves – also began replacing the one piece costumes of early manufacturers.


Although costume sets were on the rise, the costumes of the 1960s usually featured simple designs for the body but more detailed masks – particularly those depicting characters from popular culture.


The release of Star Wars dominated public attention and Halloween costumes of the late 1970s.


The 1970s was the beginning of the Halloween attraction industry. Several famous haunts had their start in this decade, including Knotts Scary Farm pictured here.


The range of pop culture costumes continued to expand in the 1970s.
Halloween also became more celebrated within schools and in a wider variety of public spaces in the 70s.


Costumes based on pop culture continued to be popular in the 1980s, as seen in this group of children dressed as E. T at a Halloween party at the Museum of Science in Boston, on Friday, Oct. 29, 1982.


The beginning of home medium influenced costumes. For the first time, most film fans could afford a means of watching movies at home. The video nasty era meant more people were exposed to gory and extreme horror films. This was reflected in costumes that were increasingly gory and gruesome.


In the 1990s costumes based on current events we’re the latest trend. Costumes often included masks made to resemble topical celebrities, politicians and notorious figures were popular. Some stores drew criticism for these costumes – including a mask of OJ Simpson who was then on trial for murder.


Many brands also partnered with costume makers in the 90s. Products which didn’t seem likely costumes became the norm – with kids dressing a various candies, fast food mascots and well known branded objects.


Red carpet Halloween parties became a talking point in the 2000s. There was suddenly great interest in which celebrities would wear the best, most elaborate costumes.


As we moved into a new millennium, costumes were inspired by the latest films and television shows. 101 Dalmatians was remade this decade, and both puppy and Cruella costumes were popular.


In the US, many were unsure how to celebrate Halloween less than two months after 9/11. Parents reported that they were less likely to buy kids gory or violent costumes. Some large events paid tribute to the victims with special displays. Here’s a display of Jack-o-lanterns commemorating the September 11 attacks as part of the Halloween Spectacular at Roger Williams Zoo on October 31, 2001.


Some franchises were so popular that stores couldn’t keep up with demand. The Power Ranger suits and masks were worn by many 2000s kids.


As more movies were geared towards families – with a few naughty jokes inserted for the benefit of parents – we began to see adult size costumes based on animated characters in the 2000s. Some popular choices included Toy Story, Spongebob and Shrek.

What Halloween costumes were popular the decade you were born? Would you like to wear any of the costumes of the past?

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