Something Old, Something BOO! Halloween History and Costumes in the 21st Century

Halloween is currently the second-largest commercial holiday in the world—especially impressive considering it’s primarily a North American phenomenon, although it’s related to events elsewhere and media representations give it global reach. The American public will spend around $8.4 billion on Halloween this year, up from $6.9 billion in 2015, with $3.1 billion of that on costumes. Per capita Canadians spend even more, breaking $1 billion in 2014.

People love Halloween for lots of reasons—the abundance of candy, the opportunity to stock up on gothy décor and accessories, the chance to show off your sweet cosplay or gory DIY decorations, the license to do things you ordinarily wouldn’t by shedding your day-to-day identity and becoming somebody else. Although making and wearing costumes is arguably the defining characteristic of Halloween now, the story of Halloween is over 2000 years old. The significance and function of costumes has changed repeatedly as the occasion has evolved, and will continue to do so. It’s interesting to consider, as you put together the pieces of your costume this year, you’re participating in something that’s both very old and very new.

Halloween’s early roots are in pagan traditions, specifically the observance of Samhain (pronounced SA-win) on and around November 1 by the Celts living in what are now the British Isles and the western edge of continental Europe. According to the Celts’ druidic religion, Samhain marked the end of the year at the end of the harvest season and the birth of a new year beginning with the cold, dark winter months. In this liminal space between years the “veil” separating the world of the living from the world of the dead was at its thinnest, allowing supernatural entities such as ghosts and faeries to roam among the living. The proximity of the two worlds was dangerous but also useful, making Samhain a propitious time for prayers, magic, and fortune-telling. The Celts celebrated the new year with huge bonfires and feasts, dressed in animal skins and masks for ritual purposes and to avoid malicious spirits, and offered sacrifices to their gods and food to otherworldly guests.

When the Romans came to Celtic territory, officially conquering the Celts by 43 CE, they added to the tradition of Samhain by merging the event with holy days from their own calendar. Specifically, the Romans connected Samhain with Feralia, a day dedicated to remembering the dead, and the celebration of Pomona, the goddess of fruit and trees whose particular symbol was the apple (hence the persistent Halloween tradition of bobbing for apples).

Later in the 1st millennium Christian missionaries, determined to convert the Celts, found ways to absorb Samhain into Christian life as part of a larger program porting pagan practices and symbols into Christianity and augmenting them to fit the Christian world-view. In the 8th century the Church made November 1 All Saints’ Day, celebrating the entire pantheon of saints and martyrs: people who were hallowed (holy), generating the names Hallowmas and All Hallows”. That made the night on the eve of All Hallows’ Day All Hallow’s Eve or Hallow Evening, which linguistic evolution eventually squeezed down to “Hallowe’en”.

A few centuries later Hallowmas expanded to include November 2nd as All Souls’ Day, to honor all the dead, and the celebration of Hallowmas continued to feature practices from the Celtic and Roman events such as bonfires, parades, leaving offerings of food and drink for spirits, and wearing masks in order to blend in with roaming ghosts who might harm living people. We can trace today’s costumes and trick-or-treating back to these protective disguises, as well as the Christians’ love of “mumming” on major holidays and the practices of “souling” (poor people going door-to-door receiving “soul cakes” in exchange for prayers for the givers’ dead relatives) and “guising” (young people going door-to-door earning food, drinks, and money by performing songs, poems, or jokes).

European colonizers carried their already eclectic All Saints’/All Souls’ celebrations to the Americas, where they evolved along two paths to produce the holidays of Halloween in the USA and Canada and Dias de los Muertos in Mexico and other parts of Latin America.

Halloween really took off in the late 19th century, after a major influx of Irish immigrants brought their particularly Celtic-flavoured version of Hallowmas with them and popularized practices like dressing in costumes, begging for food door-to-door, and attempting to divine the future. American culture quickly reacted to secularize and sanitize Irish Halloween, domesticating the celebration into hosting house parties for children and adults that retained core elements like costumes, games, and seasonal food, but jettisoned more macabre or spiritual details.

Halloween continued to morph in the 20th century, first with the revival of trick-or-treating from the 1920s on, then in the 1950s through active efforts to make the celebration more of a community event, holding parties in larger, more public venues, to make it more kid-focused, and to curb the trend towards extreme vandalism and pranking by bribing young people with candy. In more recent decades, starting with the perfect storm of second-wave feminism, gay rights activism and community-building, and the sexual revolution in the ’70s coinciding with the Boomer-generation trick-or-treaters of the ’50s growing up, Halloween became again an event for adults celebrating in ostensibly adult ways. Costumes kept up with the times, with styles, materials, and inspiration echoing events in pop culture, economic conditions, and the political zeitgeist.

If it exists there’s a “sexy” costume of it.

The most talked-about Halloween trend so far this century has to be the “sexy” costume, something that started as early as the 1930s (if not earlier) and gained ground with the “maturation” of Halloween in the 1970s but has reached a fever pitch in the 2010s. Opinions on the phenomenon range from denouncing the perversion of a supposedly innocent event to praising the transgressive punch and historical legacy of costumes pushing whatever boundaries “are most obviously begging to be pushed” (arguments about exploitation and empowerment aside, charges that revealing costumes court hypothermia are valid with Octobers like the one we’re having in Toronto).

Most of this media coverage is concerned with the range of pre-made costume options available online and in stores. Commercially produced, packaged costumes have been around since the 1920s and skyrocketed in popularity as companies like Ben Cooper offered a cheap way to instantly become your favourite film, TV, or comic book character. Costume manufacturers continue to thrive selling kits for specific, officially licensed characters and their no-name brand doppelgangers as well as generic identities like “doctor” or “flapper”. The trouble “Slutoween” haters run into is that “sexy” costumes, and commercial costumes in general, sell. It’s a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle of supply and demand: people buy skimpy, absurdly titled synthetic minidresses because that’s what’s available, and it’s what’s available because people will buy it.

By this point in the 2010s mass-producers and crafty independents alike are hard-pressed to find anything to sexify that hasn’t already been tried. With our cultural turn towards postmodern irony and pastiche that search becomes the goal as we try to outdo ourselves creating the most outrageously WTF, jokingly “sexy”outfits, meta-costumes that poke fun at the phenomenon itself. This overlaps with another prominent theme in 21st century Halloween costumes: topical jokes, outfits that make a million-share headline or viral vine wearable. Manufacturers have seized on this as a marketing tool, creating bizarre or offensive products specifically to attract attention to their brand rather than with the expectation of actually selling them and crossing their fingers that they’ll go viral themselves. Unfortunately, with the rapid memetic turnover and abbreviated new cycle in the online era, the shelf life of such joke costumes is extremely brief, and designers must respond quickly or lose the moment entirely. It’s one thing when an individual recreates a social media-saturating image from pieces they’ve made or found in their closet or local thrift store, but something else when Big Halloween floods the market with sweatshop-sewn visual gags that become almost immediately irrelevant, passé or nonsensical, with little to no promise of reuse.

There are obvious advantages to making your own costumes—creative freedom, control over material and fit, recycling opportunity, and knowing you’ll be the only one at the party wearing exactly that, to name but a few—but not everyone has the creative inclination or the time, skills, and other resources necessary to realize their visions. In that sense ready-to-wear costumes are helpful, even necessary, to keep Halloween widely accessible. It’s also not an either-or choice: you can easily combine commercial with found or made elements, and resources abound, online and in the form of helpful staff at thrift and vintage stores and costume rental houses, to help you put together the look you want. And, while Halloween may now be big business, it’s small business too—look for ways to support (or join the ranks of!) the independent designers and craftspeople offering creative, top-quality, and totally custom costume options.

Written by Claire Dalmyn.

Photo credits:
Costume variety: Value Village
19th Century bat costumes: The Graphics Fairy
Deluxe Panda Bear costume: