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Halloween Costume History and Ideas

by Helena Spydell

The practice of wearing a Halloween costume every year on the evening of October 31st holds a certain nostalgia for many people. They remember fondly their childhood costumes, trick-or-treating ventures, and coming home after a long night, feeling slightly sick from the candy, but still incredibly happy that their parents allowed them to stay out so late. The nostalgia of Halloween, along with the excitement of choosing a costume, is what makes people of all ages dress up and get together with friends or family to hand out candy, go to a haunted house, or watch a scary movie.

However, Halloween did not have this connotation when it was initially celebrated - in fact, it was tainted with a sense of dread. Halloween originated from a Celtic festival that marked the beginning of winter. One practice of this festival was called mumming and guising, where individuals would dress up as evil beings, wearing masks or smearing ash on their faces, and recite songs at houses to receive food. The act of dressing up as these spirits were believed to protect the wearer from being harmed by one. This tradition continued and was transferred to Christian belief in the 15th century. Christian minister Prince Sorie Conteh described how, "It was traditionally believed that the souls of the departed wandered the earth until All Saints' Day, and All Hallows' Eve provided one last chance for the dead to gain vengeance on their enemies before moving to the next world. In order to avoid being recognised by any soul that might be seeking such vengeance, people would don masks or costumes to disguise their identities."

The 20th century was the first recorded instance of American children dressing up in costume on Halloween. Trick-or-treating grew and became commercialized in the 1930s, and from there, Halloween became an annual holiday celebrated by almost all American families. Halloween costumes are arguably the most important part of this holiday. Traditionally, costumes depicted terrifying creatures, and many people continue this tradition by dressing up as a character from a horror movie.

Characters from movies and television are popular in general, and it is easy to throw a twist to a character by adding personal flair to the ensemble. Some people choose to go with a completely original costume of their own making, while group costumes with friends are often a fun way to get together and have a fun time. For the most part nothing is off the table in terms of attire. However, costumes that appropriate cultures by giving stereotypical representations of certain groups are always problematic and should never be worn. As a general rule, be mindful of the history of the costume and what it represents before choosing it.

Wearing a Halloween costume is a centuries-old tradition that leaves room for creativity and personality. Halloween is a fun holiday that has deep meaning, so be mindful of this during this year’s festivities. Happy haunting!


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