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The History of Halloween Costumes

Updated: Dec 9, 2021

by Rennie Anderson

Halloween costumes, like fashion, follow trends and pop culture. Dressing up for Halloween has been a tradition since the late 19th century. As the years went on, the costumes and ideas of Halloween have changed and evolved.

People started dressing up for Halloween around 1870, in those days people would dress up extravagantly for most holidays. In the decades that followed spooky costumes were all the rage for Halloween. The goal was to hide your identity as opposed to dressing up as a particular thing. The costumes were supposed to be otherworldly and were made of dark fabrics, and often had moon symbols on them.

In the early 1900’s specifically, white people had a fascination with cultures, as they were seen to be “exotic.” White people started creating costumes based on traditional Asain attire and the clothing of Egyptian royalty. Americans also appropriated turbans and other symbols from what was considered “The Far East.” As we have learned more about cultural appropriation, and respecting other cultures, these costumes are less socially acceptable today, but were the norm at the time.

As Halloween became a night for teens and children to play tricks and cause a ruckus, it became even more important for costumes to hide the identity of the person. This started to change during and especially after the Great Depression, when parents started putting together activities such as trick-or-treating and haunted houses, to prevent people from causing a commotion. This is what started directing Halloween costumes to a younger audience.

In the 1920’s, paper masks and aprons became a staple for Halloween costumes. This was the first time that we started to see those iconic Halloween colors (black, purple, orange and yellow) appear a lot!

As the 1930’s and ’40’s went on, stores started to sell “ready-to-wear boxed costumes.” According to Insider, these costumes “usually included a plastic mask and a rayon costume depicting well-known characters from cartoons, books, and the radio.” These costumes were a luxury for many and were not common, but by World War II, that had changed and they became more affordable.

When the ’50’s and ’60’s rolled around, pop culture influenced the costumes much more than it had in the past. As more people started buying store-bought costumes, there was a wider variety of costumes. Mummies, princesses, and clowns became popular costumes. Cowboys and “Indians” (referring to Native people) were other costumes that exploded in popularity. Native people recognized these as offensive, and it’s still one of the most used examples of a no-go costume. As costumes started to reflect pop-culture more, we also started to see things like Frankenstein and Batman as common costumes.

Throughout the ’70’s and ’80’s, these pop-culture-influenced costumes continued. Gory horror movies started to become popular, consequently leading Halloween costumes to become scarier, bloodier, and much gorier.

From the 90’s up until now we see that costumes continue to follow current events and trends. “Halloween follows whatever the culture is doing and is a really good bellwether for what we're thinking about," explains folklore expert Lesley Bannatyne.

With the rise of horror movies, costumes like these, and more gory ones became very popular.(80’s)

Paper masks became staple for halloween costumes(20’s)

Pop culture started influencing costumes (50’s)


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