The evolution of Halloween dress

From peculiar ensembles, constructed at home, in the early 1900s to the daring versions of anything and everything that are being mass produced in today’s society, we ask ourselves the question, why do we dress up for Halloween?  Although it is debatably one of the greatest parts of Halloween, it is important to consider the history behind what encourages us to change our whole attire, to be something or someone different, like no other holiday event.

1900's self made masks and costumes. The evolution of Halloween dress

1900’s self made masks and costumes

As with most holidays, Halloween’s origins date back thousands of years ago – in fact, an early reference, of costume, originated, very loosely, from the old Celtic legends, Samhain, which concerned the closeness between the mundane world and that of the spirits, to be very thin. According to Livescience, “there was a belief that it was a day when spirits of the dead would cross over into the other world,” it is fragmentally considered that people feared they would encounter the dead if they left their homes, so, to avoid being recognised by these spirits, “young men dressed with masked, veiled or blackened faces, dressed in white or disguises of straw. This purpose of costume was intended both to trick the ghosts into mistaking them for fellow spirits, and to fool households they visited, typically known today as ‘trick or treating’.

Victorian Witches costume. The evolution of Halloween dress

Victorian Witch costume

Halloween first became popular in America during the mid-1800s when Irish citizens came to the US, to flee Ireland’s potato famine in 1846, bringing the tradition of Halloween with them.  In the Victorian ages, costume inspiration came from the influence of gothic themes in literature, and dressing as bats and ghosts made a common appearance.

1900's Woman on roller skates. The evolution of Halloween dress

1900’s Woman on roller skates

At the turn of the 1900’s, costumes were self-made with fabric and papier-mâché. Women typically wore their every day attire with the addition of a homemade mask, which was considered frightening during this time. One particular image from 1910, presents a woman wearing black clothing, a mask and rollers skates to create her costume.

1930's Minnie Mouse costume. The evolution of Halloween dress

1930’s Minnie Mouse costume

By the time we hit the 1930’s, diverse styles of conventional Halloween costume, still flooded the night of Halloween but, costume began to evolve and popular culture made its first appearance in Halloween dress. The likes of Minnie Mouse and iconic artists were used as symbols for their costume. Shifting forward to the 1950’s, the arrival of television allowed people to take inspiration from their favourite TV characters including Superman, Zorro and Tarzan. Not only this, western films were at the height of popularity, and many women would dress up as cowgirls and Indians.

1950's cowgirl costume. The evolution of Halloween dress

1950’s cowgirl costume

This developed through the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s. The 1980’s mark the most significant turn of Halloween costume, as people could dress up as anything or anyone they wanted. Most iconically, Elvira costumes inspired by the horror TV host Cassandra Peterson appeared during this decade after the release of the 1988 film Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Furthermore, whilst contemporary costume began evolving, people often looked back to past decades for inspiration – including the 1920’s flapper.

1980'S Elvira Costume. The evolution of Halloween dress

1980’S Elvira Costume

1980's Flapper girl costume for the 20's. The evolution of Halloween dress

1980’s Flapper girl costume for the 20’s

Developing on from the 1990’s spice girl tradition, the 21st century culture clarifies there is much more available than frightening characters, and continues to motivate people to be creative with their ensembles. A long blonde wig and ‘A little bit dramatic’ tee could easily transform a woman into Rachel McAdam’s Regina George, while a curly wig and a long black Victorian dress could turn anyone into Helena Bonham Carter’s character Mrs.Lovett in 2007  horror film Sweeney Todd.

Mrs Lovett Costume. The evolution of Halloween dress

Mrs Lovett Costume

From terrifying ghosts to fictional characters, Halloween has drifted from the haunting concept and instead is used as opportunity to dress up for thrill and fun! What do you think is next for Halloween dress?

Images: Ayers House Museum, Daily mail,

Text: Ella Buxton

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