Wicked Halloween Costume Ideas, Enchanting Tricks & Delicious Treats

History of Halloween Costumes

Image of red and blue masks at Carnival in Venice.

Red and blue masks at Carnival in Venice

It has become a tradition for Americans to dress up in costumes on Halloween, but many details are still unknown about how and when this tradition first started. Popular theory points tot he ancient Celts, but we really don't have any evidence to support this belief.

Some of the first cases of costuming can be recognized in the traditional Mummers' and Guisers' Plays from as far back as the early 1700s and the Souling tradition on All Saint's Day (November 1st) and All Soul's Day (November 2nd) when Soulers visited houses, sang songs and received gifts in return in the form of food, drink or money.

Masquerades also historically represent the significance of costuming. These elaborate festivities can be traced back to the 15th century (and possibly earlier), as elaborate pageants and processionals that celebrated marriages and other important events during late medievl times.

Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a traditional Latin American holiday from Mexico that got its roots from the indigenous cultures of the area. It is believed that these rituals celebrating the deaths of ancestors have been happening for the last 2,500 to 3,000 years.

Although the exact traditions vary from town to town and city to city, one of the most common sights during Dia de los Muertos is the skull (calavera) that is depicted with both masks and food. Elaborate and colorful costumes as well as fresh flowers also play an important role for the participants.

Given our current Halloween costuming traditions, it seems that we probably own something to Mardi Gras and Carnival. Today, Mardi Gras is synonymous with New Orleans and the season of Lent. Translated literally from French, Mardi Gras means "Fat Tuesday" and references the celebrations of eating fatty foods before the ritual fasting begins on Ash Wednesday.

Carnival also happens just before Lent and is a traditionally festive season with public parades, street parties, and elaborate and whimsical costumes and masks. Carnival is usually celebrated in Roman Catholic societies with the Carnival of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil among the world's largest and most popular events.

The custom of getting dressed up in costumes and going "guising" or trick-or-treating at Halloween also has roots in some early Christian customs that existed in Western Europe during the 15th century. For instance, guising was first recorded to be occurring in Scotland around 1895 when people went out masquerading in costume and carrying lanterns carved out of turnips. They would visit homes in their neighborhood and receive fruit, cakes or money in return.

In North American, the first recorded event of guising can be traced to 1911 in kingston, Ontario, Canada where children were reportedly "guising" around the neighborhood.

The History of Halloween Costumes in America

Dressing up Halloween costumes is most common in America. Our practice of costuming may actually have started because of a 200 year old Thanksgiving practice. During the 19th century, children sometimes wore costumes and went begging for food from house-to-house.

Another common practice that was happening in America around the same time was belsnicking. Belsnicking is German in its origin and is very similar to the Mumming traditions (mentioned above) performed by the ancient Celts. An English version of two German words: Pels (fur) and Nicholas (St. Nicholas), it simply means a furry St. Nicholas. Belsnicking, or pelsing as it became known, involved a group in costume or masquerade that would visit neighbors house-to-house and the neighbors would have to guess who they were. Seasonal treats of cider and cake were often shared during these visits that occurred during the Christmas holiday.

Vintage Woolwoth's Halloween Costume Advertisment graphic

Vintage Woolwoth's Halloween Costume Ad

These two customs probably have the strongest influence on the Halloween costuming and Trick-or-Treat traditions that we enjoy today.

As a way to help prevent mischievous pranksters from destroying personal property, allowing children to dress up in costumes and go trick-or-treating was encouraged by many American cities in the early 1900s. One of the first known costume contests started in Danville, Illinois in 1912 and also included a costume parade and cash prizes for selected categories.

Not to be outdone, adults soon jumped on the costuming bandwagon and it quickly spread into the popular culture mainstream.

Popular Halloween Costume Ideas

Generally speaking, the most popular Halloween costumes in any given year are represented by what the society is experiencing at that time:

  • In the 1950s, Lucille Ball and Bugs Bunny were most popular
  • In the 1960s, we saw the emergence of the Munsters and Star Trek along with the political divides of war and the hippies
  • In the 1970s and 80s, costumes took on more of a character essence with the likes of Mr. T, Scooby Doo and Pac-Man
  • During the 1990s, we saw the introduction of products with life-size costumes for Hershey's Kisses, M&M's, Snicker's, etc.

Today, any event (whether man-made or natural) is fodder for costume creation. In the last few years, some of the most popular costumes at Halloween have been:

  • Hannibal Lecter
  • Lady Gaga
  • BP Oil Worker
  • Paul the Octopus
  • Michael Jordan
  • Snooki from Jersey Shore
  • Michael Myers from Halloween movies
  • Harry Potter
  • Michael Jackson
  • The Mad Hatter

Over the past few years, there has also been a dramatic increase in the popularity of pet costumes. Now more than ever, our pets are family members and it only seems fair to include them in our activities - no matter how zany they may be.

Some very creative people always take the time to create their own unique costume, while others prefer to just go pick one out.

In 1916, the first disposable paper costumes were sold and in 1930, Sears and Roebuck sold its first costume. As with most things in America, it wasn't until the economy started booming after World War II when the production of costumes really took off. Most memorabilia collectors consider the period between 1948 and 1975 to be the golden age of Halloween costumes.

Collegeville manufacturers started making costumes in the early 1920s, even though they began as a flag maker in the early 1900s.

Ben Cooper licensed popular characters from Star Wars to "Strawberry Shortcake" and got started producing their first costumes in the early 1930s.

One of the manufacturing leaders today is Rubies Costume Company which was started by Rubin Beige and his wife Tillie in Queens, New York in 1950, as a candy store and eventually grew into costumes.

Vintage Batmand Costume Box

Batmand Costume Box

Some of my own first memories of Halloween involved a trip to K-Mart with my mom where I could pick out my costume. I don't specifically remember who made the costumes, but they all came in boxes.

The box was printed with vibrant colors and information about the character costume inside and on top of the box was a cellophane window through which you could easily see the mask.

Oh, the possibilities!

Halloween was, and remains, one of my favorite times of the year.

These costumes were always plastic (or vinyl) and could generally only be worn for one night of trick-or-treating. I don't think I ever returned home on Halloween night when my plastic costume didn't have huge tears in it.

And, because I grew up in New England, Connecticut to be more precise, it was usually very cold by the time October 31st rolled around and sometimes it even snowed on Halloween! So, we learned to buy a costume that was one or two sizes too large so that I could fit layers of clothes (or a winter coat and mittens) beneath my costume - yet still be able to fit into my costume without ripping it before I even stepped outside the house.

One I hit the 5th or 6th grade, I was just too cool to be seen in a plastic costume - so I moved into the "create your own" homemade costume phase. This was always fun and usually resulted in some pretty crazy outfits constructed from old clothes.

Sometimes its fun just buying a costume because you know exactly what you're getting, but there is something special to be experienced by creating your very own unique Halloween costume that you know exists no place else in the world.

Reference: The Halloween Encyclopedia - Second Edition by Lisa Morton