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Creepy Costumes - Halloween through the Decades

Updated: Oct 25, 2020

Whether you're a fan of Halloween or not, it's the time of year where the shops are stocked full of Halloween themed sweets, home decorations, pumpkins, carving kits and of course - fancy dress costumes. Shop windows are full of fake spider webs and witches brooms and coffee shops are serving pumpkin spiced lattes and witches brews. Of course things are different this year as we battle with the pandemic on a global scale, each of our lives impacted by certain rules, guidance and restrictions. If, like me, you are in the UK (and more specifically in the north!) you will most likely have had to look at your normal seasonal celebrations differently this year.

There might not be the usual Halloween discos for the kids or club nights and parties for the adults (even Strictly have cancelled Halloween week this year!), but there will still be mini-celebrations happening within households and bubbles up and down the country. But why do we dress up in spooky costumes for Halloween? And what did people dress up as throughout the changing decades of fashion? Let's have a closer look at all things spooky...

Why do we dress-up at Halloween?

All Hallow's Eve has been widely celebrated all over the world but particularly in those countries with a Catholic background. In America, the much loved festival of Halloween actually dates back to the 1800s when the great potato famine drove large numbers of Irish immigrants into the US. They brought with them a whole culture, including that of Halloween. The deep folk roots of the Celts harks back to the festival of Samhain which was the first day of the Celtic New Year. The Celts believed that he souls of the dead were restless on this night, marking the transition from alive to dead, day to night, summer to winter and the old year to the new. Traditionally, the Celts would disguise their appearance at Samhain with large fur and feather coverings and hide their faces with masks, so as not to be seen or recognised by the restless spirits of the night. When the Celts converted to Christianity they combined Samhain with All Hallow's Eve and October 31st is what we know as Halloween to this day. Another Halloween tradition of carving faces in pumpkins and making them into lanterns also comes from Irish folklore. It was believed that Jack was a man so evil that he was even rejected at the gates of hell, instead being condemned to roaming the countryside with nothing but a glowing turnip for a head. This is why many still call this a Jack-o-lantern!

So the idea of dressing as scary or spooky beings like vampires, ghosts and witches stemmed from this idea that evil wouldn't attack their own kind and it something we still do to this day. However, in America specifically the idea of Halloween costumes isn't limited to just the horror and macabre genre. Back in the 1920s, companies realised that there was scope for more generalised fancy dress on the market. Collegeville Flag and Manufacturing Company were the first to produce all kinds of costumes for Halloween and they were swiftly followed by H.Halpern Company who started to seek licensing rights for popular film and cartoon characters too, appealing more to families with children. There was a man named Ben Cooper who would seek out the characters he thought would become most popular before they actually did, grabbing all the licenses along the way. By the 1960s he became the so-called King of Halloween as he brought all manner of pop-culture related costumes to the shelves.

What have Halloween costumes looked like through the decades?

1890s - These boys are really getting into character in their gangster and criminal outfits from the turn of the century, complete with hats, props and a whole lot of attitude!

1910s - These homemade witches costumes are really rather impressive! Possibly a little longer in length than their modern equivalents and these ladies are wearing a little less make-up, but surprisingly modern for over 100 years ago!

1920s - These girls were all ready for a night of spooky shenanigans in Cincinnati. I particularly love how the flapper fashion of the era has been incorporated into these fantastic costumes.

1930s - As communities continued to arrange Halloween activities, costume ranges expanded to incorporate more child-friendly characters and options just like this little girl holding a Mickey Mouse mask.

1940s -Both clowns and cowboy costumes were hugely popular in the forties, although this little one doesn't look particularly happy with his Western themed outfit!

1950s - Catalogues such as Sears in the fifties you would find a huge range of children's Halloween costumes available to order including brides, robots, gypsies and princesses and Halloween fêtes were a popular family celebration. Here Jayne Mansfield and her husband enjoy their daughter's birthday with a Halloween fête in 1958.

1960s - The Addams Family hit TV screens in 1964 and the characters were an immediate hit! Many would dress up as their new favourite stars at Halloween and the show remained so popular that NBC created the TV movie in 1977.

1970s - The seventies saw women opting for sexier versions of costumes for the first time, although this didn't become commercial commonplace until the 90s. This Halloween party at Studio 54 in the late 70s looks super fun!

1980s - As slasher and horror movies became more popular and mainstream in the eighties, Halloween costumes got a little scarier and more gruesome too! Sales of fake blood rocketed!

1990s - sticking with the theme of the silver screen, the film Scream premiered in 1996. This created the most iconic and best selling Halloween costume of the decade, and one we still see today. Ghostface is such a simple but utterly terrifying mask!

I hope you enjoyed our little journey through the decades of Halloween, and learned a few facts along the way!

No matter what you're planning to do this October 31st I hope you are safe, loved and happy. And if you're already on your fourth batch of pumpkin soup you have my full sympathy!

Until next time

Emma x

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