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31st October 2022

Horrible Histories: The History Behind Halloween Costumes

Halloween is the second biggest holiday after Christmas, yet we know nothing of its history – where does it come from, why do we dress up and how have spooky trends changed over time?
Horrible Histories: The History Behind Halloween Costumes
Photo: @ Wikimedia Commons

As we wave Halloween goodbye for another year, we take a look back in time at costumes of the past. Why do people dress up? And when did it become normal to go from witches to celebrities? Get ready to be inspired with a blast from the ancient past, and see how generations before you would’ve spookily ornated themselves.

Where does the tradition behind Halloween costumes come from?

Interestingly enough, the origins of Halloween costumes are much older than anticipated. It originates from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain in Tlachtga, more commonly known now as the Hill of Ward in County Meath.

Originally, Halloween was a pagan festival, but by the ninth century, the influence of Christianity had grown massively. In 1000 A.D., the church founded All Souls’ Day on November 2nd and in similarity to Samhain Festival, people lit bonfires and paraded around dressed as saints, angels and devils.

What is the purpose of a costume?

Believe it or not, the Samhain festival, where people would dress up and celebrate the dead, had little to do with the concept of Halloween that we know now. Dressing up as ghouls and goblins to trick people for treats is a thing of the future. Instead, the Samhain festival marked the Celtic New Year, where Summer would finish along with a years worth of harvest. However, more importantly, it marked the beginning of winter – a season greatly associated with death. Therefore, in order to ward off any ghosts that may have slipped through the cracks, people lit bonfires and wore scary costumes. People would leave their homes after dark and put on their masks, in the hope that the ghosts would think they were fellow spirits and not bother them. These masks and costumes often consisted of animal heads and skins – a bit scarier than a Spiderman costume you can buy at your local Sainsbury’s.

1870s – 1890’s

During the Victorian era, witch and ghost costumes started to come into action, but were not yet commercialised. Costumes were often made by hand. Post-Civil War America had begun developed a new fascination for the far East, with depictions of princesses from Egypt or anything considered ‘exotic’ for the time soon becoming popular in the late 19th century. Of course, you would not get away with costumes like these nowadays and is instead cultural appropriation.

1900s – 1920s

The early 20th century marked the beginning of the Halloween market, especially with advertisements being aimed at young children. You could now buy mass-produced paper costumes and buckram masks. As they were made of crêpe paper, they could also be thrown away. Not the most environmentally friendly, but much less labour intensive than the handmade costumes made before, signifying the changing industrial economy in the West.

Photo: Mari Gabriella @ Wikicomms


Paper costumes were quickly replaced with boxed character costumes. These boxes would typically include a plastic mask with a bit of string to wrap around your head and a rayon costume (derived from wood pulp!). Following the economic boom in America, Halloween costumes were influenced by pop culture. People could dress up as their favourite characters from books, films and the radio. Costumes began to move away from the scare factor and more towards cultural references.


Around this time Disney had taken the world by storm. More and more households began buying TVs, further pushing pop culture into the home. Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Peter Pan, Tinker Bell, and Snow White were all favourable characters to depict through Halloween costumes. This tapped into the child market further as children wanted to dress up as their favourite Disney characters.

1960s- 1980s

From the Beatles to Barbie, pop culture continued to influence fashion choices for Halloween costumes. Costumes shifted more towards the adult market again, featuring gimmicky and sexual outfits.

One of the most defining pop-culture moments during the 1980s that dominated Halloween fashion was E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Still considered one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, masks depicting the friendly alien was all anyone wanted to be for Halloween.

Photo: Aimee Dars Ellis @ Flickr


Oddly enough, brand names such as McDonald’s had their own boom in the Halloween industry. The brand released various Halloween Happy Meals shaped like pumpkins with spooky toys. You could grab a plastic McPumpkin, McBoo or McGoblin trick-or-treat style meal carrier.

Just about anything and everything could be a costume, which is perhaps more suggestive of politics and economic growth, but let us focus on the fashion for now. By this time, rarely anyone made their own outfits, with stores providing cheap costumes.


Today is more of an amalgamation of what was seen throughout the 20th century. With many technological advancements, costumes are more complex and expensive to make. Realistic cosplays are highly sought after, and the pornography industry has turned even the most innocent of costumes into sexy dupes. Social issues have arisen about cultural appropriation and costumes insensitive to different cultures. The common thread throughout all of this, however, is popular culture.

TikTok and Instagram alike have also seen the rise of complex and mind-boggling makeup trends. Creators are more resourceful than ever, spending hours to look exactly like a celebrity, or morph into something else completely. Today, a strong makeup look is just important as the costume itself, with cosmetic retails jumping aboard to provide the best goods.

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