The History of Halloween Costumes

As the days grow dark and the cold creeps in, and the trees shrug off their scarlet leaves, I find my thoughts elevated to one of the most important decisions of the year.

What costume shall I wear this Halloween?

Truly, the mere sight of the seasons first pumpkins, sitting rotund and autumnally gorgeous at the market is enough to set me off, dreaming of cobwebs and candy. Or that first taste of a tangerine, the perfect balance between bitter and sweet, to feel like Halloween is close at hand. My kitchen fills with the scents of ginger and cinnamon, the chai spice candles are lit, and out comes the sketchbook to begin my designs.

The thought of what to wear for Halloween is one that intrigues me for much of the year. In particular I love to think about what costume I can wrangle my poor husband into, since a gruesome twosome packs that bit more of a bite. Should we be Venus and Mars? A pair of reeking beasts with horns a’plenty? Bette Davis and Joan Crawford from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Rodolpho has agreed to be Joan, but only if he can keep his beard. How disappointing then, when every year we are confronted with the same immovable fact.

The Germans do not dress up for Halloween.  At all.

Last year we strode resolutely into town, our blood-soaked feathers glittering magnificently in the moonlight.

‘Even if it’s just us….again….we’ll still have fun. You and me, eh? Halloween! It’ll be funny, c’mon….’

And there we sat, miserably clutching a beer each as the bar around us slowly filled with a sea of pashminas and chinos, faces freshly scrubbed and devoid of paint. As the night wore on, our feathers began to wilt with the heat, and mild sweat of embarrassment. And yet, shame or no shame, thinking about my Halloween costume still brings me a ridiculous amount of pleasure. How delightful then, to discover that it was my own ancestors, The Celts, that began this jolly tradition.

Samhain was a Gaelic festival which marked the end of the harvest season, and the beginning of the cold winter months. Originating around 2,000 years ago in Scotland and Ireland on October 31st, it was believed that on this day the veil between the realm of the living and the dead grew thin. In order to ensure the survival of their families and livestock during winter, feasts and offerings were held for the spirits, and a place was set at the table for those who were dead. It was a custom to dress up in a guise, often made from animal pelts and heads, and it is thought that the costumes may have been a way to pass unnoticed by the spirits, or to honour them with mimicry.sandra-seitamaa-0tXszuDMGyk-unsplashWith Christianity’s arrival in Europe in the 9th century, All Hallows Day on November 1st became a church sanctioned festival to celebrate the saints. It is believed that this date was chosen to coincide with, and subsequently replace, Samhain, making October 31st All Hallows Eve. This was the time for Christians to pray to the saints, and for the souls of the recently departed. The tradition of Souling began, which saw the poor go from house to house to collect Soul Cakes, small round loaves baked for the purpose of feeding the needy. If churches were too poor to display the customary relics, they were permitted to dress up as the saints instead, and the celebrations for All Hallows Eve continued the tradition of disguising oneself as a spirit.

The first recorded occurrences of guising, or Trick or Treating in today’s terms, took place in Scotland in the 16th century, later spreading to the rest of Britain. In true Scottish fashion, if food and treats were refused the costumed youths who roamed door to door, with poetry on their lips and mischief on their minds, they would run the risk of a serious pranking. The iconic image of the carved pumpkin can also be traced back to Scotland in the 19th century, where revellers in fancy dress carried hollowed out turnips, and recited riddles and songs for nuts and fruit.colton-sturgeon-EFQlS6SL9uw-unsplash (1).jpgDespite the Victorians going absolutely wild for the gothic and the occult on pretty much a daily basis, Halloween for them was more centred around finding love. Giggling women would be stuffed into darkened rooms to await their true love’s face materialising in the mirror, and indeed Halloween was viewed for a long time as something of a romantic holiday, giving Valentines Day a run for its money. For the Irish, however, there was a good deal too much death and destruction to cope with in the mid 1800s as it was, thanks to the Great Famine, which saw the starvation and death of around one million people. This resulted in a huge influx of Irish immigrants to North America, taking with them the Celtic traditions of Samhain and All Hallow’s Eve.

Rather than focussing on the macabre and mischievous, the North American Halloween celebrations were more community centric and light-hearted. By the end of the 19th century, it retained hardly any of its religious or superstitious elements, and was instead all about neighbourly get togethers and town parades. Trick or treating had rather a cool reception when it first tentatively began there in 1911, and kindled more hostility than merriment. Folks were not at all keen to have a bunch of scruffy little skeletons begging for sweets on their doorsteps. It began to gather some steam in the 1930s however, and really getting going after WWII and its sugar rationing were done and dusted. Today, the USA is arguably one of the most ardent celebrators of Halloween and Trick or Treating, with over $9 billion being spent every year on costumes, candy and cobwebs.alejandro-salazar-BxRNHV702ZI-unsplashSo think of me this Halloween, won’t you, as you straighten your fangs or adjust your prosthetic nose. As you swing open the door to a party heaving with monsters and ghouls and goblins. As you plunge your sticky fingers into baskets of candy, and drink cocktails with gelatinous eyeballs floating inside. How I’d love to join you. Oh, how I love Halloween.