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The evolution of Halloween costumes: how did we go from eerie spirits to Wonder Woman?

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Thinking of ideas for who you want to impersonate this Halloween? Or, thinking of how much you want to spend on a costume for a night out, a parade or a party? Think $87 dollars. Well, that is the amount The National Retail Federation estimated each American was willing to spend per outfit last year. That makes up for a whopping $3.2 billion on Halloween costumes in total. So where did this creepy appeal of Halloween originate from? The festive occasion finds its roots in some sinister antiquity. And this is how an ancient pagan festival transformed into a multi-billion dollar industry.

The purpose of Halloween costumes was not originally to channel your inner Catwoman or sexy nurse

The festival could be traced back to the pre-Christian era. Halloween, then known as Hallow’s eve, was a Celtic tradition of the Samhain which lived on earth about 2000 years ago. It was the eve demarcating summer from winter. And the arrival of the “darker months” was said to begin with spirits and ghosts visiting the earth. It was the eve when the paranormal and the mortal realms overlapped. With these two worlds colliding, it was important for humans to camouflage as supernatural beings. 

Hence, the first Halloween costume ever worn was not for decorative or festive purposes, but was actually for protection. So, the Samhain wore animal heads and skin on their own to disguise themselves. They painted their faces and wore blurry silhouettes. It was thought that this would also give them a chance to connect with their lost ancestors. 

Angels and Demons. Fairies and Witches.  

[Image Description: Photo taken in 1905 of a person wearing a ghost costume in a rural schoolhouse. Credit: Historic Photo Archive/Getty Images.] via CNN
With the advent of Christianity, there was a need to erase Pagan rites and rituals. But old traditions die hard. Eventually, the influx of Christian values merged with existing Pagan traditions. 

So the costumes were now eschewed by Biblical terms. Animal heads and skin paved the path for people dressing up in all forms of Biblical binaries: angels and demons, saints, and the devil.

So basically Halloween became a religious event. Even what we know as trick or treat today had a religious connotation to it. People would go door to door chanting verses in exchange for baked goodies. 

Americanizing Halloween costumes 

The infamous Irish potato famine in the 18th century resulted in the diaspora of the Irish community to the New World. With this, came the import of Irish traditions. They brought with them superstitions, myths, and of course, costumes. And Americans, especially the rural population, loved it. And who wouldn’t? Finally enjoying anonymity through costumes along with leisure and pleasure after decades of Puritanical domination must have been liberating.

But still, one thing remained consistent: though the purpose of costumes was now ornamental, the look remained the same – scary and frightening. The masquerades and town events held in the 19th century still revolved around the same theme: death masks, white sheets, and an obsession with the grotesque and gory. The costumes, of course, were still homemade. 

Hollywood, pop culture and fandom

[Image Description: Elvis Presley (left) opts for a subtle Halloween costume, wearing only a mask to a party in 1957.] via Getty Images
Through the 19th century, the costumes detached even more from the original context. The festival was secularized. Capitalism took over. And, the Industrial Revolution allowed for the costumes to be commercially produced. An entire industry for costumes now began to emerge. 

Enter Hollywood. Many pop-culture figures were now fair game to dress up as. And this allowed people a chance to express their fandom. Thanks to horror movie marketing, there were more and more pop culture horror icons such as Frankenstein and Scream which became popular costume choices. But as the case with mass-produced products always is, there were fewer DIY costumes. 

With the sexual revolution of the 1970s, sensual costumes were all the rage. And this gave birth to the sultry witches, the Wonder Woman, and the Medusa, an all-new Halloween aesthetic. 

This was also around the time when the queer community was facing vulnerability due to homophobic violence and Halloween proved to be one occasion which allowed fluidity: of gender, sexuality, and costumes. It was then that Halloween became an explosion of booze, glitter, music, and dynamically experimental costumes, particularly in San Francisco. This was true only for America, where Halloween costumes became the physical space where gender politics could be negotiated. In many other parts of the world, Halloween costumes remain predominantly spooky to this day.

[Image Description: A woman wearing a black costume for Halloween. She is holding a skull which is acting as an accessory.] via Unsplash
Over time, the (all-American) frivolity of Halloween also resulted in some problematic transgressions. This obsession with dressing up as something you consider “exotic” could be a form of cultural appropriation. Remember Justin Trudeau’s blackface moment? Well, such stereotypical representations have often come up. In the past years, Caitlyn Jenner costumes have popped up at several retailers along with some native American headgear. Considering these transphobic and racist costumes, just shows how exploitative the industry can sometimes be. 

So this Halloween make sure your costume does not offend anyone. 

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By Safa Shoaib

Safa Shoaib is an educator and counselor turned entrepreneur, writer, and editor. She has a B.A. Honors in English Literature from the Lahore University of Management Sciences and has written for local publications such as the Express Tribune. She is a history buff who is equally passionate about literature.
In 2021, she co-founded Deja New Pakistan, the first of its kind marketplace of pre-owned fashion in Pakistan, pursuing the vision of sustainable fashion.