From Nightmare Fuel to Sexy Smurfs: A Brief History of Halloween Costumes

October 11, 2018 6 min read

From Nightmare Fuel to Sexy Smurfs: A Brief History of Halloween Costumes

This Halloween, the world will be flooded with costumed hooligans. They will be everywhere. You’ll find them on the streets, trick-or-treating, and going to house parties dressed as sexy nurses. Either way, by concealing their identities on Halloween night, these folks will be participating in a tradition that goes back thousands of years. Let’s take a look back at the practice of dressing up for Halloween and see how it has evolved over the years.

Samhain and the Celts

Traditional Samhain CelebrationsAs you may already know, Halloween originated as the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced “Sow-in”, so dear God above don’t pronounce it “Sam-Hayne”, the nerds will crucify you). This celebration would occur from October 31st to November 1st and signified the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter. To these ancient peoples, winter meant much more than mulled wine and cute boots. It was a literal representation of death, both of the ground around them and the people in their villages. On the night of October 31st, the veil between this world and the Otherworld was at its thinnest. This meant that our plane would be filled with ghosts, faeries, and demons who were hell-bent on harvesting the souls of your family for themselves.

To combat these evil spirits, the Celtic people of Ireland, the United Kingdom and Northern France would leave food and burn animals as sacrifices. They would also dress in costume to try to camouflage themselves from the hungry entities. These costumes usually consisted of white robes and white face-paint, an attempt to make themselves appear to be spirits themselves. The common folk weren’t the only ones to dress for the occasion, either, as the priests would often wear animal skins or heads as they read the fortunes of those gathered.

This practice of wearing costumes to hide from the dead evolved into what is now known as All Hallows’ Eve, when Christians merged their holidays with the ancient pagan rituals. Unlike the pagan traditions of awesome bonfires, animal sacrifices and fortune telling, the costumes were worn to commemorate the saints, martyrs and faithful dead. This tradition lasted for centuries, and little changed until the second half of the nineteenth century.

Potato Famines and Spooky Strangers

An old picture of a man being spooked by a ghostHalloween was not a widely accepted holiday in Colonial America due to the Puritanical beliefs of the day. This all changed during the late 1800s, when the country was flooded with Irish and other Gaelic immigrants fleeing the Potato Famines that decimated their homelands. These immigrants brought with them a love and reverence for Halloween that continues to this day. Because travel during this time in history had never been easier or more affordable, costumes drew influences from cultures all over the world. Adults would host costume or masquerade balls where people would wear homemade Egyptian robes or Gothic costumes adorned with bats or ghosts.

At the end of the century, it was recommended by church and town leaders that anything “frightening” be removed from Halloween festivities. They wanted more community involvement in the traditions, hoping that this would lessen vandalism and drunken shenanigans in their neighborhoods. Little did they know of the nightmare fuel that would result, and which you are about to witness below.

Dear God Make it Stop

Halloween costumes in the old days were pure nightmare fuel.From the 1920s to the 1950s in America, trick-or-treating made a massive comeback. It was seen as an easy way to involve your neighbors, who would "pay" little ones in candy, as a toll of sorts, in the hopes of avoiding any tricks or pranks.

Halloween costumes in the old days were pure nightmare fuel.Costumes during this period were almost all homemade affairs, with some depression-era outfits consisting of only a sack over the head. Fortunately for the kids of the era, this meant that they didn’t have to spend a ton of cash on a costume to gain easy access to treats of all different kinds. Unfortunately for us, however, cameras were widely in use at the time. Some of these costumes are truly the stuff of nightmares.

I Can’t Breathe

A variety of old Ben Cooper Halloween costumes.As trick-or-treating grew in popularity, so did the demand for costumes. Up until this point, costumes were mostly homemade nightmares like what you see above, but corporations finally caught on in the 1920s and started manufacturing costumes for the masses. The three biggest companies in the costume game at this time were Collegeville Flag and Manufacturing Company, H. Halpern Company, and Ben Cooper.

Vintage Halloween costumes.You can thank the H. Halpern Company for all of the cheap, sweaty Marvel Comics and Star Wars costumes you wore as a kid, as they were the first company to license fictional characters for their Halloween costumes. Some of the first costumes off the assembly line were popular characters like Mickey Mouse, Popeye and his paramour Olive Oyl. Eventually, other companies jumped on the bandwagon and soon the market was flooded with plastic renditions of pop culture figures well into the 1980s. 

The Horror Revolution and Sexy Smurfs

A sexy Smurfette Halloween costume.The 1970s offered a lot more than killer horror movies and a gas shortage. It was during this time that many adults all over the United States went back to their roots and joined in on the Halloween festivities. This led to a bit of a costume dilemma, seeing as the paper and plastic costumes were only meant for kids and people seemingly forgot how to sew sometime after World War II. Besides that, there was little inspiration among the young people of the day. What’s a person supposed to wear when they want to get loose on a Halloween night? 

Enter the sexual revolution! This period of time saw Americans begin to celebrate their sexuality and rebel against their parent's generation by obliterating their sense of propriety. For the first time in centuries, young people were given the latitude to explore their sexuality and what it really meant to be "edgy" or "groundbreaking". This sense of freedom and transgression gave partygoers the courage they needed to push the boundaries of what is right and proper. Because, what else is Halloween for but to push oneself and those around you towards the edge? Have you ever wanted to be a sexy Smurfette? How about a sultry nun or an erotic Elmo? If your answer is yes, then this time period would have been perfect for you!

Jason VoorheesIt wasn’t just sexy costumes that became more prominent during this time. As horror films became more violent (and more badass), so did Halloween costumes. Instead of walking out the door in a Mighty Mouse costume, kids and adults alike were dressing up as Jason Voorhees or Leatherface, their faces and clothes splattered with blood and viscera. Thanks to George A. Romero, the living dead, aka zombies, were also hugely popular around this time period, inspiring kids to shamble through their neighborhoods begging for brains (and candy).

Internet Killed the Costume Star

A hilarious and oh-so-trendy Internet meme Halloween costume.While sexy and gory costumes haven’t gone anywhere, the name of the game during the 21st century is to be noticed in a sea of competition. With the internet, social media and smartphones becoming ubiquitous across the world, the most important aspect of your Halloween costume is cleverness, that allows you to stand out from the crowd. This isn’t from a scientific poll or anything, but it’s an irrefutable fact that precisely 130% of all Halloween costumes this year will be able to trace their origin back to a meme.  This makes Halloween costume planning even more difficult than in decades past. The best and most shareable costumes may spring from an event that occurs the week of Halloween. That means that you have to always be on your toes. You have to keep your finger on the pulse of social media so that you won't miss the latest meme or trend. Gone are the days of planning costumes a year in advance, and we are left with last-minute shopping and costumes that have to be explained to be understood.

In fact, in this day and age, a creative outfit can even yield amazing rewards. If you enter the Pixel Elixir Halloween Selfie Contest, which happens to be going on right now (if you're reading this before October 31st, 2018, that is), you can win a prize pack worth $250! Click here for full details.

Although costumes have changed over the past 2,000 years, the idea behind them has not. Halloween is a special time of year when boundaries and taboos are meant to be pushed. It’s a time when the boundary between the world of the living and the land of the dead has waned, and even though you might be an adult who’s too old for such silly things, maybe it’s best to wear a costume anyway, as camouflage. Better safe than sorry.

Tyler Liston is a contributor for Pixel Elixir and lives in the Midwest with his wife and son. He's dressing up as a super trendy Internet meme for Halloween this year.