If you’ve ever been confused about people in Halloween costumes, you’re definitely not alone. Every year some of us invest time and maybe money into some festive, spooky scary Halloween outfits, but a lot of us also just… Get confused about it. So why do we wear Halloween costumes?
It’s widely understood that contemporary Halloween has its origins in the Celtic holiday Samhain (“Summer’s End”). Nowadays it’s not really observed anymore, as the Celts were around like 2,000 years ago and the space they occupied is now divided between Ireland, the UK, and northern France.
Because Samhain was a pre-winter celebration, it was broadly associated with incoming strife. You know, because winter was generally a harder season to deal with than spring back then.
Eventually, the Christians would begin swallowing everyone else’s traditions, and this included Samhain. That would take the form of All Saint’s Day.
Further Reading: A Short History of Halloween
The point is, a lot of our modern Halloween traditions date back to either Samhain, or how the Christians changed them. Costuming is no different–and certainly after its Christianization, it would become a part of why we went around asking our neighbors for candy as kids.
But the tradition of costuming in some manner probably predates Christian influence. Samhain was often seen as a day to commune with the dead–drawing out both benevolence and malevolence from spirits. Impersonating such spirits was largely seen as a way to help ward off the ones who likely didn’t have our best interests in mind.
There was also room for shenanigans. Such October celebrations were also seen as a way where people could act outside of social norms. That means doing stuff like pranking one another in costume–and then blaming it on mischievous spirits. You know, because wearing a mask is a pretty good way to stay anonymous.
Americans and Costumes
Halloween traditions and beliefs were still primarily held by the Irish and the Scottish–albeit long after Christianization by the time America was involved. But, for the Americans reading, the Irish and the Scottish would bring these traditions overseas when they made their way to the American colonies in the 18th century.
Many traditions quickly caught on in with the colonial Americans–despite not really liking the Irish all that much in the 19th century.
By the time we get to the 1900s, wearing Halloween costumes for fun was pretty regular. Kids and adults all reveled in being basically anonymous in their festive getups. People were so aggressive about Halloween that sometimes the preparatory buzz would begin in August. Then, like everything in America, it became commercialized.
People still held onto the idea of “breaking social norms,” though. Which meant, you guessed it, more Halloween pranks. Some of those pranks, though, were better known as vandalism. It might not be surprising, then, to know that in 1942 Halloween was basically cancelled in Chicago. In large part because of WWII, but also to curb Halloween pranks.
With resources stretched thin and everyone on edge, everyone was pretty frayed. Plus soaping windows was a thing–which was a problem since those were needed for war efforts.
“Your government needs soaps and grease for the war… Even ringing doorbells has lost its appeal because it may be disturbing the sleep of a tired war worker who needs his rest.” ~James Spinning, a New York superintendent, 1942
It was also around WWII that Halloween celebrations started being rebranded as childish things. To keep the adults from vandalizing stuff.
By the time we get to the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, Halloween became more and more commercialized. You can thank American manufacturers making store bought costumes more common in the postwar boom. This brings with it a pretty strong detachment from Halloween’s origins. Many historians hold the sentiment that this commercialization of the holiday led to it becoming more global. You didn’t have to be Christian or whatever, you just needed to be able to put on a costume and engage with the fantasy.
Which, unfortunately, is destroying the Earth. The UK alone disposes of some 7 million costumes yearly. Most of which are plastic fabric based–totaling to tens of millions of plastic bottles to draw a rough equivalence. Roughly 30 million people might dress up for the day in the UK–so imagine how much waste Americans alone would generate when 175 million surveyed said they celebrated in 2018. The German Halloween industry tends to reap something like 200 million euros yearly.
So we guess the real spook of the season is climate change. Again.
If you want to make sure you’re on your costume game, check out which ones are the most common here.