Understanding History through Halloween Costumes


Did you know that you can tell a lot about a time period from the most popular Halloween costumes of the era? Costumes can illustrate the political climate, entertainment, and socially acceptable ideas. Although today’s popular costumes range from the classic witch to Lady Gaga, it wasn’t always this way. One hundred years ago, costumes were less pop culture-related and more unsettling and meant to scare. There was also no Spirit Halloween store, so Halloween celebrants had to make their own costumes. Paper-mâché masks were all the rage, portraying anything from pumpkins to clowns. The goal was to disguise yourself, especially for children who would often make mischief by throwing flour on people or stealing from neighbors.

After 1933, a lot of this changed; by Halloween 1933, the holiday was dangerous, with many teenagers wreaking havoc through American neighborhoods. Worried adults organized trick-or-treating to keep kids occupied. This led to new kinds of costumes for children, less about creepy disguises and more about things that children enjoyed. In the 1940’s, costumes began to be sold in department stores like Sears, but they were very expensive. In the 1950’s, department store costumes became more affordable, and kids began to dress up as princesses and clowns. A popular trend was also dressing up as cowboys and “Indians;” some costumes portrayed other races and cultures in ways that would now be regarded as insensitive and racist.

In the 1970’s, the changes were mostly to adult costumes. Adults started wearing political masks, especially of President Richard Nixon. Costumes also became more gruesome due to an increase in popularity of horror movies like Halloween and Alien. Throughout the rest of the century, stores sold costumes based on current events. For example, in 1995, the year of the OJ Simpson murder trial, popular masks were sold of both Simpson and the judge. The 2000’s costumes were focused on pop culture, with teens emulating the Spice Girls, Britney Spears, and other famous people.

The most popular costumes last year were Pennywise the clown, witches, and inflatable dinosaurs. From a poll of some classmates, a few popular costumes this year are Purge participants, Bratz dolls, and simply pajamas. Halloween costumes change with changes in politics, pop culture, and societal norms, but something that is here to stay is the spooky, candy-filled fun that’s accessible to any age.