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From Princess Leia to Princess Peach: A Fashionable History of Halloween Costumes

by Oana-Maria Moldovan

The Celtic Festival of Samhain was the first, the Romans took it, put a spin on it and called it Feralia. Then, the Christians came and, in the 7th Century, Pope Boniface IV established All Saints' Day which later came to be known as All Hallows' Eve.


The Irish and Scottish came up with the tradition of carving lanterns from vegetables, which later became the jack-o'-lantern. 


In medieval Europe people would go from house to house, offering prayers for the dead in exchange for “soul cakes.”


The Slavs and the Balkans had the pagan tradition of celebrating the dead, by lighting candles and leaving food or flowers for the ones who weren't alive anymore - most common in Poland and Belarus. Some even celebrated gods of the dead, like - now- Romania and Bulgaria.


Countries in South America celebrate their long gone loved ones with days like Dia de los Muertos - Mexico - or Dia das Bruxas - Brazil - (this one translates to “Day of the Witches”).



In China during the Qingming Festival people visit the graves of their ancestors to clean and maintain them. And then, there is the Obon Festival in Japan when families visit their ancestors' graves, light lanterns, and participate in traditional dances like Bon Odori.


And, if you haven't caught up yet, we are talking about the history of today’s Halloween. 


But history can get tiresome for most people. So let's get into a more fun part of it: the history of Halloween costumes through the decades. Or, better yet, the “IT girl” costumes from each decade. Shall we?



We established that the dead were celebrated, one way or another, all over the world. But one thing that was left - intentionally - out of the discussion is how Halloween came to be what it is today. Halloween was brought to North America by Irish and Scottish immigrants in the 19th century. And so it begins our journey...


Early Halloween costumes from the 19th Century and Early 20th Century featured elements from the gothic and macabre, inspired by Victorian sensibilities.


For women of this time period it was very common to dress up as witches, spiders or bats. Ghosts, skeletons, and devils were popular costume choices among the men. It's important to note that in this time, in America, more people dressed up for Thanksgiving rather than Halloween.



The 20s were all about the flapper girls, using more or less the same characters that were in trend in the last century, and the gangsters. The Prohibition era inspired costumes associated often with the idea of debauchery.


However, it's crucial to remember that this was also a period when people would do black face, red face and other types of cultural appropriation, wearing traditional attires as costumes.


In the 30s and further into the 40s, Halloween nights saw the emergence of classic monsters as Universal Studios played a pivotal role in popularizing iconic horror personas like Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, and the Mummy, among all genders and all ages.


Additionally, the impact of World War II on the cultural landscape was reflected in the choice of costumes, with soldiers and patriotic figures embodying the spirit of the era and representing different types of “monsters”.



We all have seen Grease and Rebel Without a Cause, or at least, we heard about them, so it should not be a surprise that the 50s were into the rock 'n' roll scene.


Because so many more people afforded a TV in the 50s, that the years prior to that, a lot more started to dress up as movie characters, most popular ones being the cowboys.



However, what might actually shock you is the fascination with science fiction people had back then that led to space-themed costumes, often inspired by aliens, robots, and astronauts.


In 1966 Julie Newmar made her debut as Cat Woman, which inspired many women into both the cat costumes and the more sensual ones. The 60s was the period when Halloween parties really started to take a turn, and when, as a domino, the costumes started to be depicted as a way of being sexy, for all genders.



Entering the 70s an interesting phenomenon started, mostly in America, and mostly in San Francisco. Here comes the queer community into the Halloween scene; and they dominated it, for more than a decade.


While the 70s are most known for Star wars and political figures costumes, it was not out of ordinary to see people in drag at this time of year. For the last part of the 70s, Halloween night gave people a chance to dress more risque, being that in some parts of the world it was illegal to dress like the opposite gender.


The Halloween movie that came up in 1979 started a trend in the 80s both for slasher movies and for slasher inspired costumes. This decade cannot be described in any other way than “the ages of gruesome attire”. The 80s were the times for fake blood, vampires, killers and so on.



Oh, the 90s, the years of Power Rangers, Jurassic Park added with every and any Disney Princess someone can think of. We should also not forget about the Pulp Fiction and spice girls inspired costumes.


Y2K came with - and really, are we even surprised - witches and wizards costumes. Well, not the typical ones, anyway. The beginning of the 21th Century was all about Harry Potter's world, from children to adults and to older people. Everyone wanted to be Harry or Hermione or even Dobby for that matter (I, myself, wanted to be Luna).



On the other hand the 2000s saw a resurgence of superhero costumes, with Spider-Man, X-Men, and the rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Vendetta effect was also a real thing among young men.


Then came the 2010s, Harley Quinn and Joker made their debut into the Halloween scene, among zombies, and other post-apocalyptic inspired characters, from dystopian worlds, like The Hunger Games. Everyone knew someone who bought a bow just so they could be Katniss Everdeen.



What can we expect to be this year's it girl of Halloween costumes? If we go on the path of pop culture inspired costumes, like we had been for the last fifty or so years, Barbie (let's not forget about the Kens and the Allans of the world) and Priscilla will get the crown for this one.


Besides these ones, we can always expect some Little Mermaid action and maybe even some Mario inspired costumes.


Nonetheless, that's the fun in Halloween, anyone can be anything, we can all be the it girls for one night, even if we choose a classic costume like a sexy cat, a doctor or even if we go on the route of a more niche like attire. We can be anything we want, for one All Hallows' Eve's night.

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