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People dressed as Ghouls during Halloween in Budapest
Facial make-up as masquerade is popular on Halloween, often referring to horror archetypes or various characters from movies or TV shows

Halloween costumes are costumes worn on Halloween, a festival which falls on October 31.


Halloween costumes are traditionally based on frightening supernatural or folkloric beings. However, by the 1930s, costumes based on characters from mass media such as film, literature, and radio gained popularity. Halloween costumes have tended to be worn mainly by young people but since the mid-20th century, they have been increasingly worn by adults as well.

An early reference to wearing costumes on Halloween comes from Scotland in 1585. There are many references to the custom during the 18th and 19th centuries in the Celtic countries of Scotland, Ireland, Mann, and Wales. It has been suggested that the custom comes from the Celtic festivals of Samhain and Calan Gaeaf, or from the practice of "souling" during the Christian observance of Allhallowtide. The Christian tradition of acknowledging the danse macabre is also suggested as the origin of dressing up on Halloween.[1][2][3][4] Dressing up is not strictly restricted to Halloween among Christians, with similar practices being observed on holidays like Christmas.[5]

History of Halloween costumes

An early 20th-century Irish Halloween mask (a "rhymer" or "vizor") displayed at the Museum of Country Life.

The fun, enjoyable festivities of wearing costumes on Halloween were believed to be from the idea that paranormal beings and souls from the underworld drifted the earth at this time. The practice may have originated in a Celtic festival held on 31 October to mark the beginning of winter. It was called Samhain in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, and Calan Gaeaf in Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany. The festival is believed to have pre-Christian roots. After the Christianization of Ireland in the 5th century, some of these customs may have been retained in the Christian observance of All Hallows' Eve in that region—which continued to be called Samhain/Calan Gaeaf—blending the traditions of their ancestors with Christian ones.[6][7] It was seen as a liminal time when the spirits or fairies (the Aos Sí) and the souls of the dead could more easily come into our world.[8] It was believed that the Aos Sí needed to be propitiated to ensure that the people and their livestock survived the winter.

From at least the 16th century,[9] the festival included mumming and guising,[10] which involved people going house-to-house in costume (or in disguise), usually reciting verses or songs in exchange for food.[10] It may have originally been a tradition whereby people impersonated the Aos Sí, or the souls of the dead, and received offerings on their behalf. Impersonating these beings, or wearing a disguise, was also believed to protect oneself from them.[11] It is suggested that the mummers and guisers "personify the old spirits of the winter, who demanded reward in exchange for good fortune".[12] F. Marian McNeill suggests the ancient pagan festival included people wearing masks or costumes to represent the spirits, and that faces were marked (or blackened) with ashes taken from the sacred bonfire.[9] In parts of southern Ireland, a man dressed as a Láir Bhán (white mare) led youths house-to-house reciting verses—some of which had pagan overtones—in exchange for food. If the household donated food it could expect good fortune from the 'Muck Olla'; not doing so would bring misfortune.[13] In 19th century England, youths went house-to-house with masked, painted, or blackened faces, often threatening to do mischief if they were not welcomed.[10] In parts of Wales, men went about dressed as fearsome beings called gwrachod,[10] while in some places, young people cross-dressed.[10] Elsewhere in Europe, mumming and costumes were part of other yearly festivals. However, in the Celtic-speaking regions, they were "particularly appropriate to a night upon which supernatural beings were said to be abroad and could be imitated or warded off by human wanderers".[10]

It has also been suggested that the wearing of Halloween costumes developed from the custom of souling, which was practiced by Christians in parts of Western Europe from at least the 15th century.[14][15] At Allhallowtide, groups of poor people would go door-to-door, collecting soul cakes – either as representatives of the dead[16] or in return for saying prayers for them.[17] One 19th-century English writer said it "used to consist of parties of children, dressed up in fantastic costume, who went round to the farmhouses and cottages, singing a song, and begging for cakes (spoken of as "Soal-cakes"), apples, money, or anything that the good wives would give them".[18] The soulers typically asked for "mercy on all Christian souls for a soul cake".[19] Shakespeare mentioned the practice in his play The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1593).[20][21] Christian minister Prince Sorie Conteh wrote on the wearing of costumes: "It was traditionally believed that the souls of the departed wandered the earth until All Saints' Day, and All Hallows' Eve provided one last chance for the dead to gain vengeance on their enemies before moving to the next world. To avoid being recognized by any soul that might be seeking such vengeance, people would don masks or costumes to disguise their identities".[22] In the Middle Ages, statues and relics of martyred saints were paraded through the streets at Allhallowtide. Some churches that could not afford these things had people dress as saints instead.[23][24] Some believers continue the practice of dressing as saints, biblical figures, and reformers in Halloween celebrations today.[25] Many Christians in continental Europe, especially in France, believed that on Halloween, "the dead of the churchyards rose for one wild, hideous carnival," known as the danse macabre, which has often been depicted in church decoration.[26] An article published by Christianity Today claimed the danse macabre was enacted at village pageants and court masques, with people "dressing up as corpses from various strata of society" and suggested this was the origin of Halloween costume parties.[27][28]

People in Halloween Costumes

The custom of guising at Halloween in North America was first recorded in 1911, when a newspaper in Kingston, Ontario reported children going "guising" around the neighborhood.[29] In 19th century America, Halloween was often celebrated with costume parades and "licentious revelries."[30] However, efforts were made to "domesticate" the festival to conform with Victorian era morality. Halloween was made into a private rather than public holiday, celebrations involving liquor and sensuality de-emphasized, and only children were expected to celebrate the festival.[31] Early Halloween costumes emphasized the gothic nature of Halloween and were aimed primarily at children. Costumes were also made at home or using items (such as make-up) that could be purchased and utilized to create a costume. But in the 1930s, A.S. Fishbach, Ben Cooper, Inc., and other firms began mass-producing Halloween costumes for sale in stores as trick-or-treating became popular in North America. Halloween costumes are often designed to imitate supernatural and scary beings. Costumes are traditionally those of monsters such as vampires, werewolves, zombies, ghosts,[32] skeletons, witches, goblins, trolls, devils, etc., or in more recent years, such science fiction-inspired characters as aliens and superheroes. There are also costumes of pop culture figures like presidents, athletes, celebrities, or characters in film, television, literature, etc. Another popular trend is for women (and, in some cases, men) to use Halloween as an excuse to wear sexy or revealing costumes, showing off more skin than would be socially acceptable otherwise.[33] Young girls often dress as entirely non-scary characters for Halloween, including princesses, fairies, angels, cute animals, and flowers.

Child in a plain white mask

Halloween costume parties generally take place on or around October 31, often on the Friday or Saturday before the holiday. Halloween parties are the 3rd most popular party type held in the United States, falling behind only to Super Bowl and New Year's Eve parties.[34]

College students dressed up for Halloween.
A couple trying Halloween face masks at a costume store in Iowa

Economics of Halloween costumes

[35] Researchers surveyed for the National Retail Federation in the United States and found that 53.3% of consumers planned to buy a costume for Halloween 2005, spending $38.11 on average (up $10 from the year before). They were also expected to spend $4.96 billion in 2006, up significantly from just $3.3 billion the previous year.[36] The troubled economy has caused many Americans to cut back on Halloween spending. In 2009, the National Retail Federation anticipated that American households would decrease Halloween spending by as much as 15% to $56.31.[37] In 2013, Americans spent an estimated $6.9 billion to celebrate Halloween, including a predicted $2.6 billion on costumes (with more spent on adult costumes than for children's costumes) and $330 million on pet costumes.[38][39] In 2017, it was estimated that Americans would spend $9.1 billion on Halloween merchandise with $3.4 billion of that towards Halloween costumes.[40] Another survey by NRF showed that 67% of Halloween shoppers would buy Halloween costumes, spending $3.2 billion in 2019.[41] It was estimated that the Halloween spending in 2022 would reach $10.6 billion.[42]

Criticism of Halloween costumes

Halloween costumes in the contemporary Western world sometimes depict people and things from present times and are sometimes read in terms of their political and cultural significance. Halloween costumes are sometimes denounced for cultural appropriation when they uncritically use stereotypical representations of other groups of people such as gypsies and Native Americans.[43][44][45] Immigration and Customs Enforcement Secretary Julie Myers was involved in a scandal when she awarded "Best Costume" at the ICE Halloween party to an 'escaped Jamaican prisoner' dressed in dreadlocks and blackface.[46]


Halloween costumes can also generate controversy through the overt sexualization of many women's costumes,[47] even those intended for young girls. While costumes of various occupations like student, police officer, academia, clergy, or nursing do exist for men, they are often at least relatively accurate to the clothing a male employed in any of the fields would wear.[citation needed] Costumes for females are often far from what would be considered accurate of the clothing worn by women in those fields and focus on the sexualization of the wearer and often the concept portrayed.

See also


  1. ^ Pulliam, June; Fonseca, Anthony J. (26 September 2016). Ghosts in Popular Culture and Legend. ABC-CLIO. p. 145. ISBN 978-1440834912. Since the 16th century, costumes have become a central part of Halloween traditions. Perhaps the most common traditional Halloween costume is that of the ghost. This is likely because ... when Halloween customs began to be influenced by Catholicism, the incorporation of the themes of All Hallows' and All Souls' Day would have emphasized visitations from the spirit world over the motifs of spirites and fairies. ... The baking and allowing them to go door to door to collect them in exchange for praying for the dead (a practice called souling), often carrying lanterns made of hollowed-out turnips. Around the 16th century, the practice of going house to house in disguise (a practice called guising) to ask for food began and was often accompanied by recitation of traditional verses (a practice called mumming). Wearing costumes, another tradition, has many possible explanations, such as it was done to confuse the spirits or souls who visited the earth or who rose from local graveyards to engage in what was called a Danse Macabre, basically a large party among the dead.
  2. ^ Books & Culture: A Christian Review. Christianity Today. 1999. p. 12. Archived from the original on 23 April 2016. Sometimes enacted as at village pageants, the danse macabre was also performed as court masques, the courtiers dressing up as corpses from various strata of society...both the name and the observance began liturgically as All Hallows' Eve.
  3. ^ Morrow, Ed (2001). The Halloween Handbook. Kensington Publishing Corporation. p. 19. ISBN 978-0806522272. Another contributor to the custom of dressing up at Halloween was the old Irish practice of marking All Hallows' Day with religious pageants that recounted biblical events. These were common during the Middle Ages all across Europe. The featured players dressed as saints and angels, but there were also plenty of roles for demons who had more fun, capering, acting devilish, and playing to the crows. The pageant began inside the church, then moved by procession to the churchyard, where it continued long into the night.
  4. ^ Hörandner, Editha (2005). Halloween in der Steiermark und anderswo. LIT Verlag Münster. p. 99. ISBN 978-3825888893. On the other hand the postmodern phenomenon of "antifashion" is also to be found in some Halloween costumes. Black and orange are a 'must' with many costumes. Halloween – like the medieval danse macabre – is closely connected with superstitions and it might be a way of dealing with death in a playful way.
  5. ^ "Halloween," 2008, p. 63-64.
  6. ^ Santino, Jack. The Hallowed Eve: Dimensions of Culture in a Calendar Festival of Northern Ireland. University Press of Kentucky, p.95
  7. ^ Hutton, p.379
  8. ^ Monaghan, Patricia. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. Infobase Publishing, 2004. p.41
  9. ^ a b McNeill, F. Marian. Hallowe'en: its origin, rites and ceremonies in the English tradition. Albyn Press, 1970. pp.29–31
  10. ^ a b c d e f Hutton, pp.380-382
  11. ^ Hole, Christina. British Folk Customs. Hutchinson, 1976. p.91
  12. ^ Peddle, S. V. (2007). Pagan Channel Islands: Europe's Hidden Heritage. p.54
  13. ^ Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Volume 2. 1855. pp.308-309
  14. ^ Jackson, Jeanne L. (1 January 1995). Red Letter Days: The Christian Year in Story for Primary Assembly. Nelson Thornes. p. 158. ISBN 9780748719341. Later, it became the custom for poorer Christians to offer prayers for the dead, in return for money or food (soul cakes) from their wealthier neighbours. People would go 'souling' - rather like carol singing - requesting alms or soul cakes: 'A soul, a soul, a soul cake, Please to give us a soul cake, One for Peter, two for Paul, have mercy on us Christians all.'
  15. ^ Rogers, 2002, p. 24-26.
  16. ^ Cleene, Marcel. Compendium of Symbolic and Ritual Plants in Europe. Man & Culture, 2002. p.108. Quote: "Soul cakes were small cakes baked as food for the deceased or offered for the salvation of their souls. They were therefore offered at funerals and feasts of the dead, laid on graves, or given to the poor as representatives of the dead. The baking of these soul cakes is a universal practice".
  17. ^ Rogers, Nicholas (2001). Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. Oxford University Press. pp. 28–30. ISBN 0-19-514691-3.
  18. ^ Publications, Volume 16 (English Dialect Society), Harvard University Press, page 507
  19. ^ Santino, Jack (1994). Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life. University of Tennessee Press. p. 84. ISBN 9780870498138. Retrieved 28 October 2015. The begging ritual, taken up by nonindigents and by children, involved the recitation of a souling rhyme, which typically requested "mercy on all Christian souls for a soul cake."
  20. ^ Hutton, pp.374-375
  21. ^ The Two Gentlemen of Verona Act 2, Scene 1.
  22. ^ Prince Sorie Conteh (2009). Traditionalists, Muslims, and Christians in Africa: Interreligious Encounters and Dialogue. Cambria Press. p. 132. ISBN 9781604975963. Retrieved 31 October 2011.
  23. ^ Youth Spirit 2 (Cheryl Perry), Wood Lake Publishing Inc., page 20
  24. ^ The Power of Halloween (Diana Millay), page 47
  25. ^ "Eve of All Saints", Using Common Worship: Times and Seasons - All Saints to Candlemas (David Kennedy), Church House Publishing, page 42
  26. ^ Descriptive Analyses of Piano Works (Edward Baxter Perry), Theodore Presser Company, page 276
  27. ^ Books & Culture. Christianity Today. 1999. p. 12. Sometimes enacted as at village pageants, the danse macabre was also performed as court masques, the courtiers dressing up as corpses from various strata of society...both the name and the observance began liturgically as All Hallows' Eve.
  28. ^ Hörandner, Editha (2005). Halloween in der Steiermark und anderswo. LIT Verlag Münster. p. 99. ISBN 9783825888893. On the other hand the postmodern phenomenon of "antifashion" is also to be found in some Halloween costumes. Black and orange are a 'must' with many costumes. Halloween - like the medieval danse macabre - is closely connected with superstitions and it might be a way of dealing with death in a playful way.
  29. ^ Rogers, p.76.
  30. ^ Lherm, 2001, p. 194.
  31. ^ Lherm, 2001, p. 194-195, 204.
  32. ^ Rook, Dennis W. (Dec 1985). "The Ritual Dimension of Consumer Behavior". Journal of Consumer Research (Univ. of Chicago Press) 12 (3): 251–264. Accessed November 14, 2010.
  33. ^ Rosenbloom, Stephanie (October 19, 2006). "Good Girls Go Bad, for a Day". The New York Times. Archived from the original on April 26, 2019. Retrieved February 22, 2017.
  34. ^ "5000+ Halloween Costumes for Kids & Adults 2018 | Oriental Trading Company". Archived from the original on 2018-08-25. Retrieved 2018-08-24.
  35. ^ Wall Street Journal. Retrieved November 14, 2010.
  36. ^ Grannis, Kathy; Scott Krugman (September 20, 2006). "As Halloween Shifts to Seasonal Celebration, Retailers Not Spooked by Surge in Spending". National Retail Federation. Archived from the original on 2006-12-27. Retrieved 31 October 2006.
  37. ^ "Halloween - Retail Horror Story?". Orlando Sentinel. October 29, 2009. Archived from the original on 2010-11-03. Retrieved 2010-10-12.
  38. ^ "Halloween Is a $6.9 Billion Unstoppable American Cultural Juggernaut". Businessweek. October 14, 2013. Archived from the original on October 14, 2013. Retrieved 22 June 2014.
  39. ^ "NewsOne Minute: Study Finds Barely Anyone Buys Father's Day Presents". Newsone. Jun 6, 2014. Archived from the original on 7 June 2014. Retrieved 22 June 2014.
  40. ^ "Halloween Headquarters". National Retail Federation. 2014-09-21. Archived from the original on 2018-08-23. Retrieved 2018-08-24.
  41. ^ "Social media influencing near-record Halloween spending". NRF. Archived from the original on 2020-09-29. Retrieved 2020-09-30.
  42. ^ "Halloween Data Center". NRF. Archived from the original on 2021-09-22. Retrieved 2022-10-09.
  43. ^ Kjerstin Johnson, "Don't Mess Up When You Dress Up: Cultural Appropriation and Costumes Archived 2015-06-29 at the Wayback Machine", Bitch magazine, 25 October 2011.
  44. ^ Wade, Lisa (11 October 2012). "Race-Themed Events at Colleges (Trigger Warning)". Sociological Images. Archived from the original on 6 May 2013.
  45. ^ Nancy Kelsey, cleveland com (2023-10-29). "Halloween costume choices can dehumanize Indigenous women, amid crisis of the many who are missing or murdered: Nancy Kelsey". Retrieved 2023-11-01.
  46. ^ Lipton, Eric (April 9, 2008). "Official Had Controversial Photos Deleted, Report Says". New York Times. Archived from the original on 2013-03-27. Retrieved 2008-04-09."The staff member who won the “most original costume” prize wore a dreadlock wig, what looked like a prison jumpsuit and black face paint. “I’m a Jamaican detainee from Krome — obviously, I’ve escaped,” the employee, referring to a detention center in Miami, announced to the judges..."
  47. ^ Lennon, Sharron J.; Zheng, Zhiying; Fatnassi, Aziz (2016-10-28). "Women's revealing Halloween costumes: other-objectification and sexualization". Fashion and Textiles. 3 (1): 21. doi:10.1186/s40691-016-0073-x. ISSN 2198-0802.


Further reading