Dressing up for Halloween really seems like a modern phenomenon so it may come as a surprise to know that the tradition originated in Europe over 2000 years ago.
The Celts, who lived in the UK, Ireland and part of France, marked 1 November as their new year; the day in which summer ended and the cold winter began. Believing that the souls of the dead would roam the earth on that particular night, they created a festival called Samhain where huge bonfires were built to burn crops and animals as a sacrifice to the gods.
Disguises made out of animal skins were worn to ward off any spirits with bad intentions. Most of these costumes were macabre and ghostly in nature as the people believed that if you dressed like the dead, evil spirits would leave you alone.
When the Romans conquered Celtic territory some time later, they combined Samhain with two of their own celebrations: Feralia, a day at the end of October which commemorated the dead, and Pomona, a time to honour the goddess of fruit and trees. (Side note: this second festival is likely to have started Halloween’s infamous apple bobbing trend as the symbol of Pomona was an apple.)
After this, the Catholic Church got involved with Pope Gregory III marking 1 November as All Saints’ Day and turning 2 November into All Souls’ Day - yet another day to honour the dead. Bonfires, parades and costumes appeared once again with angels, devils and saints becoming the look du jour. The trend for religious costumes continued with the Halloween holiday transforming into a time for prayers of fertile marriages, explaining why young boys would dress up as virgins. What that entailed, we’re not sure.
The Victorians were the next to get on board with dressing up. Although their usual wardrobe was generally quite gothic, they were inspired by Halloween’s dark and deathly background, transforming into bats and ghosts for the night. Starting in Europe, this soon moved across to the States with American Victorians embracing the tradition after reading a Robert Burns poem detailing just how to throw a top notch Halloween party in rural Scotland.
As rural Scotland seemed incredibly exotic, costumes became slightly more outlandish with gypsies and Egyptian royalty all cropping up when Halloween came around. You could say this was one of the earliest examples of sexing up your 31 October look (but more on that later).
In the 19th century, women’s magazines began publishing guides on how to make your own costume with masquerade styles seemingly being the most popular. But as soon as the industrial revolution hit, commercialism took hold. Shop-bought costumes were all the rage thanks to them being much cheaper and less time-consuming.
The turn of the 20th century brought tamer styles. Paper was used in the 1920s to turn people into makeshift cauldrons and cats while Disney costumes (particularly Mickey and Minnie Mouse) and Bride of Frankenstein outfits reigned in the 1930s. The two world wars, however, seemingly halted most of the fun and games for adults as Halloween became reserved for children only. It wasn’t until way after World War II that the grown-ups seriously took to fancy dress again.
In America, the 1970s marked the aftermath of the sexual revolution particularly in the Greenwich Village area of New York. Known for being a gay haven, the Halloween parties were risqué and featured lots of drag and highly provocative outfits. This started one of the worst and most common costume trends the Western world has ever seen: the sexy Halloween look.
While ghouls, skeletons and witches were - and still are - around in droves, short skirts and tight low-cut outfits began to make their way into the market. Just as the gory 80s movies translated into bloody Halloween looks, the increasing nudity showcased in pop culture saw itself in naughty nurse and latex catsuit costumes.
Halloween had become less about horror and more about dressing in a way you’d potentially only dreamed of. There’s no better way of phrasing it than Lindsay Lohan’s immortal words in future cult classic Mean Girls: “In Girl World, Halloween is the one day a year when a girl can dress up like a total slut and no other girls can say anything else about it.”
Now, there are just as many cultural references on the streets at Halloween as there are genuinely scary costumes. For every killer clown this year, there will be a pink dress and Converse combo emulating breakout Netflix series Stranger Things. And just as women continue to push personal boundaries and dress in their wildest fantasies, so too will the commercial world continue to churn out controversial get-ups like Kim Kardashian’s robbery outfit.
After all, Halloween is big business and it’s showing no sign of slowing down.