Early Halloween Costumes
Historians believe that the origin of Halloween costumes may date as far back as 2,000 years. The Celtic pagan festival of Samhain is commonly considered to be the precursor to the modern Halloween holiday. Samhain marked the end of summer and the subsequent beginning of the year’s darker half in the British Isles.
It was believed that the world of the gods became visible to humans during this festival, resulting in supernatural mischief. To help appease the gods, some people provided food as an offering. People also commonly dressed in disguises during the festival – often consisting of animal skins and heads – hoping that any wandering spirits would mistake them for one of their own.
In the 11th century, Christianity adopted October 31st as a holiday in an effort to reframe pagan celebrations as its own. The name “Halloween” is derived from “All Hallows Eve,” or the day before All Saints’ Day, which is observed on November 1st. But many of the original elements of Samhain were continued in Halloween celebrations – costumes included. In medieval England and Ireland, people dressed in costumes that symbolized the souls of the dead. By the late 15th century, many began wearing spooky outfits to personify winter spirits or demons. Costumed revelers would recite verses and songs in exchange for food, a practice known as “mumming.”
Traditions In America
As Irish and Scottish immigrants arrived in the US, Halloween superstitions and traditions migrated with them. Once the holiday entered American culture, its popularity quickly spread. Those in rural America largely embraced its pagan roots and the concept of Halloween as a dark occasion centered around death. From the 18th century through the mid-20th century, Halloween costumes were typically homemade using items such as sheets, and the finished products were intended to be truly terrifying.
In addition to creating a frightening look, anonymity was another major focus of Halloween costumes at the time. By the 1920s, annual Halloween masquerades became popular celebrations for both adults and children. Masquerade attendees strived to create impressive disguises to fool their families and friends, often beginning construction on their costumes months in advance.
After World War II, televisions became increasingly common in US homes. Alongside the rise of television, Halloween costumes based on pop culture characters exploded in popularity. The mid-20th century also marked a trend of increasingly store-bought costumes. By the 1960s, Ben Cooper – a manufacturing company credited with helping turn Halloween into a pop phenomenon – owned 70-80% of the country’s Halloween costume market.
Popular Halloween Costumes
In recent years, the most popular Halloween costumes in America have consisted of a mix of perennial favorites and trendy characters. According to data compiled by Google Trends, the top three Halloween costumes of 2021 were all timeless favorites. The number one most popular costume choice was a witch, followed by a rabbit in second, and a dinosaur in third.
However, the fourth and fifth most common selections of 2021 show the impact of pop culture on costume trends. In fourth place was the superhero Spider-Man. The high placement is likely partly due to the 2021 release of Spider-Man: No Way Home, which has since gone on to become the sixth-highest-grossing film of all time at the box office. And in fifth place was Disney villain Cruella de Vil, the main character of another popular 2021 movie, Cruella.
The remainder of the top ten Halloween costumes of 2021 shows a similar split between trendy and traditional selections. In sixth place was a fairy, followed by DC Comics character Harley Quinn, a cowboy, a clown, and classic horror movie character Chucky.
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