The most popular Halloween costumes over the past 150 years — and the fascinating history behind how costume trends have changed
I'm reminiscing about Halloween childhood memories. Growing up, my mom, an elementary school educator, would always dress up for school on Halloween. One year, she wore my brother's high school football uniform and went as a football player. Every year until 2020 (she lived there for fifty years), she would decorate my childhood home and dress up as the neighbourhood witch. The kids loved her just as much as I did.
Every year, on the spooky night of October 31st, people of all ages transform themselves into ghouls, goblins, and everything in between. But have you ever wondered why we dress up for Halloween? Well, let's take a trip down memory lane and explore the fascinating history behind this beloved tradition.
Ever since the late 19th century, we have been dressing up to celebrate Halloween.
Halloween costumes circa 1890. L Cranson/Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images
The costumes people choose to wear are always changing, influenced by popular culture and current events.
For example, bloody, gory Halloween costumes became popular in the 1980s following the release of the horror movie "Halloween".
Lesley Bannatyne, a Halloween expert who has authored several books about folklore and popular culture, to track popular Halloween costumes through the years as some thoughts.
From the 1870s to the 1890s, people mostly made their own witch and ghost costumes.
Halloween costumes circa 1865. London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images
There were no store-bought costumes in the late 1800s, so people dressed up as classic symbols of the Halloween holiday with looks they made themselves.
"The things that appealed to people were the things that they loved about Halloween, so you saw a lot of handmade witch costumes and ghost costumes," Bannatyne said.
Victorian America was also fascinated by the Far East.
A group of children dressed up as Chinese men in 1919. Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis via Getty Images
Any costumes that were what people would have called "exotic," such as Egyptian princesses, were popular choices in the late 19th century.
"Anything that was exotic and in another world, either on this planet or another dimension, was really interesting," she said.
This wouldn't fly today with more widespread awareness about cultural appropriation.
Mass-produced paper costumes and buckram masks hit stores between the 1900s and the 1920s.
Kids circa 1925 dressed as ghosts ready to trick-or-treat. Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis via Getty Images
Halloween became more popular at the turn of the century, celebrated in civic institutions such as schools and parades. Almost everyone was wearing mass-produced costumes.
"Everybody looked the same, those were aprons with cats or little witches printed on them, or hats or paper masks. They were meant to be worn once and thrown away, like crepe paper," Bannatyne said. "That's the first time Halloween got a standard color scheme — yellow, black, orange, purple — with paper products.
Disposable paper costumes made way for boxed character costumes in the 1930s and '40s.
Ready-to-wear boxed costumes in a Halloween surplus store. Minnesota Historical Society/CORBIS/Getty Images
Ready-to-wear boxed costumes usually included a plastic mask and a rayon costume depicting well-known characters from cartoons, books, and the radio.
According to Bannatyne, these costumes were considered a luxury in the 1930s, and they only became more affordable after World War II.
Television defined popular culture in the 1950s, and Halloween costumes followed suit.
A Halloween costume inspired by the CBS show "Have Gun Will Travel" from 1959. CBS via Getty Images
"Popular culture went from radio to television in the '50s, and all of a sudden everybody is on the same page," Bannatyne said. "You couldn't have standard Halloween costumes that everybody knew about until we had a common culture."
Sought-after costumes included Little Orphan Annie, Bowinkle, and Disney characters such as Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Peter Pan, Tinkerbell, and Snow White.
The television trend continued into the 1960s.
TV and film characters like Spiderman were popular in the 1960s. Jacob Harris/AP
Costume options in the 1960s got even more expansive as a popular culture solidified.
"You have The Addams Family, and Flipper the Dolphin, The Beatles, Barbie," Bannatyne said. "[Costumes are] going into popular culture, even to products."
"You can just look at the movies and look at the costumes and they overlap a lot," Bannatyne said of trendy costumes in the 1970s.
A child dressed in a Darth Vader costume in the 1970s. Anthony Barboza/Getty Images
In particular, Bannatyne named the coneheads from "Saturday Night Live" and John Travolta in "Grease" as popular costume choices.
E.T. dominated the 1980s.
Children wearing E.T. masks in 1982. AP Photo/Mike Kullen
"E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" was released in 1982. It won numerous Oscars and remains one of the highest-grossing movies of all time. Naturally, everyone wanted to dress up as the friendly alien.
Costumes also took a dark, gory turn in the 1980s.
Halloween in 1987. Frankie Ziths/AP
John Carpenter's bone-chilling 1978 movie "Halloween" added an element of horror to the holiday that hadn't been present in years past, paving the way for gory costumes in the 1980s.
"It was always spooky, and it was always otherworldly and weird, but it wasn't bloody and violent until John Carpenter's 'Halloween' cracked it open," Bannatyne said.
Costumes of brand-name products were big in the 1990s.
Brand-name costumes are still in style.
"[Halloween] has always had a wonderful political subversive theme to it, so you always see costumes that comment on what's going on, but in the '90s it gets even more ironic," Bannatyne said. "You get people dressed as Tootsie Rolls or Lifesavers, McDonald's — just about anything you can see, you can turn into a costume."
In the 2000s, political scandals reigned supreme.
Masks of Laura Bush, President George W. Bush, and Vice President Dick C Erik S. Lesser/Getty Images
"Political scandals and taglines make for great costumes — to this day, that Nixon mask is one of the most popular masks," Bannatyne said.
According to Bannatyne, sales of presidential Halloween masks have correctly predicted the outcome of every election except for 2016 ("Trump masks were selling wildly, but no one could decide whether that was because it was pro or con").
In the aughts, "sexy" versions of costumes became prevalent and remain a staple of Halloween parties today.
A sexy Harry Potter-themed costume.
Some costumes call for sex appeal, and some don't. But the aughts ushered in an era of gratuitously "sexy" versions of just about any character, food item, or career.
"In the '80s and '90s people would always ask me, 'Why is Halloween so violent?' Nowadays, they ask, 'Why is Halloween so sexy?'" Bannatyne said.
Concerns about cultural appropriation in Halloween costumes have become more widely acknowledged in recent years, according to Bannatyne.
Traditional Native American clothing is part of a culture, not a costume.
The term cultural appropriation is used to describe the adoption of elements in a minority culture — typically one that has been historically oppressed or discriminated against — by members of the dominant culture, by those who wield power in a society. In the context of Halloween, this can manifest itself in the form of costumes that draw on exaggerated and insensitive cultural stereotypes.
"[Halloween] has always gone off the rails a little bit, but people are much more aware of that now," Bannatyne said.
This year, costumes inspired by breakout TV shows are expected to be a huge hit.
Zendaya in "Euphoria." HBO
"Euphoria" dominated television and made Zendaya the youngest lead drama actress to win an Emmy twice. "Euphoria"-inspired hair and makeup will undoubtedly make an appearance this Halloween.
Ultimately, Halloween costume trends follow cultural trends.
Think carefully when choosing your next costume. Think carefully when choosing your next costume. Tim Boyle/Getty via Insider
What does the future hold?
As we look to the future, it's hard to predict what Halloween costumes will be popular in the years to come. Will we see a resurgence of classic monsters? Will superheroes continue to dominate the scene? Or will we witness the rise of entirely new trends?
One thing's for sure: Halloween costumes will continue to evolve, reflecting the ever-changing interests and imaginations of people around the world. So, whether you're planning to dress up as a spooky specter or a quirky internet meme, remember to have fun, be creative, and embrace the spirit of Halloween!