Ah, choosing your Halloween costume. It’s a choice everyone knows well. Either you can:
• Go full on "sexy."
• Half-arse it and *sort of* incorporate some lacklustre attempt at sexiness, along with a few token weak pop culture references.
• Go balls to the wall full monster mash realness
But surely it wasn’t always this way!? History has to have allowed more sartorial Halloween choice? Well… let's find out, shall we?
GOAT'S HEAD CHIC
Way back when — and by when I mean 2,000 years ago — Celts gathered together on the 31st of October to celebrate Samhain, when it was believed ghosts would return and roam the earth.
The Celts went big on Samhain: they sacrificed animals, built huge bonfires, and also made costumes, wearing animal head crowns and coats made of animal skin.
Though Samhain died out (thanks in no small part to the Romans invading), elements of the celebration stayed and through the centuries have trickled down to our modern interpretation of Halloween…including the costumes!
Okay, now you may be thinking that if the best history’s Halloween costume past has to offer is animal head couture, you might take take a miss...but have no fear, there’s more to the story of the Halloween costume!
ENTER LICENSING AGREEMENTS AND MASS MARKETING!
Ben Cooper was a costume designer for showgirls (not the movie you’re thinking of). A master of sequins and feathers, he dressed dancers at The Cotton Club and even the Ziegfeld Follies.
Sadly, Ben’s elaborate theatrical costumery talent could not save him from the juggernaut that was the film industry. By the 1930s, kicklines weren’t cutting it; audiences wanted movie magic, and so theater audiences dwindled and Ben was out of a job.
But you can't keep a good costume designer down. You see, Ben had an idea…
At the same time as Ben lost his job, Halloween was an obsession sweeping America. Thanks to the rise in suburban neighborhoods, teamed with the holiday becoming secular, Halloween was now an event celebrated across the US. That meant one thing…suddenly, everyone needed a Halloween costume!
Store-bought costumes were by no means new. From the 1910s on, you could pop into your local store in October and pick up a paper smock that made you sort of look like a flimsy witch/ghost/other generic ghoul.
Then in the 1920s, companies started to get licensing of pop culture properties, so now party-goers could dress as a flimsy vampire OR a flimsy Popeye!
Ben Cooper entered this costume fray with two ideas:
1. To ditch the paper for screen printed plastic.
2. Go after licensing rights to things that weren’t popular yet.
And so Ben picked up the licensing rights for Disney’s Snow White, and his business immediately skyrocketed.
Then, in the 1950s, trick or treating became huge, thanks to the ever-increasing reach of suburbia and sugar rationing no longer being a thing.
Ben increased his repertoire, licensing even more properties, and also started incorporated real life pop culture figures. By the '60s, you could be anyone from Wonder Woman to JFK or even The Beatles for Halloween!
THE RISE OF "SLUT-O-WEEN"
By the 1970s, both young and old were buying Halloween costumes, and the rise of the commericalised Halloween costumes meant that you could truly become anything for one night, even a sexy nurse!
Sexualized Halloween costumes hadn’t been a trend until adult costumes were mass produced in the '60s and '70s. With more women in fulltime work and fewer women up on domestic skills like sewing, demand for ready-made ladies' costumes boomed.
So it probably shouldn’t be surprising that with women out of the design process, costumes become more male-fantasy orientated and and objectified. Witches were out, French Maids were very much in.
This trend continued to steadily rise for the next few decades, peaking in the early 2000s. According to one costume company, "sexy" costumes now account for around 95% of the women’s Halloween costume market.
So there you have it, the history of your Halloween costume: From goats' heads to plastic pop culture bibs and finally, plastic pop culture lingerie.
So what are you going as this Halloween? I know I’ve already got my costume down.
This post originally appeared on F Yeah History and is reprinted here with permission.
Top photo: Mean Girls
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Written by Natasha Tidd, Sara Westrop, and Helen Antrobus, F Yeah History is dedicated to unearthing history that's just too good for history class. From historic hangover cures to unsung historic heroes, all told with a healthy does of gifs and somewhat terrible jokes, it's history...just not as you know it. Follow F Yeah History on FYeahHistory.com and on Twitter @F_yeah_history.