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Some of the Weirdest Vintage Halloween Costumes

By Orgesta Tolaj


26 October 2023

vintage halloween costumes

© pikisuperstar / Freepik

Way before Fashion Nova and Party City took the scene for cheap and ready-made costumes, there were other options for those who wanted to be scary ghouls and yucky zombies. While it is easy to become anything you can ever imagine to be today, back in the day, you had to make do with what you had lying around. And this would result in some terrifying costume choices. Ready to dive in? Here are some of the weirdest vintage Halloween costumes and why they looked like they did.

History of Halloween Costumes

Halloween costumes in the first half of the 20th century were frightening, drawing on the holiday’s pagan and Christian origins for inspiration. These costumes were often more somber and morbid, reflecting the tradition of warding off evil spirits or contemplating death. This is in contrast to the more pop culture-inspired and lighthearted costumes commonly seen today. Lesley Bannatyne, an author with expertise in Halloween history, provides this insight.

Halloween costumes have a long history, possibly originating over 2,000 years ago. Historians believe that the Celtic pagan festival of Samhain, celebrated at the end of summer and the start of the “darker” half of the year in the British Isles, served as an early precursor to the holiday.

The Origins of Halloween

Halloween’s origins can be traced back to the belief that during the festival, the world of the gods was visible to humans, leading to supernatural mischief. People would offer treats and wear disguises like animal skins to avoid being recognized by wandering spirits. This tradition continued as a way to play pranks while blaming the spirits.

In the 11th century, Christianity adopted October 31 as a holiday to replace pagan celebrations, and it became known as “All Hallows Eve.” However, many elements of Samhain, including costumes, were retained. In medieval England and Ireland, people dressed up to symbolize the souls of the dead, going from house to house for treats, known as “selling.” In the late 15th century, spooky outfits were worn to represent winter spirits or demons, and people recited verses, songs, and folk plays in exchange for food, a practice called “mumming.”

How Halloween Got “Americanized”

In the 18th century, as Irish and Scottish immigrants arrived in the United States, they brought Halloween superstitions, traditions, and costumes with them. Once integrated into American culture, Halloween quickly gained popularity. In rural America, the holiday was embraced for its pagan roots, focusing on dark themes and death. People created their costumes using whatever materials were available, like sheets, makeup, and improvised masks. Anonymity was a key aspect of these costumes, as the primary purpose of dressing up was to be in complete disguise.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween masquerades, catering to both adults and children, became a popular tradition held in rented salons or family homes. People began preparing their costumes as early as August. Positioned between summer and Christmas, Halloween served as a social gathering before the seasonal transition, which marketers capitalized on as the holiday became more commercialized.

During this period, costumes inspired by pop culture began to emerge, and the first major costume manufacturing companies, like the J. Halpern Company (Halco), started licensing images of fictional characters such as Popeye, Olive Oyl, Little Orphan Annie, and Mickey Mouse.

Later Vintage Halloween Costume Adaptions

Additionally, people became interested in impersonating characters on the fringes of society, with pirates, gypsies, and even homeless people becoming popular costume choices. The tradition of Halloween pranks continued from practices like souling and mumming, sometimes escalating to vandalism and riots. By the mid-1940s, the press referred to these Halloween antics as the “Halloween problem,” with costumes possibly playing a role in enabling such behavior.

Vintage Halloween Costumes and the History of Trick-or-Treating

Here are some of the eeriest vintage Halloween costumes that would have not done well nowadays:

vintage Halloween
© historycoolkids / Instagram

The tradition of trick-or-treating has its origins in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, which was celebrated over 2,000 years ago from October 31 to November 1st.

vintage Halloween costumes
© historycoolkids / Instagram

During the Samhain festival, it was believed that the spirits of the dead returned to the world of the living. To pacify these spirits, people offered food, lit bonfires, and made sacrifices, including livestock and crops.

vintage Halloween costumes
© historycoolkids / Instagram

Around the 9th century, as Christianity spread throughout Europe, Catholic festivals like All Hallows’ Eve (Oct. 31), All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1), and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2) gained popularity. During this time, impoverished children would go from house to house, asking for money or “soul cakes” – round cakes made with nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, and raisins with a cross on top. In return, they would sing and pray for the souls of the providers, a custom known as souling.

vintage Halloween costumes
© historycoolkids / Instagram

In the 1920s, the tradition of souling transformed into pranks and mischief, and during the Great Depression, it escalated to include vandalism, property damage, and even violence. In response to the rise in crime, local communities introduced activities and parades to reduce chaos. Encouraging homes to distribute treats became a way to promote good behavior and curb Halloween-related problems.

vintage Halloween costumes
© Museums Victoria / Unsplash

Halloween Costumes Nowadays

Halloween costumes today are incredibly diverse and can range from classic and traditional to contemporary and pop culture-inspired. People often dress up as their favorite fictional characters, superheroes, villains, movie stars, historical figures, and even internet memes. Moreover, costume choices can be humorous, scary, sexy, or creative, reflecting individual preferences. Many costumes are store-bought, while others are handmade or DIY. However, Halloween costumes continue to evolve and embrace a wide variety of themes and ideas, allowing people to express their creativity and interests.

Cosplay and Costumes

The popularity of cosplay (short for “costume play”) has influenced Halloween costumes. Cosplayers meticulously recreate characters from anime, comics, and video games, and they often showcase their costumes at conventions and events. Some people also incorporate elements of cosplay into their Halloween costumes.

Trick-or-Treating Today

Nowadays, Trick-or-treating is primarily a children’s activity. However, it’s not uncommon to see teenagers and even adults joining in on the fun. Additionally, some families and friends trick-or-treat together. Trick-or-treaters carry bags or containers to collect candies and treats from homeowners. These treats are typically in the form of individually wrapped candies, chocolates, and sometimes small toys or non-edible items. Furthermore, houses and neighborhoods are often decorated with spooky and festive decorations, including carved pumpkins (jack-o’-lanterns), cobwebs, skeletons, and other Halloween-themed decor.

Many communities and organizations promote safety during trick-or-treating. Parents or guardians often accompany young children, and there are guidelines for well-lit routes and checking candy for safety. Moreover, specific hours are usually designated for trick-or-treating to ensure it’s done during daylight or early evening hours for safety reasons. In recent years, some communities have introduced alternatives to traditional trick-or-treating, such as trunk-or-treat events in parking lots, where cars are decorated and filled with candy, or community gatherings and festivals.

What do you think of these vintage Halloween costumes? Would you be scared if you saw anyone walking around in them nowadays? What about yourself? Could you rock a costume like this? Let us know in the comments below!

You might also want to read: Spooky Movies for Halloween: Must-Watch List For October

Orgesta Tolaj

Your favorite introvert who is buzzing around the Hive like a busy bee!