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Image: Halloween costumes from 1918

The eerie origins of Halloween costumes

Halloween costumes from 1918 | Image: (Attribution 2.0 Generic)

Celebrations held at the end of October may have changed vastly from the original pagan feasts of Samhain, but the donning of disguises has remained over hundreds if not thousands of years. As fashion, morals and the reasons for costumes changed, so did their style.

With us Brits spending around £600,000,000 a year on Halloween costumes it’s not showing signs of going away anytime soon.


We know Samhain celebrations date back to neolithic times in Ireland, and while we don’t know exactly when costumes became interwoven with the celebration, painting faces with woad, clay, and ceremonial bonfire ash was likely involved from the start. Early Druids would wear animal hides and heads, and across wider pagan celebrations it was common practice to add in bones, antlers, and horsehair.

Celts believed wearing costumes could discourage evil spirits or disguise the wearers as one of them for protection, or to commune safely. If someone with whom they’d quarrelled died, it was common to confuse their spirit by dressing as them. As this was the time when both war and hunting parties would return for winter, it’s widely believed that the armour, bones and even faces of slain enemies may have been donned to confuse avenging spirits.

Somebody think of the children

The first records of guising in Scotland are from the 16th century, but trick-or-treating evolved from much earlier practices. It remained popular across Ireland and Scotland to disguise oneself as a malevolent spirit for the night to scare away the real ones. Anyone who had to be out that night would dress up in ghoulish wooden masks or paint their faces with whitewash or sheep dye.

Costumes varied across regions. In the Shetlands, Skekling costumes of straw would be worn that derived from both their Celtic and Norse heritage. Whereas in the Outer Hebrides, people would add sheepskins and skulls into the mix to spice up their autumn look. Even after the practice fell out of favour with adults, children would still be dressed up to prevent spirits from snatching them. This developed into costumed children going house to house collecting fruit and nuts for protection.

Mum’s the word

'Mumming' began in England in the early Middle Ages, with parallels across Ireland and Scotland remaining popular until around the 18th century. Townsfolk or ‘Mummers’ would perform short plays in the street, pubs or when going door-to-door. They marked important days throughout the year, but in October their plays and characters would personify old spirits demanding food and drink in return for good fortune for the coming winter.

Faces would be painted with soot or brick dust mixed with lard and they would don elaborate headgear, such as high hats with strips of fabric to further hide the face. The costumes would also be heavily layered with fabric or wallpaper strips. Sometimes characters such as St. George would appear in a white tunic marked with a cross, and jesters would simply don bright clothing, while any female roles would be deliberately grotesque and portrayed by men.

Masques at the ready

In the late Middle Ages, knocking for soul cakes, or ‘souling’, became popular during what was now the Christian celebration of Allhallowtide. People would either don a bright costume or dress like a beggar before singing under people’s windows.

Alongside this, throughout the 15th-17th centuries, people would throw debaucherous masquerades wherein an elegant mask was the only costume needed. There were also widespread court masques which would include professional performers in elaborate costumes, as well as village pageants of a more amateur status, which would both re-enact the Danse Macabre wherein attendees would dress as corpses from all walks of society.

Going Gothic

Given the strict social codes in place throughout the Victorian era it’s unsurprising that they domesticated Allhallowtide celebrations. Those involving liquor and sensuality were discouraged and by the end of the era, it was considered a children's celebration.

But the Victorians were obsessed with death and its rituals, so while it was popular, we got toffee apples and seances, and costumes took on a more Gothic nature. For adults, this would be the usual party attire or formal mourning dress made to appear more incognito by accessorising with gothic headdresses, witch hats, bat wings, makeup or devil horns.

Children would head out ‘souling’ in their homemade fabric or paper mâché masks. Devils, ghosts and witches were popular, but often they were simply a child's interpretation of a face. One Scottish author referred to them as ‘fause-faces’ (false faces) in 1890, but from the surviving black and white images they should be more accurately described as 'high-octane nightmare fuel'.

The trick-or-treat revolution

The Industrial Revolution had a huge effect on Halloween costumes. Homemade gave way to mass production and factories started to see a seasonal business opportunity.

As early as 1910, factories began producing paper masks and flag companies would use scrap fabric to make clown and jester costumes. In the 1930s, costumes based on characters from media, literature, and radio became more popular. Latex masks first rolled off production lines in the 1950s and remain a modern-day trick-or-treat staple.

With adults increasingly getting involved and the accessibility of spooky makeup tutorials making painted faces popular again, it would seem we’ve come full circle. Deer antlers anyone?

For more articles about the history and traditions of Halloween, check our dedicated Halloween hub.