Samhain: The History of Halloween Costumes

What began with the Druids and ancient Celtic villagers dressing as animals or as frightening creatures such as ghosts and wandering the edge of their settlements in groups evolved into the moving ritual theatre known as mumming. Along with singing traditional songs, sometimes those who performed also took on traditional costumes.

In South Wales, men and boys would dress as women while singing of a White Lady who sat in a tree accompanied by pigs and apples. Locals referred to these costumed characters as gwarchod, which translates to “hags.” They often costumed themselves in sheepskin and wore ragged clothing and masks. In some areas, a man dressed as a horse accompanied mummers on their rounds. This character carried a horse skull painted black and decorated with ribbons, which he kept hidden under a white cloth. This traditionally had a jaw that snapped. This skull had several nicknames, such as “Old Hob” and “Wild Horse.”

When the Irish came to the new world, they brought their costume traditions along. In colonial America, they had masquerade parades that over time caught on among their neighbors. The Victorian aesthetic popular in the United Kingdom and in the United States made Halloween a night much more tame than the folklore in its roots. Examples of this are apparent in vintage Halloween cards, showing young women participating in witchlike pursuits that refer to divination and other archaic practices in a way that suggests such games were trendy.

The costumes veered away from that of goblins, ghosts, and faeries in the 1930s when commercial costume companies appeared. The earliest costumes included characters relevant to that time—Little Orphan Annie, Mickey Mouse, and the ever-popular witch