What Do Historical Halloween Costumes Tell Us About Pop Culture?

From witches and warlocks to wired techies and superheroes, Halloween customs tell us a lot about what’s happening in the world. We can determine a lot about the politics, popular movies, and prevalent moods of an era by examining the Halloween costumes of that period of time.

What do each year’s Halloween costumes tell us about the happenings of that year?

Halloween Costumes in History

The celebration of Halloween goes back to ancient times when the Celts celebrated the festival of Samhain, the Celtic Day of the Dead. Over the years Halloween celebration has taken many forms including parties, storytelling, trick-or-treating and the release of Halloween-themed movies and online casino slots. Visit the following link to witness the spookiest Halloween Slots that you can play online.

In modern days Halloween continues to be a pop culture phenomenon. Preparations for Halloween often start the month before the holiday with party planning, costume-buying, and the appearance of old Halloween films on TV. Sociologists often comment that even more than other holidays, the evolution of Halloween, especially the changing Halloween costumes, can tell us a lot about the culture of the era.

What can we learn about pop culture from Halloween costumes?


Halloween’s roots are in Celtic lands including Ireland, France, Scotland, and Wales where Samhain was celebrated on the night of the full moon closest to November 1st to mark the end of the fall harvest and the onset of winter. It was said to be the first day of the Celtic New Year when the border that separated the souls of the living and the dead could be breached. Spirits wandered the earth and people disguised themselves to prevent the spirits from recognizing them.

Early American settlers eschewed Halloween as a pagan holiday but by the 1840s, with the arrival of a massive number of Irish immigrants who had preserved many of Samhain’s ancient rites, interest was revived. One of these customs involved carving faces into pumpkins, a tradition whose origins evolved from stories of the carved turnip head of an evil man named

Over the years, the arrival of immigrants from different countries and America’s evolving culture made Halloween a distinctly American celebration. Traditions grew such as telling ghost stories, playing divination games, bobbing for apples, and dressing up in costume. Popular costumes of each era would often reflect events that were occurring in the country at that time.


Halloween became a children-centered holiday in the 1930s with parades, haunted houses, and school parties. Trick-or-treat romps around the neighborhood became popular at this time as the ancient custom of dressing in costume was combined with begging for candy. The practice rose of children singing or performing some kind of skit in exchange for a treat but in some areas, it became customary for house-owners who didn’t participate in the treat-giving to be “punished” by having their windows soaped or toilet paper strung around their trees.

Homemade costumes, including paper costumes, started to become popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. By the mid-20th century those homemade and paper costumes started to give way to commercially-made costumes including those that were based on Disney characters such as Snow White, Minnie Mouse, and Mickey Mouse. There were also costumes of ghosts, goblins, witches, skeletons and devils, other types of costumes began to emerge that reflected the popular culture of each era.

Masks were added later on – originally clown, animal, and witch masks gave way to figures from popular culture in the ‘60s such as Jacqueline Kennedy, Laurel and Hardy, the Beatles, Barbie, and G.I. Joe. The Pierrot clown which featured a  dramatic black and white painted face were popular. It was at this time that rubber masks of goblins, scarecrows, and other characters started to be included in costume kits.

Some notable observations of the costumes of the last 100 years include:


Witches, skeletons, and cute clowns were popular in the ‘40s but this was also the decade when the “sexy Halloween costume” debuted. Following the 2nd World War, when women took over for men in many industries, women were beginning to feel their power and independence and many exhibited their sexual liberation with classic Halloween costumes like witches and cats that included hiked up skirts, bodysuits, fishnets, and heavy makeup.


Cultural appropriation wasn’t a problem in the 1950s when mainlanders indulged in Hawaii-themed costumes with grass skirts, leis and floral prints. Others jumped on the western film craze, making cowboy and Indian costumes immensely popular. Pop culture figure costumes of figures like Davy Crockett, Tarzan, and Zorro were also popular.


60s pop culture was dominated by superheroes and the dominant Halloween costumes of that period were of Superman, Batman, Catwoman, Batgirl, Spiderman and other superhero figures. Those costumes could be sexed-up with short skirts, caps, and figure-hugging bodysuits and they often were. Rubber masks made the costumes complete


The rubber mask phenomena continued which drove up sales of cartoon and other media characters. Many of the popular costumes of the ‘70s were of the characters in the Charlie Brown coming strip, especially Snoopy, plus other pop culture favorites such as Barbie and Ken, Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy and Star Wars.

For those that want to know more about the pop culture favorites of the 1970s, you can read our article about the Top Pop Culture Toys of the 70s.


The theatrical costume business of Ben Cooper, which had held a monopoly on many pop culture-centric Halloween costumes since the 1930s, was no longer in business. This allowed low-budget buyers to more easily access the costumes that they really wanted. There were more Princess Leias, more Freddy Kruegers and more Care Bears. The vampy, sexy Elvira was popular among women of the ‘80s and Hulk Hogan was a favored costume of many men.

In case you don’t know, Care Bears is a line of stuffed toys  that was designed by artist Elena Kucharik in 1981 and was used first as characters for greeting cards made by American Greetings, a greeting card producer. Care Bears became so popular that it spawned an animated TV show in the 1980s. To learn more, check out The Best TV Shows Based on 80s Toys.


The 1990s saw an explosion of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fandom which included costumes for both children and adults of the friendly crews. It was acceptable to dress up as one’s favorite Power Ranger or Mutant Turtle. South Park kids’ costumes and Star Trek voyagers were also high on the list of costume favorites of the decade.

Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are two of the most popular TV shows in the United States and in different countries around the world. To know more about these shows, you can check out our article on The Best 90s TV Shows with Popular Toy Lines.


For the last 20 years there’s been a wider choice than ever for Halloween costumers. During the years that Harry Potter was all the rage, it was fun to dress up as a young wizard or witch while the growth in superhero movies drove up sales of superhero costumes from Joker and The Dark Knight to Spiderman and Bat Girl. Whimsical costumes of Spongebob and Squarepants also proved to be popular.


Halloween celebrants during the second decade of the 21st century returned to Disney for inspiration with costumes from Frozen, Beauty and the Beast, and other live-action Disney releases.  Pop singers also inspired 2010s costumes including those representing Miley Cyrus, Brittney Spears and Jennifer Lopez. On the political front costumes of Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump were almost anti-climactic after all the drama of their political antics.


This year one can expect to see costumes of Stranger Things kids, emoji, Kardashians, Flintstones, video game characters, and, of course, lots of masks!