That time of the year is approaching when subverting the canons of dress becomes the norm. October 31 has always been the day when people can dare and be whoever they want, hiding their identity with the help of darkness. There is a special electricity on this day, a wind of freedom in which every “trick” is allowed. Unfortunately for us, coronavirus pandemic will certainly put the excess to pause, but this does not prevent us from reconsidering the origins of the celebration and the birth of the Halloween costume conceived as a disguise form (called fancy dress in English culture, costume in American one) .
We are now used to associating the Halloween party with the American tradition exploded in its entirety in the 80s, which was mainly dominated by costumes inspired by pop culture. Contrary to what one might think, the tradition of dressing up dates back to almost 2000 years ago. Historians assume that the Celtic festival in honor of the ancestors (festival of Samhain), can be considered as the forerunner celebration of Halloween. It is said that in this festival the gods returned to be visible in the form of supernatural phenomena; some, disguised themselves with animal skins to be mistaken for gods and started to make fun of the devotees, who were committed to offering food and drinks to the divinities (trick or treat?). In the eleventh century, Christianity resumed the celebration of October 31, connoting it with new meanings. Halloween derives from Hallows Eve or the day before All Saints’ Day. The disguise, however, remains part of the tradition, thus reaching the present day. From the 11th century up to the 15th, people disguised themselves as spirits or demons, going from house to house to collect sweets and drinks on behalf of the deities. In the night ruled by spirits, the disguise was then only functional to hide one’s identity and mainly devoted to the joke.
It is precisely in the 15th century that the Halloween party undergoes a radical transformation becoming more majestic, especially in the European courts. Its popularity grew also among the lower social classes. Venice was in this sense the city of disguise par excellence. The Venetian carnival has very ancient roots, which reach up to the 12th-13th century, but the use of typical masks became widespread only in the 15th century. Even in the English (Tudor and Stuart) and French courts, Venetian masks dominated the scene at court parties and balls. Among the masks and costumes most in use, those of the Commedia dell’Arte certainly stood out, hence Arlecchino, Pantalone, Pulcinella, Colombina and many others. The most popular costumes were those depicting monks, nuns and sailors. In the 18th century, Irish and Scottish immigrants landed in America and there was where Halloween found its way, enriching itself with many other traditions, popular beliefs, folklore and superstitions of other immigrants coming from Germany, Haiti, and Holland. The American celebration in that period was strongly characterized by European features, and dressing up becomes the key element in order to abandon good manners and social norms for just one day under the gaze of the spirits returning from the dead.
In the English courts of the 19th century, the subversive practices of Halloween were replaced by so-called masked balls, the most elegant and refined celebrations that did not go beyond the limits of decorum. Queen Victoria and Prince Consort Albert used to host similar parties, in which Queen of Scots Mary Stuart’s costume seemed to be particularly in vogue, along with other medieval-era costumes. This is precisely the period in which the term “fancy dress” was born.
From the twentieth century onwards, the Halloween party became so popular in the US, that immediately the markets started buiding real empires around it. Dating back to the 1920s, is the Collegeville Flag and Manufacturing Company, one of the first companies to produce Halloween costumes. Parties are organized for adults and children, costumes of characters on the margins of society are privileged, such as pirates, gypsies or the homeless, sometimes trespassing into acts of vandalism (in the 40s the case “The Halloween Problem” takes over, which arrived to abolish the party and replace it with “Conservation Day”). After the Second World War, companies began to advertise costumes inspired by characters belonging to popular culture and the Halloween party entered the homes of all American families thanks to the advent of the TV in the 1950s.
The past conception of Halloween as a pagan festival linked to the concept of death and spirits takes a back seat, supplanted by more individualistic traits. The costumes are no longer functional to fiction and to mask one’s identity, but rather to accentuate a more jaunty and light personality just for a day. Even if scary costumes evoking horror films are still fashionable, the most stilish today is a costume with camp features, flashy and provocative, oriented towards exhibitionism and hedonism, that in some cases could cause disastrous effects on the environment because of its single use.
And what about Halloween at the time of coronavirus? Masks, from being a decorative element to a protective tool, certainly induce a reflection on the importance of physicality and social interactions. Perhaps never as in this year the costume could be back in vogue as a real form of disguise, we already have the perfect accessory anyway.
Cover image: Halloween pin-up 1940s Ann Miller