Unless, like Rip Van Winkle, you’ve been snoozing in the hills over the past few decades, it’s almost impossible not to have noticed that Halloween’s become a major national celebration. It used to be confined to one, relatively low-key evening when hordes of costumed kids would roam the streets for a couple of hours, ringing doorbells and shouting “Trick or Treat!”
Somehow it’s been hijacked by adults and transformed into a week’s worth of revelry characterized by extravagant masquerades, over-the-top commercial haunted house tours, an abundance of partying and a general sense that—at least for one night—anything goes.
One blazing symbol of that transformation is in Halloween costumes. Looking back to the 1950s and even well into the 1960s, kids’ Halloween getups were usually homemade and—as such—fairly predictable. There were ghosts, superheroes, witches, warlocks and a handful of other disguises that shared a direct connection to the scary spirits of the occasion.
Some moms would pull out their McCalls patterns right before Halloween to sew home-made costumes like Batman or Raggedy Ann. What the costumes lacked in sophistication—especially compared with today’s overstated Halloween-wear—was made up for in homespun ingenuity.
I recall one All hallows’ eve when my dad actually handcrafted a realistic-looking wooden cutlass from scratch with a wood lathe and jigsaw and then painted it silver and black to round out my “Redbeard the Pirate” costume. Brandishing it in the air and snarling, I was the envy of all my friends. So, following, in no particular order is a handful of costumes most characteristic of those Halloweens of yore:
All you actually needed for this one was a white sheet and a pair of scissors to make some eye holes. And then, if you wanted to get really fancy, you could apply some black paint or a marker to add a few ghoulish details around the eyes and mouth.
A set of horns, a long forked tail and some red makeup and suddenly you were Beelzebub incarnate. THE SKELETON. With a molded-paper, slip-on skull mask, all you had to add was a black jersey and matching black tights emblazoned with glow-in-the-dark painted “bones.”
The “Wicked Witch of the West” was the quintessential model for an army of tiny female pagans in floppy black hats and greenish face paint, straddling broomsticks and casting spells all over the neighborhood.
Moms across America charred a cork over a burner on their kitchen stoves and then rubbed the black residue on pubescent chins to simulate the requisite buccaneering chin whiskers. Add to that a black eye patch, a red bandanna, perhaps a gold hoop clip-on earring, a waist sash and you became a swashbuckler to buckle all swashes.
Nowadays, the Halloween costume one-upmanship has grown in force with the holiday itself. Costumes—each one more clever and complex than the last—cover the political, the ironic, the celebrity and the topical giving The Day of the Dead a new and decidedly different twist.
Did You Know?
Halloween itself is often described as a “night of mischief,” but, several decades ago in some parts of the country, Oct. 30—the eve before Halloween—was known as “Cabbage Night.” In the Northeast, it was an occasion primarily for the “tricks” side of “trick-or-treat,” when bands of mischief-making kids were given license to ring doorbells then scamper away, pepper neighborhood windows with peashooters and generally exorcise a lot of their Halloween demons.