Why Do People Dress Up for Halloween? History of the Tradition

What we wear on Halloween and why we wear it has evolved across centuries.

Published August 5, 2022
Three people posing in a vampire, grim reader and witch costumes for Halloween

Halloween has evolved and grown as time has passed. Dressing up for Halloween is a long tradition, starting from the days of the Celtic Samhain festival. Why do we dress up for Halloween? While the reasons for dressing up don't quite look the same as they did a thousand years ago, the sentiment remains the same: to scare.

Why Did People Dressed Up for Halloween Historically?

Many mistake Halloween for being a pagan holiday due to its roots in Samhain. But Samhain and its traditions continue to play a significant role in how people celebrate Halloween in the current day, including dressing up in costumes. Originally, it was a holiday to celebrate a bountiful harvest and mark the start of winter or the darker part of the year. During this time, those who observed believed that the door between the mortal world and the spirit world was thinnest, meaning the realm of the living was accessible to those who are dead.

People celebrating Samhain festival

When not appeasing or leaving offerings to any monsters or spirits that wandered through to the mortal world, people turned to costumes to scare the spirits or visiting ancestors, or even fairies that may be tempted to kidnap them. With offerings to offer goodwill and prosperity for upcoming harvests, costumes were a way to keep the monsters at bay. Celebrants didn't dress in hats, make-up, and cloaks the way we do today. For Samhain festivities, people would dress in animal skins to disguise themselves, play tricks, and ward off anything that may want to cause harm.

A half-century later, mumming became widespread, with children dressing up in garb to look like scary creatures. But the practice is more familiar than that: the children would dress up in exchange for treats or drinks.

Why Do We Dress Up for Halloween Today?

Children dressing up in furs for food or drink opened the door to new Halloween traditions. In America, harvest and fall festivals, customs, and rituals evolved. Communities gathered for harvest events, sharing stories and tales about the dead, singing, and dancing, and continuing to dress up — now as the spooks they feared, but also to scare the monsters that lingered from Samhain.

Young kids trick or treating at night during Halloween

By the end of the 1800s, the United States saw a dramatic rise in newcomers, most notably people from Ireland, with their own Halloween celebrations. Mingling with other European traditions, trick-or-treating in costume quickly emerged as a Halloween staple. From here, Halloween costumes shifted from a form of protection from those trying to scare people to everyone being scary themselves.

Modern Costumes for Modern Monsters

Today, the 21st-century Halloween costume is no longer about protection. Costumes are about fright, dreams, and ambitions now — from simple sheets draped overhead to carefully crafted paper mache to craft an extensive villainous octopus costume. However, costumes are moving away from their scary roots to the star of the latest superhero movie or a popular subscription service TV show.

Modern costumers can look to the 1920s for thanks when businesses began to license and market popular television cartoon characters into Halloween costumes. By the mid-20th century, costumes became standard fare for Halloween, not only for children, but for adults as well. However, one glance at old costumes and you’ll see that even the simplest designs could cause inspired nightmares. Halloween costume parties became a staple of the autumn season.

Modern Halloween Party

Even today, costumes are often well-thought-out, planned months in advance, with Halloween costume party dates etched in calendars while summer still shines bright. No longer for dark bonfire harvest celebrations, costumes take mortals from ordinary people to demons, horror movie villains, children's movie characters, and television stars with the flick of a wrist.

Why Do People Dress Up for Halloween?

Take a peek behind the mask of Michael Myers and explore the roots of costumes on Halloween and why we dress up to make your costume sparkle a little brighter or make others jump a little higher. At the very least, you'll have a good story to tell around the punch bowl.

Why Do People Dress Up for Halloween? History of the Tradition