The Strong’s Artifact of the Month: Homemade Halloween Costume

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While I’m not big on gory thrills, I am a fan of other ghoulish delights and Halloween festivities. I especially enjoy picking out my costume. I’m not alone—historian Nicholas Rogers reported that Americans spend approximately $1.5 billion on Halloween costumes and another $3 million on party accessories. 

Halloween Greeting Card, early 20th century, Reproduced by Bill Ellis, University of Kentucky 2004, Courtesy of Fair UseMany scholars believe that Halloween originated with the Celtic festival of Samhain. During these festivities, the Celts lit bonfires and wore costumes—usually piecemealed together from animal
heads and skins—to ward off the ghosts of the dead that returned to earth to mark the end of summer and the beginning of dark, cold, dismal days.

Colonial America first celebrated Halloween with public events called “play parties.” Instead of acknowledging the end of the summer as the Celts did, they celebrated the harvest. People told ghost stories, danced, sang, and read fortunes. Halloween continued to evolve as people borrowed bits and pieces of various traditions brought to America by new immigrants and incorporated them into a community-based festivity.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Americans dressed in costumes and asked nearby neighbors for food. Some scholars speculate that this Halloween activity originated with England’s All Soul’s Day parade. On this day, the poor went door-to-door asking for food. The more wealthy class distributed soul cakes (a pastry) to any person who promised to pray for the dead.  

Halloween Costume, Black Cat, 1945, Courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, NYThe Strong’s collections have an array of costumes. In response to Richard Gottlieb’s recent post about the New York Times article “Cat Fever: Here, Kitty; There Kitty,” and his suggestion that adults continue to embrace play through fashion, I’d like to highlight a charming cat costume.

In 1945, an individual hand-crafted this black cat costume out of three pieces of crepe paper. The garment is constructed of a single sheet of crepe paper. The mask and cap are also made out of crepe paper and the crafter added tab ears, green paper eyes, and a red mouth. And no cat can be curious without his whiskers. This detail is fashioned out of three sheets of white crepe paper. The tail, a stiff wire complete with a fringe of black crepe paper, reminds me of a cat that’s ready to pounce.

Over the years, costumes have become more complex and more expensive. Sometimes all you need to embrace the creative and playful spirit of Halloween is a clever idea, a few sheets of paper, and a stick of glue.

 

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