Fall has arrived in Iowa! The leaves are changing colors. It is much cooler out in the mornings. People are pulling out their coats and sweaters. It is the time of year many people pick out our costumes to go Halloween trick-or-treating in our neighborhoods. You might not know, but the idea of going door to door for candy is a pretty recent one.
In America, it was in the 1920s that kids really started putting on costumes to go out for candy. But, dressing up in costumes to go to a party is a very old tradition! The idea has a long history, although costume choices have changed over time.
Have you ever attended a party where everyone was dressed in a costume? While we may call this a “Halloween party”, people used to call it a “fancy dress” party. Fancy dress is just another way to say that someone is in a costume, a fanciful, dress-up costume. People long ago used to have big parties and all the guests at the party wore some form of costume. These parties were said to begin in Venice, Italy about 500 years ago! That’s before Columbus sailed to America. At first, guests would wear just a very fancy mask to cover their face. This kind of party was called a Masquerade ball.
As time progressed, masks began to include full costumes. In the 1500s, people in France were the first to turn Masquerades into fancier Fancy Dress parties.
Party guests were encouraged to dress up like famous people in history—like the ancient Greeks, Trojans, and even shepherds. These fancy dress parties were usually just for adults—not kids. Could you imagine your parents dressed in togas like an ancient Greek?
In the 1800s, these fancy dress parties became more for all ages of people. Adults still had fancy dress parties just for adults; but kids began to have parties with costumes too! By the 1870s, which is the time we show in the museum’s town of Walnut Hill, having a costume party was pretty common—at Halloween, and also for New Year’s Eve or even for Spring Holidays! A popular fashion magazine printed this picture of costumes for kids in 1873.
Nowadays we tend to dress up as superheroes or cartoon characters. Long ago, boys usually dressed as military officers or old historical figures and girls were dressed as things found in nature, anything from bees to snowballs.
While today you may buy your costume from a store, kids long ago had to make their costumes at home. People had to be creative and use whatever they could find. If you lived in a big city after 1900, your parents may have bought their costume from a store, but many kids still made costumes at home. This website has several photos of kids and adults dressing up in costumes in the late 19th and 20th century.
The biggest difference between costumes of the past and the ones we wear now is what we do in them once they are on. Today we mainly go trick-or-treating in our costumes so they need to be warm and able to go outside from house to house. Long ago, people wore their costumes inside at a party; the costume could be fancy and light because it didn’t have to travel. One good way to think about this idea is that people in the theater wear costumes for show just like people long ago. Now go out and get some candy this Halloween! Store bought or homemade costuming is fine!
If you are joining us for the Living History Farms Family Halloween event this week, we hope you will dress up in a “fancy dress” costume! But we do think it should be a warm costume so you can walk around outside and trick-or-treat in Walnut Hill!