Store-bought or made at home, some costumes reflect current trends in popular culture and politics. But others are classics: Some costumes never seem to go out of style, and they make sense to Halloween celebrants of every age.
So where exactly is the line between a costume that rides a trend, and one that never goes out of fashion?
Considerable sought out Halloween historians and costume experts to determine which costumes age well, why they’re so enduring, and what outfits folks can expect to see around the neighborhood this year.
What’s behind a Halloween classic?
Take a quick trip through Halloween photos of years past, and you’ll see a combination of go-to archetypes and of-the-moment attire specific to that year or general era. In the mid-’90s, any Halloween party was sure to have a Judge Ito, just like the same party of the ’80s probably had at least one Marty McFly or Madonna lookalike.
The past decade or so in costume trends have seen the regular revolving door of movie characters, reality stars, and pop-culture figures and references that are increasingly confusing for anyone over 25.
Regardless of the era, the most consistent costumes are related to the history of Halloween.
“Halloween is a young holiday in America,” said Lesley Bannatyne, a folklorist and Halloween historian who has written extensively on the subject. “It came to us through Irish and Scottish immigrants (who knew it as an otherworldly night, the eve of All Saints/All Souls, the Christian church holiday created to honor both the Saints and the dead), as well as articles in the late 19th-century popular media that depicted Halloween as folksy and spooky.
“From the centuries-old Irish Samhain, or ‘summer’s end,’ we get sagas that depict the time around Nov. 1 as a time when the other world is more present than usual: divination has more power, the supernatural walk among us, propitious events happen.”
“It is the cusp of winter — a dangerous and dark time.”
Bannatyne contends this legacy, and the popular folklore and poetry that was born from these traditions helped create the template for contemporary Halloweens full of witches, ghosts, and other figures in touch with the spirit world.
According to Bannatyne, “The elements that have come to mean Halloween — ghosts (and variations on the undead) and witches — always appear, no matter which way popular culture swings in any given year.”
And what accounts for the staying power of these basic elements of American Halloween?
Bannatyne explains: “I think the reason these costumes still attach themselves to Halloween is because they illustrate the most basic of ideas: Halloween is a nighttime holiday, an otherworldly holiday, and it welcomes the things you can’t ordinarily see.”
So if witches, ghosts and the undead are all classic costumes connected to the very root of the holiday in this country, what about equally popular costumes tied more closely to the popular culture?
Tiana Scharf, owner of The Best Halloween Store Ever in Thousand Oaks, California, didn’t hesitate when asked which costumes never go out of style.
“Year-to-year, it is always going to be princess costumes and superhero costumes. It is just the classic costume for both sexes because it is what all generations have grown up on.”
Indeed, the power of the princess and superhero is strong — so strong that, according to Scharf, these two costumes appear every year no matter what, often taking the form of whatever the popular movie of the year is.
“A lot of the costumes are also based on trends, based on what movies are popular that year, too, but it still falls within the whole character genre.”
So with the recent Spider-Man movie, and currently Joker being in theaters, expect to see plenty of Spider- and Batmen. And the live-action version of Aladdin could spark an uptick in Princess Jasmine outfits as well.
When asked if the spooky genre costumes mentioned above, the witch and ghosts of the Halloween world, are big sellers, Scharf was clear.
Not only are they ingrained into the culture of Halloween, they are relatively quick and easy to assemble in time for the big day.
Says Scharf: “It is more of the economical version of a costume. So, the generic costumes are always very popular because it definitely is a cheaper price point, and a lot of people look at Halloween costumes as, “Oh, I am only wearing it for a few hours,” they don’t want to invest a lot of money in it, and so they have that option.”
So it’s certain you’ll see witches, ghosts, princesses, and superheros of all sorts in abundance this October — and not only this year, but every year.
They have either always been part of the Halloween tradition in America, or they are so intertwined with our popular culture that they will remain a fixture when it’s time to dress up.