Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Focus On: Children's Halloween Costumes

By Sherri from sewbettyanddot 

Summer is winding down and back-to-school is on everyone's minds. However, it's never too early to start thinking about Halloween (or, as it used to be spelled, "Hallowe'en")! 

Most scholars think Halloween stems from a pre-Christian Celtic festival called Samhain (pronounced Sah-ween), the significant holiday of the Celtic year. It was believed that around November 1 (the beginning of the new Celtic year), ghosts were able to mingle with the living—on that day the souls of people who had died during the year traveled into the otherworld. To help them on their journey, animals were sacrificed and fruits and vegetables were left out (traditions such as bobbing for apples and carving vegetables such as turnips and pumpkins into jack o’lanterns stem from this); bonfires were lit to assist the dead on their journey (and to keep them away from the living!). After the establishment of Christianity, the notion of a day (November 1) to honor souls became All Saints Day, so October 31 became All Hallows (Hallowed = Saintly) Eve (Hallow Evening = Hallowe’en = Halloween).

Halloween is a holiday of many mysterious customs, most of which can be traced back to the ancient Celtic day of the dead. Knocking on doors demanding treats (or threatening a “trick”/mischief) can be traced back to the original notion that ghosts, fairies, witches, and demons were wandering amongst us. Over time, people began to dress like these frightening creatures, disguising themselves to blend in and performing in exchange for refreshments. This is called mumming, and trick-or-treating as we know it developed from the practice. The first report of children “guising” (asking storekeepers for treats while in costumes) dates from 1911, but the term “trick-or-treating” doesn’t appear until the 1930s; it didn’t become the widespread activity we know today until after World War II.

Before the 1930s, the idea of fancy dress costumes for adults were popular for many different occasions, not just Halloween. The Dennison Manufacturing Co.—who made crepe paper and a zillion other paper products—published numerous booklets with instructions on how to make these costumes. Halloween began to become a more child-centric holiday in the late 1930s, and in 1937 the Ben Cooper Co. (Cooper made Ziegfeld Follies costumes before launching his business) began to manufacture children’s Halloween costumes and masks and sell them in stores such as Woolworth’s.
Black-and-white images are crepe paper costumes from various editions of Dennison booklets, "How to Make Paper Costumes,"' from my own collection (I am obsessed!); color image of Pictorial pattern courtesy Tuppence Ha'Penny blog

And of course, for decades, millions of parents have gotten out their sewing machines and made that perfect costume for their children (the earliest pattern I can find is a Pictorial witch costume from the 1920s, pictured above). Early costumes tended to be traditional witches, clowns, ghosts, and devils, but in the 1950s with the advent of TV, pop culture characters became popular. Dressing little kids up as animals has endured over the decades as well, and the princess/fairy/ballerina look is also alive and well. Costumes have seen controversy—especially those that are seen to appropriate cultural symbols or deal in stereotypes—but today Halloween is a bigger holiday than ever, in part because it has become one of the only occasions when adults dress in costumes.

Let’s look at some amazing vintage costume patterns from members of the Pattern Patter team. I’ve focused here on children’s costumes (for the most part). Interesting to note: the different incarnations of aliens/spacemen (the earliest on Etsy is Butterick 3352, from the 1950s, seen here in first collage, fourth row, second image). 

First row, left to right: Simplicity 1878: MidvaleCottage (1930s)
McCall 1507: Redcurlzs (1940s)
Third row: McCall’s 1855: FriskyScissors (1950s)
Fourth row: Butterick 6342: Denisecraft (1950s)

First row, left to right: McCall’s 7223: VogueVixens (1960s)
Second row: Simplicity 6201: GreyDogVintage (1960s)
Third row: Simplicity 9052: allfairyvintage (1970s)
Fourth row: Simplicity 9051: JFerrariDesigns (1970s)
Simplicity 6455: PurplePlaidPenguin (1970s)

Top row, left to right: Simplicity 7729: PengyPatterns

(All of the patterns in the third set are from the 1980s or later.)

Text sources: HalloweenHistory.org; LibraryOfCongress/Folklife; and Retroland.

Which costume would YOU make for the little one in your life (or which one did YOU wear when you went trick-or-treating?)? Tell us in the comments!


  1. Great research Sherri! I used to love Hallowe'en! I never had a store bought costume. I was a Hobo every year! Dirty face, & a bandanna tied into a bag at the end of a stick.

  2. I was almost always a cat, although one year I was Wonder Woman. I was quite disappointed when the costume my mother made me didn't look anything at all like Linda Evans'. These are all great. I especially love the robot, alien, and astronaut costume from PatternsFromThePast in the second collection (Butterick 4152) - "Space helmet not included."

  3. You always do such a fabulous job on these Focus On posts. I miss the trick-or-treaters on Halloween. They just don't seem to go from farm to farm on beggars night. These costume images will have to be the substitute. Thanks so much!

  4. What a great post! I love Hallowe'en! Sadly, children don't go this far out in the boonies, either. I miss the costumes.

  5. I miss the costume making also, my son is grown and grandkids are too and the great grandkids are too far away! Love all of these and thank you for your wonderful research!

  6. Loved the history aspect of this post. And the costumes are so cute!

  7. My mom always made me costumes when I was a kiddo, she actually used Simplicity 9052 or a re-issue of it to make me a fairy costume when I was probably around 5 or 6 years old. The annual trip to the fabric store to look at the costume patterns and decide what I wanted to be was a huge excitement for me! Thanks for featuring all these cool Halloween costume patterns, they are some of my favorite patterns to see.

  8. Fabulous, Sherri! I love Halloween too. My mother made many of my costumes, a princess, a gypsy; but my favorite was the year I was an alligator, she made my jumpsuit out of green cotton complete with a tail (yellow underlining) stuffed with newspaper. And, my father sculpted my head out of plaster of Paris; I remember he painted big red ruby lips on the end of my snout and I had big curly eyelashes at the tops of my eye holes. I carried an old purse. I won $5 at a local store's costume parade. What fun memories! Thank you for including my berry costume pattern along with so many amazing costume patterns!!

    1. The alligator sounds awesome! That is what Halloween is about! Family having fun creating together.

  9. I love the vintage alien Halloween pattern. Fun time of the year for kids and those who love to sew. :) great write-up! :)

  10. Love this article! So informative. My husband and I used to make all our kids costumes. He learned to sew in the 60's when it was cool to make your own down vests. We make cowboys, skunks, Native Americans, karate suits, ninjas, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles...The kids loved them until one fatal year when I was so busy that I waited until Halloween night to make four Power Ranger costumes...and the kids were standing there waiting at 7:00 pm! We ended up using pins and glue to get them out the door! And they made me promise from next year on, I had to BUY the costumes! LOL, thanks for bringing back such great memories.