You can tell a lot about a particular era of American history by looking at its Halloween costumes—not just what people are afraid of, but also what’s popular in entertainment and who’s running for president.

Halloween has evolved into the main costume holiday in the United States. But back in the early 20th century, Halloween was only one of many holidays for which Americans dressed up, says Lesley Bannatyne, who has written several books about Halloween traditions.

“Your average person would dress up on New Year’s, Valentine’s Day, Halloween, Easter,” she says. “There were costumes for many occasions, and dress balls and costume masquerades were much more popular than they are now.”

Halloween costumes back then were more specifically geared toward spooky themes (as opposed to current events), and mostly homemade. The goal wasn’t necessarily to dress up as a particular creature or character, but rather to conceal identity in a spooky way that evoked themes like ghosts, witches, pumpkins, black cats and the moon.

“There would be moon symbols, darker fabrics for some costumes; anything that you could get and make that would kind of suggest or replicate something dark and otherworldly,” she says. 

Costumes in the early 20th century and beyond also sometimes sought to portray other cultures—and races—in a way that is now recognized to be insensitive and often racist. Americans culturally appropriated turbans and other symbols of the “Far East,” reflecting contemporary fascination with Egypt as an “exotic” place. White Americans wore blackface to portray African Americans in a tradition that's steeped in a history of racism and that continues today.

While people used makeup and costumes to take on different personas, it was usually a homemade effort. The only commercial costumes available in the early 20th century were paper masks or aprons for children. The goal wasn’t necessarily to look like a ghost or a goblin, but to look creepy and hide the identity of the person beneath the mask. Disguises were especially important for kids and teens, who often spent Halloween night playing tricks by throwing flour at people, stealing neighbors’ fences or even stealing dead bodies.

This changed during the Great Depression, particularly after 1933. That Halloween, hundreds of teenage boys flipped over cars, sawed off telephone poles and engaged in other acts of vandalism across the country. Concerned adults started organizing neighborhood activities like trick-or-treating, haunted houses and costume parties to keep young people from making trouble. This new focus also led to new types of costumes for kids.

Halloween Costumes through the decades
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A girl wears a Mickey Mouse mask in this undated photo from the 1930s.

“As Halloween became more about entertaining children and keeping children occupied, the costumes became things that children enjoyed,” Bannatyne says. This included characters from popular radio shows, comics and movies, like Mickey and Minnie Mouse. These costumes represented “things that [children] might have seen and enjoyed, rather than an abstract expression of night.”

Big department store companies like Sears started selling box costumes aimed at children, but these were considered expensive luxuries during the Great Depression. Most families continued to make their own Halloween outfits using costume patterns, even for Mickey and Minnie.

In the 1950s, mass-produced box costumes became more affordable, so more kids began to use them to dress up as princesses, mummies, clowns or more specific characters like Batman and Frankenstein’s monster. There were cowboy costumes, and there were also the type of “Indian costumes” that Native Americans found offensive (and still find offensive).

The 1970s saw some more adult changes to Halloween costumes. This is the period when Americans began wearing presidential masks, particularly the most famous one of all: Richard Nixon’s. The first newspaper report of a presidential mask was in 1969, when a protester wore a Nixon mask to an anti-war march the day before Nixon’s inauguration. Later that year, at a White House Halloween party thrown by Nixon’s daughter Tricia, a female guest showed up wearing a mask of former president Lyndon B. Johnson.

After the Watergate scandal, it was the Nixon mask that became the more popular Halloween costume. The scandal caused Americans to become more cynical about their government, and as new politicians took office or ran for president, stores began to sell masks of those politicians’ faces too. Even so, the Nixon mask continued to be one of the most popular presidential masks long after he was gone.

Halloween Costumes through the decades
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A Dracula, skeleton and werewolf pose in this 1985 photo.

Over the next few decades, a variety of other costume trends related to pop culture emerged. Halloween costumes in the 1970s and ‘80s became more gruesome with the rise of slasher horror movies. These movies also cemented Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees masks as classic horror costumes. Major fantasy and sci-fi movies had a big influence, too. Fans dressed up as C-3PO, Darth Vader and Princess Leia from Star Wars, and kids particularly liked dressing up as the titular alien in E.T.

"Sexy" costumes for women were common from the 1960s onward and in the 1990s, “sexy” versions of store-bought costumes became an established commercial product. Manufacturers also sold costumes based on highly charged current events. In 1995, the year of the O.J. Simpson trial, costume shops sold masks of both Simpson and the presiding Judge Ito.

In a less controversial trend, costume companies have also marketed costumes inspired by TV shows. For example, in 2019, new Golden Girls costumes for Blanche, Dorothy, Rose and Sophia became available—although it’s probably easier (and definitely cheaper) to put together a DIY version with mom’s old clothes.