The Origins of Fancy Dress and Its Role in Halloween

As some of you will already know, I love Halloween. You’ll also know that I don’t like horror; my love for the so-called ‘holiday’ stems from its mystical, magical nature. Unsurprisingly I also have a bit of a soft spot for fancy dress, as I do for any kind of dressing up (although my rule is, if I don't already own clothes that can make up an outfit, I’m not going as it. So for the past 4 years Black Swan has become my go-to look….).

But we all know that Halloween has now become synonymous with fancy dress. Personally I prefer the ‘traditional’ scary Halloween outfits to dressing as something topical (although, to be fair, going as Trump this year would probably tick both boxes). But in the spirit of this upcoming festivity, I thought I’d delve into the history of fancy dress this week, as I know you enjoy it when I write about fashion histories.

A Brief Outline of Its History

It’s virtually impossible to pinpoint an exact date when fancy dress first came about, largely because, unlike with film or theatre costume, there is little historical evidence on the subject. However it is generally considered that its origins stem from Venice. Some believe their adornment began in 12th or 13th Century, and were worn between Christian festivals but, regardless of this, the wearing of ornate masks truly became popularised in the 15th Century.


By then, the Mascherari (the mask-makers) were highly regarded in society, even boasting their own statute. Masquerade balls became a popular feature of the Venetian carnival, and the carnival spirit soon began to spread throughout Italy, weaving its way into royal processions and pageants.

Catherine de ‘Medici is thought to have taken the spirit of carnival to France when she married the future King of France, Henry II, in 1533. A feirce patron of the arts, she understood the importance of hosting court festivals as a political tool to assert the strength and power of the French throne at the time of civil war. At these festivals, guests - and even the jousting participants - would dress up in costumes referencing romantic or mythological stories, and the festivities would last for days on end.

In England, Tudor and Stuart court masques were considered the highest form of artistry in the country until Cromwell and the Puritans closed the theatres in 1642. But after the Restoration, the Pleasure Gardens were established in 18th Century to offer accessibility to entertainment and the arts for those who didn’t belong to court. Masquerade balls were a popular feature, thanks to John James Heidegger, the Swiss Count who introduced them from Venice. Popular costumes involved the commedia dell’artec characters Harlequin, Columbine, Punchinello and Pataloon, as well as nuns’ and monks’ habits, comic Scotsmen and sailors.

As the only imposition of exclusivity was the price of entry, awareness and attendance of these occasions filtered down through society, with the notion of the masquerade ball becoming far more widely recognised. 

However, by the 19th Century masquerade balls had begun to disappear due to their perceived vulgarity. So they evolved into what became a costume ball - an occasion that allowed attendees to break free from the restrictive dress codes of the middle and upper classes.

A Victorian lady dressed as a bat

It is thought that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert very much enjoyed fancy dress, and parties around this period often involved dressing as historical or romantized figures (the Medieval period and Mary, Queen of Scots were particular favourites). Parties became more intimate, and smaller, with society papers listing columns of private balls, offering more and more opportunity to wear costumes.

The term ‘fancy dress’ itself came from the press detailing the balls with the list of costumes worn. Their outfits were described as ‘a fancy dress’. Outfits were created by local dressmakers, or could even be bought or hired from shops. There’s even evidence of Liberty selling costumes in the late 19th Century!

By the early 20th Century, fancy dress costumes had become ubiquitous, largely thanks to fashion designer Paul Poiret, who often hosted extravagant parties where costumes were obligatory. And 1920s saw masks reintroduced as they matched the raucous lifestyle now taking hold. And in 1937 British Vogue published an article entitled ‘Suggestions for Fancy Dress’ by Cecil Beaton – truly cementing its place in fashionable society.

Following the Second World War, costumes became even more accessible from the US and other countries, leading to their designs becoming more lavish and expensive. Themes began to be more varied, and shops became specialised. However, it’s popularly saw a dip until the 1980s when fancy dress returned to fashion and has remained today. 

Fancy Dress at Halloween

Many believe that the tradition of dressing up in fancy dress for Halloween stems from the States. And that may be the case when it comes to non-scary costumes. But Halloween specific costumes date back hundreds of years, and their history actually differs from how fancy dress itself originated.

Dating back to the Iron Age, people dressed up as souls of the dead for the ancient Celtic festival of the dead called Samahin. Some argue it was because they believed impersonating spirits would offer them protection from them. Others believe that people left out food and drink to appease the spirits, which led to people dressing up like them to cheekily get the food and drink too!

By 11th Century, ‘souling’ had begun (initiated by the Church), which involved going door to door asking for soul cakes in exchange for prayers for the souls of friends or relatives i.e. the origins of trick-or-treating. This began in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and they would dress up as angels, demons or saints. It is also believed that people dressed up when they prayed for the dead at Hallow Mass. 

Snap-Apple Night, painted by Daniel Maclise in 1833, shows people feasting and playing divination games on Halloween in Ireland.

Scottish and Irish immigrants brought Halloween to the US during 18th and 19th centuries. Whilst ways of celebrating Halloween differed, it was generally believed it was the night when all the spirits were out, so you could dress and behave different than you normally would. 

It wasn’t until Victorian times that the history of dressing up for Halloween and the development of fancy dress converged. Thanks to the popularity of dressing up in the 19th century and balls, by the early 20th Century Halloween parties became a tradition. Many private social clubs threw them for their members as they were the first holiday after people returned from their summerhouses. And with companies beginning to manufacture fancy dress costumes specially, wearing costumes for Halloween was an ‘official’ tradition.

Whether you're into fancy dress or not, you can make a subtle nod to the Halloween spirit in our 100% cotton poplin spiderweb shirt by Gibson & Birkbeck. A cool and versatile alternative to classic stripes, it's definitely a treat, not a trick.

In the Spotlight: An Unofficial History of Fancy Dress | Amber Butchart Fancy Dress by Athena Jarvis
When Is Halloween? History behind why we celebrate All Saint's Eve - by Amy Willis for
The Origins of Fancy Dress by ModernLifeBlogs
Halloween 2016: When is it and why do children trick or treat? By Isabelle Fraser for The Telegraph
Why we dress up on Halloween: The Evolution of the Halloween Costume by Laura Rosenfeld for Tech Times

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