Now that the end-of-the-year holiday season in America has been pushed back from Thanksgiving to Halloween over the last ten years or so, the festivities associated with October 31st have changed dramatically, not the least of with their profitability–$8.4 billion this year.
Compared to now, the bar was set shockingly low in Manhattan Beach, California, my hometown in the 1960s. No one considered painting pumpkins. A day or two before Halloween we hacked crude faces in pumpkins with kitchen knives instead of a selection of cunning little saws. By first grade, I had graduated from trick-or-treating under the supervision of a sane adult to running around with a pack of neighborhood kids after dark. Most of us wore homemade costumes and carried swag bags recycled from the grocery store. When we had reached the legal limit of candy, we would head over to the house of Skipper Frank, a local kiddie television show host, to admire the audio-animatronic horror sitting on his porch, being careful not to set off his bad-tempered Afghan hounds.
One thing hasn’t changed–some one (meaning mom) is under considerable pressure to make their children’s dreams of disguises that can’t be topped come true. Mothers shake in their boots when outfitting has been left so long that they can begin living in dread against the day their angel kvetches, “I’ve never forgotten the time I had to go around as a friendly ghost in an old ripped pillow case that was so long I tripped over it and fell down and lost almost all my candy because YOU said the mermaid suit I REEEEALLY wanted was too hard to make.”
To put that maternal anxiety in perspective, look at some examples of gay apparel children donned during the heyday of fancy-dress balls in England during the late 1890s and early 1900s. Fairy tale and storybook characters, queens and clowns (Pierrot was not a scary creep) were all favorites for dress-up costumes then. The publisher, Dean’s Rag Book Company, also marketed a brochure promoting different costumes based on illustrations in their books–you paid for the instructions, but received the “rag book material” gratis as thanks for the willingness to be a living advertisement for Dean at a public ball or carnival. Unfortunately, the Cotsen textile collection does not own an example of the fancy dress costumes.
Another book in the collection confirms that costumes like these did not just exist in the eye of the illustrator. It features a dozen plates of fabulous costumes, any of which makes the construction of the adorable mermaid suit look like child’s play. Miller’s costumes also suggest that they were built to last for more than one party for more than one child. For each of the late Victorian costumes, color choices, fabric suggestions, estimates for yardage and special materials were all provided. It was also possible for families with deep pockets to purchase them ready-made. Neither option was especially reasonable, from the standpoint of either time or money.
Nowdays trick-or-treaters wouldn’t recognize many of the characters in the Miller book, so of course new ones from contemporary children’s books, cartoons, and movies have taken their place. How about some of the strong women from Greek mythology and French history memorialized in the book of pantins, or jointed paper dolls, below? They could be the inspiration for a new super heroine with or without the horse. No need to explain who Penthesilea was, except in a head-to-head with a mom with a chair in the Classics department.
How about something less ambitious, more modern, but still a little retro? This paper doll book manufactured as merchandise to be sold during super-model Twiggy’s American tour in 1968 made it easy for her little fans to strut her style.
Take heart, set up the sewing machine, grab your glue gun (or credit card) and remember that even Martha Stewart doesn’t hit the bull’s eye every year..
And when your husband asks for help coming up with something to wear to the office Halloween party, take a hint from the newest addition to Cotsen’s paper doll collection. Inspiration is as close as your husband’s closet… Add that chicken suit lying around from a previous Halloween, he can say he’s Albert Einstein going to a party at the Institute.