Halloween Costume Ideas from the Cotsen Collection

halloween-storage-com-pumpkin-paintingNow 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.

One thing hasn’t changed–some one (meaning mom) is under considerable pressure to make their children’s dreams come true in disguises that can’t be topped.  Mothers shake in their boots when outfitting has been put off so long that they can imagine the day their angel will kvetch, “I’ve never forgotten the time to go around as a friendly ghost… That crummy old ripped pillow case that was so long I tripped over it and fell down and lost almost all my candy.  And because YOU said the mermaid suit I REEEEALLY wanted was too hard to make.”

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The Halloween nightmare of mothers who aren’t crafty…

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.

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Alice Hanslip, Fancy Dress A.B.C. Dean’s Rag Book, number 49. London: Dean’s Rag Book Company, 1905 (Cotsen 74181).

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 time or money.

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The choices include Puss in Boots, Cinderella, Dick Whittington, and a fairy godmother. Children’s Fancy Ball Costumes Illustrating Familiar Characters from Nursery Rhymes. London: Samuel Miller, ca. 1905 (Cotsen 1691).

Today’s trick or treaters wouldn’t recognize many of the characters in the Miller because 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 celebrated 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.

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Job’s pantin of Penthesilea, the queen of the Amazons, killed at Troy by Achilles, is decently covered up, but still looks pretty fierce. Aristide Fabre, Amazones d’hier et d’aujourd’hui. Illustrated by Job (i.e. Jacques Maris Gaston Onfroy de Breville). London: Hachette, ca. 1905 (Cotsen 150584).

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The book’s front board features Joan of Arc and la Grande Mademoiselle.

How about something less ambitious, more modern, but 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.

 

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With a pair of fishnet stockings, you’re ready to go.

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This is the actual dress bound into the paper doll book. It is one of the more restrained ensembles in the book. Don’t pretend there wasn’t a fake fur mini coat in neon colors hanging in the closet for years…

If the man in your life 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 the 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.

Gift of Molly Bidwell and Susan Klaiber . Cotsen in process.

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..

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The Queen of Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things.

Now I realize how shocking low the bar was set during the 1960s in Manhattan Beach, California, where I grew up.  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 or our curfew, which ever came first, 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.  Never mind, we had fun anyway…

This is Halloween in the Roaring Twenties

toothy pumpkinEighteen years ago on Halloween, the Cotsen Children’s Library opened its doors to the public.  This year, we’ll commemorate both occasions with a letter written by Marcus French, one of the most amusing and vivid of the child authors in the collection.

Some years back Bruce C. Willsie ’86, one of RBSC’s most generous donors, presented to Cotsen this delightful archive of thirty illustrated letters Marcus wrote to his big sister Eleanor when she was away at school between 1925 and 1927.  Marcus formatted all the news that was fit to relate–and fair amount that wasn’t–as if it were appearing in a Pathe newsreel.

In 1926, ten-year-old Marcus wrote Eleanor a long letter on Halloween–four pages of news accompanied by four pages of pictures within borders of seasonal imagery he drew himself.  The first picture shows his cat Jock being run over by a motorcycle he tried to chase (maybe a classic Harley-Davidson?).  Don’t believe the bit about Jock losing a leg–he was just bruised.

page 1The inside double-page spread is a rogue’s gallery of Marcus and his friends in their Halloween costumes: Marcus as a clown (how appropriate…) Vedder as a pirate “with bandages and sword,”  William as a ghost, and Mike in a stovepipe hat and mask masquerading as a desparado Abraham Lincoln??  The boys had to wait until the rain stopped to go trick-or-treating, or as Marcus put it “make some calls,” and “have some fun,” that is, make mischief. They tore apart a big wooden frame and threw the pieces on porches, broke milk bottles, and rang doorbells and ran away.  “We didn’t get any pies,” Marcus reports sadly, raising the interesting question of, were homemade baked goods handed out to children making calls on Halloween night in lieu of Reese’s Pieces and other packaged candies?

page 2The significance of the news on the facing page is unclear, but it doesn’t look like a serious account of what was going on in the wider world.  Probably just a local newscast.  What do you suppose Marcus is doing in the upper right hand corner?  Turn the page to find out.

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Do the dog and cat look identical or are my eyes going?

On the back page is an illustration of William heaving a plank on someone’s porch, yelling at his accomplices, “Hey cheesit kids,” with Marcus joining in, “Cheesit run kids.”   Spelling and punctuation were not Marcus’s strong points, but a lexicographer might be interested to know that a kid in Montgomery County, New York, during the 1920s used that expression to signal that it was time to beat it.

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The P.S. reads “There was a man with overalls on in church this morning.”

Now Don’t Try This at Home!

Have a safe and sane Halloween from Team Cotsen!

Andrea, Dana, Ian, Jeff, Minjie and Miriam

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