Thursday, December 24, 2009

1920s-30s Halloween Costumes

As much as we dislike modern-day Halloween, we love the idea and imagery of Hallowe’en during its golden age, the 1920s and 30s. We’re celebrating by devoting all 3 blogs to the subject – here we’ll have costume ideas; in The Depression Kitchen we’ll have some menu ideas and recipes; and Parlor Past Times will take on décor and games.

In the 20s and 30s, costume or fancy dress parties were very popular, and Hallowe’en night was no exception. As The Household magazine stated in its October 1927 issue: “There is scarcely a date in the entire twelve months that appeals to old and young alike for a rousing, good, old fashioned “dress up” party like October 31st – Hallowe’en. The real life of any Hallowe’en party is imparted by the smart masquerades worn by the guests. They need not be expensive – most any of the light weight cotton materials will do providing they are colorful. Haphazard color combinations are tabooed – naturally – but harmonious effects are delightful.” Dennison’s 1925 “Bogie Book” agreed, stating “Gay Costumes are part of every Hallowe’en party.” Dennison was King of Crepe Paper, so many of its costumes were made of this amazingly versatile product! It was common for costumes to be made of simple muslin and cunningly adorned with crepe paper. Costumes tended to be homemade, but for grand affairs, costume rental shops could provide elaborate masquerades.

Black and orange were a popular color combination. Witches, ghosts, clowns, and goblins were standard. As author Diane C. Arkin notes in Halloween Merrymaking: An Illustrated Celebration Of Fun, Food, And Frolics From Halloween’s Past (a delightful book that we recommend highly to anyone with even a slight interest in this subject!), costume’s in the 20s-30s era weren’t gorey and gruesome. Masks were often worn so as to make the event of “unmasking” part of the evening’s drama.

The Household’s costume ideas from 1927 (below) were: a Spanish Dancer (“easy to make and inexpensive”), From the Far Away Argentine (“fetching when worn by a girl or a woman”), Pierrot (“can be made of either paper or muslin in black and white"), a Tom Boy or Girl (“could be worn for a masquerade or a “Kiddie” party”) of tiny blue and white or pink and white checked gingham; and The Old Fashioned Girl (“fashioned of crepe de Chine printed in quaint floral patterns, with georgette crepe contrasting, this costume has undeniable chic”).

Clara Bow wears something like the "Tom Girl" costume in this photo:

More ideas from period film and fiction:

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, "The Camel's Back," which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post April 24, 1920 issue, featured a costume ball with a circus theme. (It actually takes places at Christmas time). The main character hires a camel costume from a shop.

Agatha Christie’s short story, "The Affair at the Victory Ball" (1923) featured characters dressed as Harlequin; Punchinello & Puncinella; Pierrot & Pierrette; and Columbine. The Poirot television series episode based on this story (1991, starring David Suchet) is really wonderful and features many other costumes, including Captain Hastings (Hugh Fraser) as the Scarlet Pimpernel (in the Christie story Poirot and Hastings do not attend the ball, but merely hear an account of it after the fact).

Christie also featured a costume ball in the Tommy & Tuppence short story "Finessing the King" (1924). One character is dressed as a newspaper, another as the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland. These costumes and many others are faithfully depicted in the episode of the Tommy & Tuppence: Partners in Crime televison series (1984) based on this story.

In Nancy’s Mysterious Letter (Carolyn Keene, 1932), Nancy Drew suggests an impromptu masquerade party using only clothes she and other guests had brought along to a weekend house party (no sheets or pillowcases allowed). Nancy wore a “turban of colored silk, with the feathers of her hat held in place in front with a large brooch..." and wins the prize for "most picturesque."

In P.G. Wodehouse’s Right Ho, Jeeves (1934), Gussie Fink-Nottle attempts to attend a fancy dress ball, “not,” – Bertie Wooster notes – “like every other well-bred Englishman, as a Pierrot,” - but as Mephistopheles. In the Jeeves and Wooster television series, Gussie wears this costume in “A Plan for Gussie” (1991). Another episode to feature a fancy dress ball is 1993’s “The Once and Future Ex” (based on Wodehouse’s Joy in the Morning from 1947).
Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du Maurier features an elaborate fancy dress ball. Mrs. De Winter copies a historical portrait for her costume (her husband had suggested she dress as Alice in Wonderland); other costumes mentioned in the book are: Joan of Arc, Madame Pompadour, an “Arab” (sheik costumes were as common as ghosts in the 20s), a Tudor woman, a pirate, and a sailor. More are shown in the movie version (1940).

One of the most astonishing vintage costume parties we’ve seen is in the 1930 movie Madame Satan. It takes place aboard an Art Deco zeppelin!

Source books:

Fortunately several of the 1920s Dennison’s “Bogie Books” – the company’s annual Hallowe’en/Thanksgiving decorating idea books, have been reissued in recent years so are affordable; the scarce originals can break the bank.

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