History of Costumes

The History of Costumes

When you think about your next Halloween costume you may wonder where the whole general idea of costumes came from. By definition, a costume is really just a set of clothes that comes from a specific era in history or from a particular country. From the very ancient days of early man to the fads and trends that are more familiar to us in our modern era, most costumes that we use to dress up in today have their roots somewhere in the past. Although traditionally many Halloween costumes are monsters, various ghouls and other frightful beings, still many more costume looks are based on characters and figures from past or present everyday life.

Come with us as we look back to the beginning of man's clothing and costume journey as we retrace mankind's steps through fashion's evolutionary process. Every historical era has had its notable clothing styles and trends. When re-creating any kind of character, whether it hails from the distant past or is from the present day, replicating the fashion looks of any time period is the most essential part of establishing the very essence of the character. To understand the fashions that were important in any one period in history is to greatly understand the lifestyle and culture of that time period in history. Here's a look at costume design trends from then till now.

Ancient Egypt

The earliest fashion trends can be traced back to the time of the Ancient Egyptians.  The clothing of the Ancient Egyptians was mostly made of linen, which was a perfect fabric for keeping cool in a subtropical desert climate.  Women wore long, simple sheath style dresses that were held up by one or two straps.  It was not uncommon for the sheath to leave the breasts completely exposed, as the ancient people didn’t view this as immodest or indecent.  Servants sometimes worked naked or nearly so, wearing nothing but a simple loincloth.  Egyptian men wore a type of wrap skirt also made of linen.  Borders and fringes were sometimes used to adorn these simple clothing pieces and most often the fabrics were left in their natural color, with dyes being seldom used.  Ornate collars, Egyptian headdresses, bracelets, earrings, and rings of exquisite workmanship were worn extensively by the more affluent Egyptians to accessorize their clothing ensembles.  Even in these very early days of man, it is clearly apparent that vanity was a big factor with these ancient peoples, especially amongst those that were more affluent.

Ancient Greece and Rome

In the days of Ancient Greece and Rome, fashions were largely draped pieces of fabric, as the needles that would be required for extensive stitching were still very rudimentary, cumbersome and difficult to manage.  Wrapping woven woolen fabrics in various styles was the general order of the day and both the Greeks and the Romans were noted for their draped, robe-like fashions.  Long basic tunics were the essential costume piece as was a mantle, which was a piece of fabric that was worn on top like a cloak.  These robe like garments were often held in place by brooches or pins. 

In Rome, the Toga was considered to be the garment worn by the most distinguished men in the community.  Ironically, women were not allowed to wear the Toga at all, but rather wore what was known as a Stola, which was a type of dress created from draped fabric that could be dyed in various colors.  Probably one of the most infamous examples of a Roman Stola is the one that is worn elegantly by the Statue of Liberty herself.

To the Greeks and the Romans, clothing was a clear expression of one’s social status.  Depending on one’s position in society, the style or color used in one’s clothing would vary.  For example, Roman Senators would have their Togas embellished with purple stripes.   Ordinary Romans wore clothing made of rougher course woven wool while the wealthier Romans were able to afford more luxurious fabrics like finer wool, linen, silk and the most expensive purple dye which was created using a special kind of sea snails.

Medieval Era

During the Medieval time period, the type of clothing worn by people was clearly indicative and varied widely according to ones social status.  The poor didn’t care much about or have the wherewithal to be concerned with fashion and made most of their simple clothing at home.  The wealthy could afford more luxurious fabrics and could also hire tailors to create more beautiful clothing. 

Basic tunic style garments were the essential element of men and women’s medieval fashions.  Men often paired their tunics with a woven legging or loose pants, while women’s tunics were often fashioned into a dress-like garment that had lower necklines and were laced up at the waistline.  Comfort and practicality was key during the medieval period.  The outer clothing was rarely washed although the undergarments were washed with somewhat greater frequency. 

Armor was used to protect men during battle and combat and like other forms of clothing worn during this same time period, it reflected ones social status.  During the medieval period, a form of protective clothing worn often consisted of basic chain mail, which was fashioned by using a series of small rings or loops that were carefully interlocked together in a complex pattern, creating a form of protective garment that would withstand many slashing type injuries.  An actual suit of armor was extremely expensive to make and was usually something that was reserved for the elite knights and other important warriors.  The armor had to be made to fit the knight with absolute precision so it didn’t restrict movement during battle.  Helmets with various moving parts such as visors as well as shields completed the knight’s battle ensemble.  Depending on the elaborateness of the knight’s battle gear, it definitely made quite a masculine and a strong fashion statement at the time.

Renaissance Period

The Renaissance period occurred between the 14th and 16th centuries.  This era in history was a period of societal growth and great cultural revival, particularly when it came to the arts, architecture, literature and other forms of learning.  Obviously the fashions of the Renaissance were deeply affected by what was happening in the world at large.  When it came to costume that was popularized during the Renaissance period, it became an era of great excessiveness and extreme bombast.  Fashions were ornamented with puffs near the head, on the shoulders and even on the thighs.  Feathers were used to trim everything from clothing to wide-brimmed hats.  Clothing styles were big, exaggerated and excessive as fashion styles were used in order make a grandiose statement.  Rich, heavy and elaborate materials were made into the voluminous fabrics used for Renaissance fashions. 

Men favored jerkins, which were a type of jacket often fashioned from leather or velvet.  These jerkins were paired with hose or full-length trunks and nether-hose, a type of hosiery that was held up by garters below the knee.  The hose or tights worn by men were completely open at the crotch, which then itself was covered by a codpiece, a pouch-like piece that covered the front of the pants.  This codpiece has created a bit of a stir itself as it was purposefully fashioned and sometimes padded as well as embellished in order to draw attention to a man’s genitalia, and by doing so, it often became the focal point of the outfit. 

Renaissance Fashion Show

During the Renaissance period, going right along with the theme of general excess, women wore extreme corsets that accentuated and created tiny waistlines as well as flattening out the bustline.   Dresses that were known as Farthingales were held outward to extreme proportions with a series of circular hoops made of whalebone or caning to make them rigid.  High waists, gigantic puffy sleeves, exaggerated shoulders, and of course a very large skirt all were part of the extreme silhouette made popular during this era. The fabrics utilized to create these dresses were heavy brocades, velvets, furs, taffetas and silks, at least that was the case if you were wealthy enough to be able to afford these materials.

Ruffs were a ruffled neckpiece that was worn by both men and women.  These ruffs were stiffened with starch and some were made to stand up several inches, some being quite extreme which seemed to be the name of the game during the Renaissance era as a whole. 

17th and 18th Century Costume

As the years progressed, the extreme fashions that were popularized during the Renaissance period began to be replaced by more natural looking silhouettes that shifted from being very stiff to styles that were much softer and more elegant.  Fashions that placed more of an emphasis on comfort and simplicity became en vogue rather than excess.  Ruffs were now considered out of style and so men were able to grow their hair long and free flowing without this ruffled collar being in the way.  Puritans of this period wore a traditional hat with a large buckle on the front, while the Cavaliers wore a wide-brimmed hat adorned with a single feather and jewels.

During this period, for the first time in history since the era of the Ancient Romans, a woman’s arms were exposed, and a shorter sleeve length became in style. Women wore a linen shift as an undergarment and her skirts and bodice were often made in separate pieces.  If a woman wore more than one skirt, sometimes the outer skirt was pulled up to expose the underskirt.  Gone were the heavily boned, structured and supported skirts of prior years.  Women’s skirts were now held up with petticoats and slips.

Men’s doublets of yesteryear now became lengthened into what was known as a waistcoat and oftentimes a frock coat was worn on top of this.  Breeches were worn on the bottom, thus making the entire ensemble almost like a 3-piece suit. 

Men’s hairstyles were very unique during this time period as well.  Most men would shave their heads bald and wear wigs.  The wigs themselves evolved as the century wore on, at first being long and free flowing and eventually ending up being heavily powdered to appear white and the hair being pulled back and held in place with ribbons. 

Women’s hairstyles were fashioned to attain astronomical proportions at times, one style being known as the pompadour.  This large hairdo was heavily associated with the French court.  The pompadour was named after Jeanne Pompadour, who was one of the better-known mistresses of Louis XV.  These enormous hairstyles were adorned with things like toys, birds and other small accessories.

19th Century Costume

During the 19th century, a bit of Renaissance influence can be seen in the fashions popularized during this time.  Men’s clothing ensembles still consisted of three parts, but rather than the breeches of the prior era, men now preferred full-length trousers.  Waistcoats and coats were still being worn and for more formal occasions, a dignified top hat and a cravat were added.

Women now found it fashionable to have very small waists, thus the corset was a necessary, if not painful implement to make this fashion statement possible.  At this time, women began to wear underwear that looked like long knickers.  Women wore their hair smoothed down on the top and sides and often had ringlets, poofs, or loops on the sides.  Bonnets and hats were almost always worn, along with gloves, especially when the woman ventured outside.  Necklines on ladies dresses went back up and the leg-o-mutton sleeve style was very popular, along with the plainer, tubular sleeve type.  The cameo brooch became all the rage about mid-century and the look of a cameo pinned at the neckline will always be one that is heavily associated with this time period. 

The Edwardian Era 1901-1910

The Edwardian Era brought with it a new silhouette for women, the S-shape.  The corset was revamped and used to push the bust up and out, hold the waist in snugly and then create the look of a protruding bottom in the rear.  The style could be rather restricting and as women embraced a new set of fashions inspired by the feminist women’s movement and the suffragettes, styles began to relax somewhat.  The quintessential “Gibson Girl” style became very popular as women embraced clothing pieces that were inspired by men’s clothing.  Suits, shirts and ties were subtly incorporated into a look that was still considered to be appropriate for women.  Sport clothing also became popularized as women became more active.  Lighter fabrics and styles that allowed for more freedom of movement were also being worn. 

Both men and women of this era put a heavy emphasis on hats.  Wealthy or distinguished men wore top hats.  Middle class men wore bowler hats.  Lower class men wore simple cloth caps. 

The Flapper Era

Fashion took a giant departure during the 1920’s as women rebelled against all the form and function of the costumes as well as the styles of prior eras.  Boyish and gamine-like was the desired silhouette in this decade, and the shapeless, straight up and down dresses that were en vogue completely embraced this lack of form.  Dropped waists and shorter hemlines were all the rage as was a de-emphasized bustline; in fact, the flat chested look was the most desired style of the day.  Corsets were gone and the new slip-on dresses were easy to dance in and wear to the speakeasies that were cropping up everywhere.  Dance crazes, such as the Charleston, were made much easier to do by the shorter dress lengths and women took to bobbing their hair into a short boyish style that perfectly coordinated with the new sassy Flapper look

The 1930’s

The decade of the 1930’s brought with it a return of the truly glamorous, as Hollywood starlets as well as Hollywood films inspired many fashion trends.  Body-skimming bias cut gowns and feather boas were not unusual.  This decade also solidified the knee length skirt for women and although the skirt was shorter, the styles of the 1930’s were a little more conservative overall than the more rebellious looks popularized by the Flappers.  Classic styles became the norm, as the average person could no longer afford fashionable and snappy apparel that would just be used for a night out on the town. For women, the waistline was back in view and a more hourglass, womanly shape was once again defined as desirable.

The 1940’s

Because of WWII and the subsequent rationing of fabric, styles in this decade became more understated and somewhat dull.  Costume and fashion of this time period had a decidedly military influence, even including the introduction of a utility jumpsuit.  The jumpsuit was a piece of practical apparel designed so that it could be put on quickly in the case of a sudden attack or when warning sirens blew.

Do to fabric rationing, the practicalities of rising hemlines seem obvious as there were limits on how much fabric could be used in any one particular garment.  Styles were simple out of necessity and most everything was recycled and eventually refashioned as much as was realistically possible.

The 1950’s

After the war ended, the world gradually became a different place.  An increased awareness of exotic places then occurred, bringing with it a trend toward tropical prints that featured exotic flowers as well as palm trees.  Colors from Mexico and South America, such as turquoise and terra cotta created an air of brightness as well as fun. 

Women’s 1950’s fashions emphasized an hourglass figure with a small waist, almost conical breasts and full hips.  Wide shoulders and very full knee length skirts were the order of the day along with short boxy jackets and pencil style skirts.  Circle skirts were very popular along with small-collared blouses that buttoned up the front.  Cardigan style sweaters with a plain neckline were also a 1950’s staple fashion item.

During the 1950’s, men also began to favor wearing the cardigan sweater.  Men’s pants were narrower and jackets were more unstructured.  Movie star idols such as James Dean made jeans and the white t-shirt a huge fashion statement of the times and Elvis Presley made the wearing of blue suede shoes nearly legendary.

The 1960’s

Fashion went a little crazy during the 1960’s.  Colors and wild prints were used abundantly.  Women’s hemlines varied from mini-skirts to maxi-dresses with accompanying go-go boots and huarache sandals.  Hippie styles were largely androgynous looks that were inspired by Native American trends, including long hair worn by both sexes, headbands, beaded jewelry and unisex sandals worn as footwear.  Wearable art became very fashionable including epic tie-dye colors imprinted on loose fitting tunic style tops.

The biggest and most memorable fashion trend of the 1970’s is likely bell-bottom pants.  Hot pants, essentially just snug fitting short shorts, were a huge hit with women of this decade.  Platform shoes were also popularized by the masses during the 70’s.  The movie Saturday Night Fever brought with it disco fashions that became a huge fad after 1977, including the three-piece leisure suit immortalized by John Travolta in this infamous film classic.

The 1980’s 

The 1980’s were largely influenced by the pop stars of the decade, including the likes of Madonna, MC Hammer and Cyndi Lauper. Movies too such as 'Flash Dance' made an impact on the 80's fashion.  Parachute pants, oversized tops paired with stirrup pants, leg warmers, fingerless gloves, Member’s Only jackets and huge plastic earrings were just some of the more notorious trends that were a part of this eclectic fashion decade.

Today’s Costumes and Fashions

Today fashion changes on a dime and what is considered to be in one minute is surely likely to be out in the next.  Media influences as well as pop culture trends will always be a huge part of what drives fashion styles and for this reason, popular costume trends worn by the masses is an ever-dynamic business that is always evolving as well as changing. 

Historic, vintage or retro costume looks, whether from the distant past or even from a more recent decade, will always be a popular way to bring a bit of the past to life and to pay due homage to exciting times from days gone by.   These many and varied looks created in yesteryear are a great resource when it comes to choosing styles appropriate for costume dress up today.  Even if you prefer to ride the wave of a current fashion trend or fad, you are still participating in an exciting writing of something new that one day too, will be considered part of our history.