What’s Your Favorite Halloween Costume, Past or Present?

What’s Your Favorite Halloween Costume, Past or Present?

Are you planning to wear a costume this year? If so, what are you going as? Did you make or design it yourself? Or buy something premade?

Is your costume a classic, like a pumpkin or a witch? Or something more of-the-moment, like a Popeye’s chicken sandwich?

The high heels were on the move. Dozens of New York teachers marched through the streets of Greenwich Village on Oct. 31, 1986, wrapped in fabric stilettos, to cheers and applause. It was a perfectly timely costume: The ladies were dressed as the infamous footwear collection of the freshly ousted first lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos.

But three decades later, the joke has lost its punch. We’ve moved on to other scandals, Ms. Marcos and her prodigious closet long since faded from memory. Ask millennials about it, and they’re likely to respond with a bemused “Imelda who?”

Halloween was, in many ways, one of the earliest manifestations of what we now call fandom. And an of-the-moment costume has become a form of social currency. On a holiday designed for people to stand out, the greatest achievement can be being “in.” But timeliness is, by its very nature, fleeting. Your Popeye’s chicken sandwich may seem brilliant today, but seen from a few decades’ remove you’re just fried meat.

While Halloween in the United States dates to the late 1800s, the traditional dressing up and going door to door didn’t start until the 1930s, said Lesley Bannatyne, the author of five books on the holiday’s history. Halloween until then had been an occasion for mischief and light vandalism. Fed up with thrown eggs and stolen fences, homeowners decided to try a different tack: Bribe the would-be miscreants. And with the rise of trick-or-treating came commercial costumes.

“Trick-or-treating was kind of an effort on the homeowners’ part to be prepared,” she said. “It’s like, O.K., you’re going to come to my house and demand something, and if I slam the door in your face you’re going to do something to my yard? Well, I’m ready this year. I’ve got candy.”

Early Halloween costumes were homemade and classic: witches, ghosts, princesses, the occasional Frankenstein. But after World War II, things shifted, largely thanks to one Brooklyn company.

Ben Cooper Inc. was founded in 1937 by the brothers Ben and Nat Cooper. Sons of Russian immigrants, they had gotten their start in vaudeville in the 1920s, creating costumes for Harlem’s Cotton Club and the Ziegfeld Follies. When it came to Halloween, their specialty was pop culture. As comic books, cartoons and television took off, the Coopers began buying up the rights to characters like Sleeping Beauty and Davy Crockett and turning them into plastic masks. Kids could become their heroes for a day.