In the early part of the 20th century, American Halloween costumes were usually DIY projects: homemade outfits for child-sized firemen, police officers, and clowns that looked quaint or even laughable by modern standards. As mass-produced plastics became common, the standard for children’s costumes changed, with stores selling cheap masks and plastic drapes with characters printed on them, as the basic standard costume. But today, you can head to your local Walmart or to Amazon and find hundreds of sophisticated mass-produced outfits full of impressive features and accessories. So how did we get here?
In 2016, former Mythbusters star Adam Savage hosted a TED Talk called “My Love Letter to Cosplay,” where he described the dramatic increase in the quality of Halloween costumes since his childhood. He described one of his most coveted costumes as a child: a tie-in from the movie Jaws that consisted of a shark mask and a garment printed with the movie’s poster.
“I remember that it looked so amazing, and my mom bought it for me,” he said. “We were not well off when I was young, so desiring a toy and getting it was not something I had regular experience with. But if you go look at it today, it’s appalling, compared to what kids can get now.”
Howie Beige, the executive vice president for Rubies Costume Co., says there has been a dramatic shift in quality of costumes over the last several decades. During the 1980s, he says, urban legends about razor blades in candy bars and other hazards led to wide-scale concerns about the safety of trick-or-treating on Halloween. His company was concerned about how that would affect its future.
“A funny thing happened,” Beige says in a phone interview with The Verge. “Rubies was five or six years into selling higher-priced children’s costumes, with better-quality fabrics. As [the hoaxes] happened, more people were doing a lot more parties in their schools or churches or homes, which led to costume contests and everything else.”
It wasn’t until the holiday became more of a family-oriented activity that the market for Halloween costumes began to recover and grow — partly due to the increased quality of off-the-shelf costumes. A costume with a thin mask and screen-printed smock was cheap, but it didn’t look as appealing to parents as more elaborate costumes, accompanied by sophisticated accessories. New licensing agreements and a tie-in merchandising boom has also meant more costume choices from popular franchises, such as Star Wars, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the DC Extended Universe. These changes helped fuel the growth of the Halloween market to an expected $9.1 billion in 2017 —with $3.4 billion spent on costumes — up from $8.4 billion in 2016.
Advances in manufacturing allow costume makers to realize this demand for higher-quality products. “It’s become a lot cheaper to print directly onto four-way stretchy fabric,” said Savage. “This started in the movies, where they were printing muscle patterns into Spider-Man’s suit. You could have the most worked-out guy in Hollywood, but if you put lycra on him, it flattens the muscles out.” Techniques like screen printing and materials like the synthetic rubber neoprene allowed manufacturers to add in new details — like bulging muscles — that were previously difficult to mass-produce.
The improvements in costuming aren’t limited to what consumers can buy off the shelves. Technological advances and internet how-tos have made it even easier to alter or build high-quality costumes for children from scratch, using 3D printers, foam, cardboard, and other materials. “I love the fact that people use the web to share techniques with one another,” Savage said. “You can go on Instructables, and more than just pictures of the end result, but you get the entire build process and patterns.”
Perusing my local store, I was surprised by the quality of one costume depicting a Special Forces soldier. The costume’s helmet is modeled after those used in combat right now, with molded equipment rails and attachment points for night-vision goggles. Last year, Hasbro introduced its Black Series stormtrooper helmet, an injection-molded toy that looks almost indistinguishable from the ones used in the film. And it comes with a built-in sound system that spouts off lines from the movie. A Hasbro representative explained that the details help richen the experience for children, and as costumes improve, so does the experience. “I would have killed for these types of costumes when I was a kid,” Savage explained.
In the coming years, Beige predicts that Halloween costumes will continue to improve and that falling prices for small LEDs could lead to more illuminating enhancements — especially for electronic elements like the Arc Reactor in Iron Man’s armor. “Lights are a big part of the future,” he says.