#PRinHistory: Cooper, Costumes, and Culture – The Heart of Halloween

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We talked primarily about candy in our first “#PRWIN in History” today, but we only touched on the second, equally enjoyable part of Halloween. The costume. The tacky, the terrible, the scary, the hilarious, the bizarre – you name it, you’re sure to have seen it out there. And how many of us have made that amazing pilgrimage with our friends to the local Halloween junk shop to find something – anything – that will work before the party tonight?

Believe it or not, those last minute plastic masks and polyester suits are a part of history, too, and they’ve been a part of our expression for almost the last 100 years. Halloween costumes, as I mentioned before, originally came from the custom of dressing up on All Hallows’ Eve to “confuse” the spirits so that one wouldn’t be harmed.1 In the 1920’s and 1930’s in America, Halloween was just beginning to grow and become popular with families and communities, and though costumes were part of the fun, ready-made costumes weren’t quite on the scene yet.2

It took a man named Ben Cooper for them to arrive.

Cooper had designed theatrical costumes for the Ziegfeld Follies and Harlem’s Cotton Club, but when attention began to shift from the stage to the radio, he had to find a way to make his profession work3 (as Tim Gunn would say). He hit upon the brilliant idea of licensing and manufacturing Halloween costumes – an enormous untapped market, especially after the release of films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves with characters which naturally lent themselves to Halloween.4

designEventually ready-made Halloween costumes became an entire competitive market, and Cooper developed competitors such as Halco and Collegeville – with each of them licensing a slice of the franchise pie. Some picked up the Western TV shows, the cartoons, and Cooper wisely picked up the superheroes and eventually Star Wars (all kids dress up as a Star Wars character at least once).5

Today, after Cooper’s delightful disguise operation finally and unfortunately collapsed in the 80’s, his costumes actually fetch a pretty penny as collector’s items.6 And many, many purveyors of not-so-fine (incredibly cheap, actually) Halloween getups have sprung up to fill the void. His genius idea and his legacy lives on.

What do Halloween costumes have to do with PR? Well, they’re a way we communicate and express ourselves – and define our culture – with one another. There was a time when the scariest costume on the block was a suit worn with a Richard Nixon mask. We make costumes based on Internet in-jokes, on the year’s most exciting movies, and we can even use children’s Halloween costumes as a barometer of cultural trends (out with the princess, in with the superhero).7 Halloween costumes, however frivolous, are their own form of PR, saying much about both the person wearing them AND the public figure being represented.

“What are you being for Halloween this year?” is a question we love to ask and love to answer. What will the costumes on this year’s trick-or-treaters say to YOU?

  1. Enochs, Elizabeth. “The History Of Halloween Costumes.” Bustle, 18 Oct. 2016, www.bustle.com/articles/189827-the-history-of-halloween-costumes-is-way-weirder-than-you-could-have-guessed.
  2. Blakemore, Erin. “Thank This Man For Your Last-Minute Halloween Costume.” com, A&E Television Networks, 19 Oct. 2017, www.history.com/news/thank-this-man-for-your-last-minute-halloween-costume.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Enochs, Elizabeth. “The History Of Halloween Costumes.” Bustle, 18 Oct. 2016, www.bustle.com/articles/189827-the-history-of-halloween-costumes-is-way-weirder-than-you-could-have-guessed.

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