Halloween Costume Guide: Archives Style

By Mary Savig
October 25, 2010
Photograph of Loy Bowlin also known as "The Original Rhinestone Cowboy."
Party invitation
S. Fullerton (Spencer Fullerton) Weaver invitation to Mary Fanton Roberts, 19--?. Mary Fanton Roberts papers, 1880-1956. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Judging by its invitation, this costume party was an event not to be missed. Hosted by architect Spencer Fullerton Weaver, it was likely attended by a glamorous and bohemian crowd.

I certainly would not turn down a party promising a “crazy costume dance.” I would, however, hesitate on what to wear. With Halloween approaching, I looked to the Archives’ collections for costume inspiration.



The Artist: William Merritt Chase
William Merritt Chase in his studio, ca. 1910. Harriet Blackstone, photographer. Harriet Blackstone papers, 1864-1984. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

For starters, why not go as an artist?

In this photograph, William Merritt Chase dons the accoutrement of an academic painter. Chase was well regarded for his impressionist paintings, but his career as an art instructor also impacted generations of young, aspiring artists.

In 1898, he founded the Chase School of Art, now known as Parsons The New School of Design (yes, the Parsons of fashion fame).

To transform yourself into an acclaimed artiste, you’ll need a white smock, palette and brushes, and pince-nez.

Make it work!


The Victorians

The Victorians: Musya and Charles Sheeler
Musya and Charles Sheeler arriving at a Victorian theme party, 1947 Oct. 16. Oliver Baker, photographer.  Charles Sheeler papers, circa 1840s-1966. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Charles Sheeler studied under Chase during the early twentieth century. He was a significant American modernist, although you wouldn’t be able to tell by this costume!

Sheeler’s paintings and photographs conveyed modernity with stark and precise renderings of industry. In 1927, the Ford Motor Company hired him to photograph their cutting edge River Rouge factory in Dearborn, Michigan. But in this photograph, Sheeler ditches a Ford Model A and opts to take a horse and buggy to a Victorian-themed costume party.

Requirements for Victorian revelers: petticoats and corsets for the women; top hats and frock coats for men. Bonus points for arriving in a horse and buggy.


Art Deco Ensemble

Photograph of Gilda Gray in a dress designed by Louis Lozowick
Gilda Gray wearing a dress designed by Louis Lozowick for the Lord & Taylor centennial, 1926? / unidentified photographer. Louis Lozowick papers, 1898-1974. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

In 1926 artist Louis Lozowick received a commission from the New York department store Lord & Taylor to design a window display and fashion show in honor of the store’s centennial. Here, famed actress and dancer Gilda Gray poses in one of Lozowick’s textile designs. The dress features his signature synthesis of industrial forms into avant-garde abstraction.

Accentuate this art deco aesthetic with a chic bob and bold lipstick.


The Intense Rabbit

Photograph of an artist dressed like a bunny for an Easter event
Photograph album of Penland event, 1977, 1977. William J. and Jane Brown papers, circa 1940-2014. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

A playful art student at the Penland Mountain School of Crafts participated in this festive Easter event in 1977 that included a campus parade and egg hunt.

To demonstrate what happens when the Easter Bunny oversleeps and wakes up on Halloween, all you need is a pair of rabbit ears and a maniacal grin.


Renaissance Men

Two men at Howard University wearing Renaissance costumes
Costumes designed by Alma Thomas for Howard University Players, unidentified men in photographs, 1923 or 1924 / Alma Thomas, photographer. Alma Thomas papers, circa 1894-2001. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

In the early 1920s, Alma Thomas designed these period costumes for the Howard University Players, a theatrical troupe of Howard students. At the time, Thomas was a student herself, earning a degree in the school’s fine arts department.

To accomplish this look, put on a puffy tunic, a pair of leggings, and remember, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

The Glitterati

The Glitterati: Loy Bowlin
Loy Bowlin, 1991.  Chuck Rosenak, photographer. Chuck and Jan Rosenak research material, ca. 1987-1998. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

If you would like more glam than grit in your costume, look no further than two of the glitziest artists in our collections, The Rhinestone Cowboy and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.

Folk artist Loy Bowlin is best known as the Original Rhinestone Cowboy. This look was not a costume, but the outfit he would wear any day of the week. Boylin, standing on his porch in Mississippi, bejeweled his clothes, house, and even his Cadillac.

To pull this off, you’ll need to invest in a serious Bedazzler, but the efforts will pay off when you sparkle on the dance floor.


The Glamazon

The Glamazon: Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, ca. 1890. Unidentified photographer.  Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney papers, 1855-1975. Archives of American Art.

Artist and founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney embodies free-spirited glamour. A sculptor in her own right, she also patronized many of the leading and emerging American artists of the early twentieth century. She also had a talent for accessorizing beautiful dresses.

In order to achieve that artsy Vanderbilt look, you’ll need lots of flair: feathers, tiaras, broaches, and gems. A Bedazzler wouldn’t hurt for this one either.

Happy Halloween from the Archives of American Art!


Mary Savig is a curatorial assistant at the Archives of American Art.


✱ This post was updated on October 26, 2018.


Im looking for a halloween costume guide that is something scarry but very unusual that covers my face..When i saw your post i rather change my theme,how about wearing a funny or crazy costume..I can call it crazy halloween.LOL

Great post, your Tim Gunn reference made me laugh! I wonder where I can get a horse and buggy on short notice...

I think the Arabian Prince is just an amazing piece of art.

Interesting site I love to look at old pictures particularly fashion related some of the old styles are so romantic,unfortunately not so practicable in our world today.

I like old pictures.
Interested story.
thanks for sharing.

Thank you for sharing your vintage pictures. The Arabian Prince is my favorite, the costume can be easily duplicated by using plenty of fabric and beads.

The crazy costume dance is my favourite ( not just because it was first ) but Marsden Hartley as an Arabian is a pretty cool photo. My boys dressed up as goblins for Halloween :-)

Gertrude was the daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt and she married the son of a Standard Oil magnate. Tough life.

What a beautiful invitation, the design and text look so elegant. I wish more adverts were printed like this.

This is amazing piece of vintage pictures! This reminds how romantic is the old times.

Good history, I think this will still change from time to time. Everyone loves Halloween because here we can gather with family and friends.

Nice... bringing back the old school Halloween costumes, thumbs up.

Isn't it how amazing the old costume are handmade with such details and much more complex than modern days clothing. Thanks for sharing the story and the photos with us.

I like bringing back the old school Halloween costumes!

Wow, years ago, people were really creative when it comes to Halloween costumes. Nowadays, Halloween costumes are nothing more than dressing up as a movie or comic character. Total lack of imagination!

Wow really cool pics. I can't believe that is what people used to wear when they are hitting the dance floor.

I was researching information across the net for ideas on an Arabian Prince.
Although the picture is in black & white, I can still make out the intricate details, and will help with the information I need for my costume arrangements.

I always appreciate the Halloween for great designs. The people get lots of fun in Halloweens by wearing the different costumes. Thanks for sharing about all this.

My favorite is the Loy with the cowboy outfit... that's the way to stay young!

painter Jackson Pollock harkens yet another time and place: the Wild West. To become a lonesome cowboy, you’ll need a cowboy hat and boots, toy rifle, and rugged swagger.nice photo..:)

Now some of these costumes might be hard to create out of dress up clothes you can find at Goodwill or somewhere. The Gunslinger might be possible costume for me, but the rest, I don't think I could make a costume like any of them with out a lot of luck.

Very nice post on this site.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney would be a fabulous choice. So classy and stylish. Looks like she did a bit of waist training as well.

As a big fan of western movies I really like the "The Gunslinger". It looks really amazing and the details are great. Nothing like the wild west right!

Very nice article about old style Halloween costumes.
I am looking for good info for Halloween season.
Thank you very much!

In-fact I was searching various online stores for costume ideas.. Finally decided to opt for some vintage Halloween costume of 60's..!

These type of costumes will make us stand out from Halloween costumes.

I am glad that it turned out so well and I hope it will continue in the
future because it is so worthwhile and meaningful to the community.

What a great post with stunning photos. Great ideas for Halloween. Cool article.

I like the design of the Gliteratti. It is very intricate.

The vintage costumes are very unique based on the black and white photography used. It would be a real treat to capture the "feel" of the era along with the character.

<strong>Leyla Fogel</strong>

Very good article.Thanks Again. Great.

<strong>Rene Lakin</strong>

I loved your post.Thanks Again. Will read on...

<strong>Sullivan Weddington</strong>

Thanks so much for the post.Really looking forward to read more. Fantastic.