Art In The EverydayHalloween

Art In The Everyday: Vintage Halloween Costumes

by Maxwell Tielman

The handcrafted costume is as part of the American Halloween mythology as ghost stories or candy corn. The mere mention of Halloween is sure to conjure images of eager children standing alongside their mothers, smiling over sewing machines with half-finished witch and spaceman costumes in hand. Although the image of the made-by-mom Halloween outfit is a pervasive one, it exists largely in the same alternate universe that houses Norman Rockwell paintings and fairy tales. In reality, the act of obtaining a Halloween costume usually involves exhausted, overworked parents slogging to the local drugstore, sometimes mere hours before the big day. Despite this decidedly unglamorous reality, however, the act of mass-market Halloween shopping is not without its own special kind of romance.

As was the case with many of my peers, my parents were not exactly crafty. Because of this, Halloween often meant a trip to Kmart, Rite-Aid, or Woolworth’s— stores that, during October, had entire aisles devoted to the holiday. I can still vividly recall the feeling of sorting through racks of flame-retardant superhero outfits, the air perfumed with the scent of candy and newly-minted polyester. Although the glare of overhead fluorescents cast a harsh, illuminating light on the scene below, there was something magical about the whole experience. I knew deep down that my chosen Superman costume was assembled with velcro and made of a material that would melt before it could ever withstand alien death rays, but the thought of wearing it on Halloween filled me with near-manic glee. As my father helped my sister pick out her costume from a pile of witch and Disney princess options, I held my costume by its wire hanger and zoomed it around in the air.

At school, handmade Halloween costumes were few and far between. Instead, costumes of Power Rangers, Princess Jasmine, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and horse-riding cowgirls reigned supreme. Although none of these costumes bore the hallmark imperfections of handicraft, they still assumed memorable and spellbinding roles for those who wore them. To celebrate the magic and unappreciated art of the factory-made Halloween costume, we’re going to take a look at the work of two companies that ruled the Halloween market in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s: Ben Cooper and Collegeville. To revel in more mass-produced Halloween delights, continue after the jump! —Max

Above images: Vintage Collegeville masks from the 1960s and 70s.

In the middle of the twentieth century, two companies defined Halloween: Ben Cooper and Collegeville. Ben Cooper, the more prevalent of the two, was founded in the mid 1930s when its owner, a costume designer of the same name, went into the Halloween business after the popularity of Vaudeville fizzled out. The company’s edge in the marketplace came from its proprietor’s knack for snatching up competitive character licensing deals (some of its first were Superman, Zorro, and Disney’s Snow White). In a 1979 profile of Ben Cooper, People Magazine wrote,

These days flashy new media characters from television, comic books and the movies—all of them licensed by Cooper in high-pressure deals—are the life of his annual collection. To spot early comers ahead of the competition, Ben screens pilots of upcoming TV shows. In the last few months TV’s Mork (plans for Mindy are still under wraps) has been nipping fast at the heels of big sellers like Star War’s Vader, Chewbacca, R2-D2 and Princess Leia. Other favorites include Wonder Woman, Batman, Spiderman and—enjoying a comeback—Dracula. This season Cooper is introducing its version of the monster from Alien—the first R-rated movie with a kiddie tie-in. He also still turns out plenty of tried-and-true characters. “I have a particular affinity,” he concedes, “for Mickey Mouse.”

Unlike Ben Cooper, who enjoyed partnerships with numerous media companies, its biggest competitor, Collegeville, was often left to fight over scraps. Despite moderate success with Warner Brothers characters, many of the Pennsylvania-based company’s costumes were off-brand hodgepodges that looked suspiciously like their name-brand counterparts. Unable to use top-selling names like Frankenstein, Batman, or Spiderman (all property of Universal Studios, DC Comics, or Marvel), Collegeville made do with slightly lower rent titles like “The Monster, “The Bat,” and “The Spider.”

Although mass-market Halloween costumes today are still made with cheap, synthetic materials, the ones produced during the Ben Cooper/Collegeville era truly take the cake. Instead of somewhat life-like wigs and polyester clothing, these earlier incarnations featured masks in the form of hard, plastic shells and ill-fitting jumpsuits printed with the artwork to match. In spite of this (or perhaps because of this), Ben Cooper and Collegeville costumes remain charming collector’s items, even long after both companies have ceased production.

Above image: Collegeville’s 1961 Costume Catalogue (via Monster Masks Blog).

Above image: Signage for Collegeville Halloween Costumes (via Monster Masks Blog).

Above image: Costumes from Collegeville’s 1981 Catalogue (via Plaid Stallions).

Above image: Ben Cooper Masks from 1973 (via Plaid Stallions).

Above image: Costumes from the 1973 Ben Cooper Catalogue (via Plaid Stallions).

Above image: Collegeville masks from 1981 (via Plaid Stallions).

Above image: Costumes from the 1973 Ben Cooper Catalogue (via Plaid Stallions).

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  • OMG! I remember all these vintage mass produced costumes. I think that as a kid we combined them with homemade touches. I could never wear the plastic masks for very long. So fun to read this post and remember all those good times. Thanks.

  • WHOAH! That Frankenstein mask took me back, I completely forgot about that! We had one of those growing up. We’d play with it all the time. Excellent post!

  • The minute I saw the first pic in this article I was nauseated with the remembrance of the horrid odor of those masks. I preferred an old sheet to go as a ghost while at the same time envying my friends who had store-bought costumes. The eternal paradox.

  • Another OMG from this old girl! I HAD that princess costume and remember the mask that went with it all too well! I know my mom has a picture of me wearing it while standing in our old living room and I had a snowsuit on under it. (Being from upstate New York originally I can’t remember wearing a Halloween costume without a snowsuit or winter coat!) I also remember the vicious ‘paper cut’ I got on the forehead from the crown part of the mask when I put it on.

  • When my kids were 3 and 5, I made them Star Wars costumes–Princess Leah and Darth Vader. It took me the entire month of October(not a big sewing guru). It was a nightmare. After that, Walgreens or whatever we could put together. I did the Marvelous Mommy that time, and that was it! hahaha

  • I’m pretty sure I had that princess mask at some point. I remember getting sweat and spit on the inside of those things! So uncomfortable.

  • I have mixed feelings of nostalgia and panic from looking at these masks. I still love the look, but don’t ever want that smell on my face again.

  • I remember wearing the princess masks, I think it was Cinderella. It sure was fun seeing the assortment in this article. Now, I prefer to use make up and wigs and my favorite place to shop is the thrift store to find things that will work for a costume. I found great clothes and jewelry to be Daisy from the great Gatsby once.

  • I found 3 Collegeville Costumes in my attic. 1945-1950

    A Pirate, Skeleton and a Witch They are boxed and in good condition

  • I’ve been searching high and low for a copy of my witch costume as a child from the 1960’s (1965-1969) I found the dreaded mask! Haha Oh the sweat from running from house to house! I still remember the sound and smell of the crunchy dried leaves under foot. All those colors of fall! The leaves, the decorations, the COSTUMES! Thanks for the memories! By the way, I have the Frankenstein looking mask at top.

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