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Halloween: Time to Act Out Fantasies - 2003-10-30

Every October 31, Americans celebrate Halloween with pumpkins, parties and parades. The custom began as All Hallows Eve, a Christian ritual to remember the dead. It has become a secular tradition, allowing American children and adults to enter a world of fantasy, dressing up as fictional or historic characters, ranging from Harry Potter and Napolean, to Cinderella and Marilyn Monroe. Traditionally, on Halloween, children put on masks and costumes and knock on neighbors' doors, asking for candy, a custom known as trick-or-treating.

Increasingly, adults are donning costumes, too, to attend Halloween parties and parades.

Artist Phyllis Galembo collects and photographs vintage Halloween costumes. She says Halloween gives Americans of all ages and backgrounds a chance to act out their fantasies.

"People love to have a time just to be anything, to transform, to get out of themselves, to be something else," said Ms. Galembo. "And it is amazing, because Halloween is probably the one holiday in [the United States] that belongs to all the people, because it is not a religious holiday, it belongs to the people."

Ms. Galembo has recently published a book of photographs, called Dressed for Thrills, on a century of Halloween and masquerade costumes.

A sample of her collection, on view at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, reflects Halloween trends down through the years.

From the 1960s, a child-sized jumpsuit and helmet represent a NASA astronaut. On display from the 1890s is a faded red devil costume with an embroidered pitchfork and a cap with stuffed horns attached.

Ms. Galembo says during the economic depression of the 1930s, many Americans could not afford to buy elaborate Halloween costumes, so they made their own with whatever material they could find.

"We look back and we also get a sense of history," she said. "It is a sense of nostalgia, looking at different themes. And we see all different kinds of costumes, stuff from the depression era, when the costumes would be made out of a pillowcase or an old flower sack. And also, what costumes were acceptable back then may not be acceptable now."

For example, it would probably be considered insensitive today to wear a 1950s costume of a Native American with a stereotypical headdress of bright red, orange and yellow feathers.

But costumes of the Walt Disney characters, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, are as popular today as they were in the 1930s, when the items on display were worn.

Valerie Steele, the director of the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, says a late 19th century linen dress with gold stars and layers of thin cloth of the American symbol "Lady Liberty" is one of many designs that show the whimsical nature of Halloween.

"There is a little liberty costume for a tiny child dressing up as liberty, which is very, very evocative," she continued. "Oh, so many, there is a strange little creature with a pink sack for magic dust that you're supposed to throw around."

While many people wear costumes of scary characters, dressing up as witches, ghosts, skeletons and goblins, some prefer glamorous outfits and masks.

Designer Marjorie Nezin spent weeks stitching a costume of bright orange patchwork and sequins just for Halloween.

"Oh, I love it," she said. "Ever since I was a little girl I wanted to dress like they dress in the movies, and finally, at quite an advanced age I became a designer and I'm doing it."

These days, some designers say Halloween has lost its originality because most costumes are mass-produced.

But whether they don store-bought masks of a horror movie character called Jason, or make their own devil or monster, costumes, youngsters say they are ready for the annual celebration of fantasy.

"I am going to be Jason, just because of the fact that my name is Jason," explained one child. The other said "I am going to be a devil, too. I am going to have two horns. I have a red dress. I am going to paint my face. I am going to have a little beard, even though I am a girl." "I like being dead people," added one child. "But this Halloween I am going to be a cheerleader." A little girl recalled last year "Last year, I was a witch. I had a long broom but I had to paint it black," she said.

So what is fun about Halloween?

Children say, candy, parties, scaring people, trick-or- treating. It is the one time you get to be someone else, not yourself.