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A Brief History of Political Halloween Costumes

And what they tell us about the election

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You can't visit a Halloween store without seeing the vinyl visages of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Dressing up as the incumbent president on October 31 dates back to the 1960s at least, though some beloved political figures, like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, have been imitated long after their administrations. Debating whether to dress up as your favorite presidential candidate this year? Read more about political Halloween masks before you cast your vote.

1. The Election Before the Election

Most Halloween masks are produced overseas in January or February, so costume companies have to predict which candidates will face off long before the primaries. Scott Morris, owner of Morris Costumes, the world's largest costume wholesaler, started placing orders for this year's festivities back in November 2011.

The same guesswork has to be done when predicting the year's "it" costumes: Morris studies upcoming blockbusters and animated features, including the directorial and star power behind the films, to place the next year's order. "The good thing about political masks is that you know you can keep selling the elected president's mask for at least four years," Morris says. "You just hope you bought more of the right one."

2. But Don't Worry, Someone Will Buy That John Kerry Mask

Even if a costume company makes a mistake and overbuys an unpopular political mask, there's a special place where someone will buy anything. And that place is called the Internet. "I don't get it. I don't know what people could possibly be doing with them," says Morris. "But there's a buyer for everything in this world."

3. Not All Presidents Have Mask Appeal

Political masks are especially popular in an election year, but not all presidential masks are equally popular. Even decades after Watergate, most Americans have seen a Richard Nixon mask. A customer recently asked Morris where he could purchase a John F. Kennedy mask. (Psst! Here are a few on eBay.) But no one wants to trick or treat dressed up like Gerald Ford.

Mask appeal is partly a combination of being physically distinct and fun to caricature. It also comes from staying in the spotlight. An outgoing personality -- or even a scandal -- is a great way to keep your likeness on sale at a costume store. "I'll be selling Bill Clinton masks for the next 30 or 40 years!" Morris says.

Sometimes Halloween glory isn't just for the commander-in-chief. First Lady Michelle Obama and former First Lady Hillary Clinton both have their own masks. Soft-spoken former First Lady Laura Bush was left out of the fun.

(Interesting tidbit: Political masks of women don't sell as well as those of men for a few reasons. One reason is that there just aren't as many female politicians or masks of them. Another is that women very rarely wear Halloween masks, which even Morris admits aren't the most comfortable accessory.)

4. The Spectacle Is Political

We wondered if Halloween partygoers in this divisive political climate are more likely to dress up as candidates they love or hate. Morris believes that most people dress up as politicians they love, despite the fact that Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein masks have been popular in recent decades. A recent Psychology Today story posits that adults are "more likely to wear masks that convey fear than admiration."

Either way, dressing up as a politician shows an emotional investment in that person. "Halloween is transgressive at its heart, so it's the perfect holiday for political satire," says Lesley Bannatyne, author of Halloween Nation: Behind the Scenes of America's Fright Night.

Because costume companies need lead time for production, they can't immediately react to the most topical political gaffes come late October. Fortunately, creative revelers can. "I counted 63 shotgun-toting Sarah Palins at the 2008 NYC Village Halloween parade," Bannatybe says. "I expect to see endangered Big Birds and binders full of women this year."

5. An American Masktime

Though a quick Internet search yields masks of the British royals and former Prime Minister Tony Blair, Morris says that political Halloween masks stay national. After all, who wants to have to explain his mask to people who aren't well-versed in foreign affairs? Certainly not the guy at the haunted house trying to pick up the woman dressed as sexy Eleanor Roosevelt. It stands to reason that Americans are most focused on who's going to run their home country, and buyer behavior at Halloween stores may be as accurate as the polls. According to the national chain Spirit Halloween, mask sales have accurately predicted the winning presidential candidate for every election since 1996. As of last month, Obama had a comfortable 64-36 percent sales lead. (Of course, that was before his disastrous performance in the first debate.)

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