Halloween Costume Guide: Archives Style

S. Fullerton (Spencer Fullerton) Weaver invitation to Mary Fanton Roberts, 19--?. Mary Fanton Roberts papers, 1880-1956. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
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.


Photograph of William Merritt Chase painting in his studio.
William Merritt Chase in his studio, ca. 1910 / Harriet Blackstone, photographer. Harriet Blackstone papers, 1870-1984. 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

Photograph of Charles Sheeler and his wife Musya arrving at a party in a carriage.
Musya and Charles Sheeler arriving at a Victorian theme party, 1947 Oct. 16 / Oliver Baker, photographer. Charles Sheeler papers, circa 1840s-1966, bulk 1923-1965. 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

A Louis Lozowick-designed dress worn by Gilda Gray.
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

Image from an album of photographs taken at the Penland School of Crafts.
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 Howard University students wearing Renaissance-style costumes designed by Alma Thomas.
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

Photograph of Loy Bowlin, the "Original Rhinestone Cowbly."
Loy Bowlin, 1991 / Chuck Rosenak, photographer. Chuck and Jan Rosenak research material, ca. 1938-2003. 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

Photograph of sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, ca. 1890 / unidentified photographer. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney papers, 1851-1975, bulk 1888-1942. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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!

This post originally appeared on the Archives of American Art Blog.