Here's How Witch Clothing Has Evolved Throughout History.
Updated: Jan 18
Hold onto your broomsticks. In this spooky chicandcultural special, I explore how popular understanding towards what witches wear has changed over time.
A Spooktastic Halloween Staple.
What’s Halloween without a witch or two? Throughout the spookiest month of the year, you’re bound to spot witches in spine-tingling Television specials or sold as spooky ornaments in your local shops. You’ll probably stumble across some traditional witch costumes too.
Interestingly enough, most of these costumes follow a specific formula. They often present a mysterious woman in a jet-black gown and a thick velvet cloak. To complement this look, black stockings cling around her legs while deep eye and lip-makeup define her sharp facial features. She may carry a broomstick for flight, a cauldron to boil up a devilish brew, or even a magical wand to turn men into toads at the blink of an eye. And last but not least, a pointed hat sits proudly on top of her head.
All in all, these distinct visual features represent a beloved Halloween archetype. But how have popular beliefs on the way witches dress changed over time? And where do certain witchy staples like pointed hats or broomsticks come from? To find out, I’ve studied the evolution of witch clothing over time. From 15th century pamphlets to 21st century TV shows, traditional witch attire has a long and tumultuous history.
Historical 'Witchy' Clothing Tidbits (Witches then)
Witches and Nudity.
Believe it or not, but early witches didn’t wear much at all. Yes, before most modern depictions of witches in black cloaks and pointy hats, nudity was believed to be the main attire of witches. This is most evident in the slew of European artwork made between the 14th and 17th centuries when witch hunts were at a high. Most notably, the renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer created various pieces featuring witches in the nude.
In The Four Witches (1497), Dürer’s magical women wear nothing. Their witchy mischief is represented by a devilish figure on the left and the skulls and bones by their feet. For modern reference, the director Robert Eggers also depicts nude witches in his 2015 film The VVitch. Set in 17th century New England, the protagonist (Anya Taylor Jones) makes a deal with the devil and becomes a witch. She’s then shown stripping down her clothes as she heads into the woods to join her new coven.
But why nudity? Well, in Paganism—the nature-based belief system—its practitioners are sometimes associated with nudism, particularly due to their history of skyclad (naked) ritualistic practices. For the majority of Christians in the 1400s, nudism was viewed as obscene. So, nude witches in art came to represent religious fears about sexual transgression believed to be triggered by Devil worship and supernatural practices.
Broomsticks go way back...
Broomsticks also popped up in artwork from the 1400s and onward. In another Dürer engraving, Witch Riding Backwards On A Goat (1500), an old crone with wild hair maliciously defies the laws of nature as she rides a goat through the air. What’s more, look closely at her arms and you’ll spot her holding a broomstick!
Fun fact - the earliest western artwork of witches with broomsticks is from an illustrated manuscript of a French poem named Le Champion des Dames (1451). The witches are clothed in long dresses and appear to be in mid-flight on their broomsticks.
It’s unclear where the association between witches and broomsticks come from, but here’s one theory. During an old pagan ritual, townsfolk would dance with their besoms (broomsticks) in much the same way that children play with a hobbyhorse. They’d do this during a full moon. The reasoning behind this behaviour was the belief that it would encourage their crops to grow. Some researchers think that this strange ritual was eventually mistaken for witch activity; think nighttime broomstick rides. And so the witch with a broomstick association stuck.
...And so do witch hats.
What about a witch’s pointed hat? Like broomsticks, the origins of the association between witches and pointed hats is unclear. However, during the publishing revolution that started in the 16th century, images of witches wearing cone-shaped headgear were mass-produced in various pamphlets and chapbooks. Just look at this woodcut from an 18th-century chapbook:
(Chapbooks were small publications featuring poems, ballads, and more. They were commonly sold on the streets for a low-cost price)
With their black pointed hats and long gowns, these women don't look much different from the way we depict witches in popular media today. And let’s not ignore the demons and broomsticks pictured too! As illustrations like this circulated widely around Europe, much of this witchy iconography eventually stuck.
However, this doesn’t explain how witch hats became associated with evil. Although no one can directly pinpoint why this is the case, there is one theory of interest that’ll shock you:
As witches were often used as scapegoats for the ills of society, it’s not surprising that pointed hats have been linked to other marginalised groups from history. During the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215 A.D.—an assembly held in Rome between members of the Catholic Church—the council decided that Jews had to wear judenhats (cone-shaped hats) as a way of distinguishing them from Christians. Bear in mind, this was centuries before Jews wore yellow star badges in Nazi Germany.
Soon after the council took place, pointed hats became heavily associated with anti-antisemitism. In medieval artwork, Jews were depicted wearing judenhats during satanic rituals or while being burned alive. Perhaps, then, the link between pointed hats and evil came from these discriminatory beliefs. Both Jews and witches were targets of violence throughout history, and so the hat imagery stuck.
Sometimes, horror is just reality isn't it...
On-Screen WITCH Attire.
How times have changed. Witches are no longer feared. Instead, they’re revered as symbols of women’s empowerment. Classic shows like Charmed and cult films like Practical Magic and Hocus Pocus have contributed to an alluring, modern take on witchcraft.
Close-knit covens represent solidarity between women, while magical powers allude to feminine strength, an embrace of sexuality, and a desire to rebel against gender norms. With the rise of witchcore TikToks and celebrities like Lana Del Rey who are open about their practice of the craft, it’s clear that the idea of witchcraft is irresistible to many young women.
Stepping up from your typical witchy garb, witches in modern popular culture have been depicted in a variety of interesting ways. Be it stylish ensembles inspired by haute couture collections or bohemian outfits ideal for midnight rituals in the woods, here are some great interpretations of contemporary witch clothing.
In The Craft (1996), witchcraft never looked so cool. The teen movie follows four high school girls who turn to magic to cope with their adolescent struggles. As their powers increase, the four leads—Nancy, Sarah, Rochelle, and Bonnie—undergo a stylish group transformation. Embracing their newfound strength, the girls express themselves through a range of cool ensembles.
Costume designer Deborah Everton made sure these outfits were memorable. She mixed elements of grunge and goth fashion together, creating school girl outfits with an edgy twist. Popular 90s trends including plaid and pleated skirts, cropped cardis, and strappy slip dresses were counterbalanced with daring accessories like spike chokers, fishnets, and suspenders.
When it comes to this movie’s legacy, it’s undeniable that this stylish flick influences alternative fashionistas to this day. Just look at the rise of E-girls and brands like Killstar and Dollskill to see why. Out of all the characters, Nancy Downs (Faizura Balk) had the most eye-catching outfits. It’s difficult not to appreciate her endless supply of black-on-black looks. Needless to say, her iconic outfits are ones you’ll want to replicate in the autumn and winter months.
American Horror Story - Coven
AHS: Coven, the third season from the hit TV horror anthology, is based on a coven of witches residing in New Orleans. After its premiere in 2013, the show dazzled viewers with a range of witchy looks that had haute-couture elements.
Vogue-worthy outfits are present throughout the show. I’d go so far as to say that many of the ensembles looked like they were freshly plucked from a Yves Saint Laurent runway. However, this fashion-focused aesthetic was exactly what the costume designers had intended. In fact, Lou Eyrich and Paula Bradley even got their hands on YSL wide brim fedoras to use in promotional material for the show.
Although the coven looks cohesive as a group, each character retains an individual sense of style. The show’s token mean queen, Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts), wears trendy pieces throughout. She opts for large cat eye shades and glam fur coats slung over figure hugging dresses.
On the other side of the spectrum, Misty Day (Lily Rabe) is the coven’s resident flower child and Stevie Nicks fan. Her style includes a collection of witchy shawls in warm colours and flowy or ruched dresses. Overall, the costume designers aimed for a “70s meet modern witch style.”
The CHilling Adventures of Sabrina
Modern re-imaginings of classic shows are all the rage. With titles like Buffy the Vampire Slayer due for a remake, it’s no surprise that Sabrina the Teenage Witch was remade in 2018.
Set in the town of Greendale, Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka) navigates her half-human, half-witch heritage in a dark coming-of-age tale. Surprisingly, the show’s ominous atmosphere is balanced out by autumnal looks in a warm colour scheme of oranges, reds, and browns. Also, as the show is based on the Archie Comics set in the 1960s, many of these cosy outfits have a retro twist.
Sabrina wears comfy-looking knits and coats that would get anyone through a chilly autumn day. Her memorable red wool coat with a 1960s style mod collar is worn over a variety of looks. It’s a classic coat for the coldest months.
Her style also conveys a moderately preppy aesthetic. Dark academia vibes emanate from her plaid skirts, turtlenecks, Cambridge satchels and headbands. On the whole, Sabrina’s witchy ways are softened through retro-fueled autumnal looks. They strike the perfect balance between her human and magical roots.
The Weird Sisters are a trio of powerful witches from the Academy of Dark Arts. They express disdain towards Sabrina’s half-human heritage. Playing around with the traditional witch aesthetic, they each wear a dark mini dress with a lace pilgrim collar and matching cuff sleeves. It’s a visually satisfying take on a classic coven uniform.
Sat 31st 2020. Dressing up as a witch today? Lucky you. Your options are endless. Whether you opt for a traditional witch get-up or a modern interpretation from one of your favourite spooky movies, take a few moments to acknowledge the long and tumultuous history behind the look. But most importantly, happy Halloween!
The ghost in my room says: Thaaaaank you for rrrreeadinngggg this pooohohohost.
Do you have a favourite fictional witch? Let me know in the comments. <3
Until next time,