America's obsession with witches is a complex and fascinating one. Rooted in fear and fascination, witches have been a steady presence in American culture for centuries, from the Salem witch trials to popular icons like the Wicked Witch of the West. One of the most enduring symbols of the American witch is the classic witch costume, complete with its pointy hat, broomstick, and nose. But where did this imagery come from?
The black, conical hat with a pointy tip is a witch costume's most instantly recognizable part. Like every other piece of standard witch attire, the hat likely has roots in multiple cultures and eras. One theory traces the witch hat to a style associated with Quaker women. Throughout the 17th century, women of all social classes wore tall, black, wool-felt hats. A dress historian, Abby Cox, says this was considered typical fashion at the time. These wide-brimmed, black, conical hats peaked in popularity in the mid-1600s, which also happened to be when the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, was founded in England.
Historically, women who were later called witches dressed like everyone else in their village community, wearing homemade clothes that were made to be functional. These clothes would feature cloaks or hoods during the medieval period and beyond. In terms of dress, witches, at first, were not visually distinct from their neighbors. However, it took only a short time for these once-common garments to be affiliated with witches. The connection with a black dress, in particular, is probably the result of the association of the color black with the devil and "black magic" throughout the Renaissance.
The hooked nose has been used as a symbol of witchcraft for centuries. It often conveys that a witch is meant to be seen as "evil" or "wicked." This visual shorthand began long before Margaret Hamilton donned a sponge-rubber prosthetic nose and chin to play the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. In medieval Europe, witches and other religions were seen as threats to "good" society and the existing power structure. As a result, they were persecuted when the opportunity arose.