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The term costume can refer to wardrobe and dress in general, or to the distinctive style of dress of a particular people, class, or period. It can also refer to the artistic arrangement of accessories in a picture, statue, poem, or play, as is appropriate to the time, place, or other circumstances being represented or described, or to a particular suit of clothing worn to portray the wearer as a character or type of character other than their regular persona at a social event such as a fancy party or in an artistic theatrical performance.

Theatrical costumes are used, in combination with other aspects, to portray performers' age, gender role, profession, social class, personality, and suchlike. Sometimes theatrical costumes are literal interpretations of what the costume designer thinks the character would wear if the character actually existed, and quite often theatrical costumes are stylized to exaggerate some aspect of a character.

The wearing of costumes is an essential part of Halloween celebrations, and (to a lesser extent) costumes are also worn in conjunction with other holiday celebrations, such as Christmas and Easter. Halloween costumes traditionally take the form of supernatural creatures such as ghosts, vampires, and angels, whereas Christmas and Easter costumes typically portray mythical holiday characters, such as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Costumes may also be used to portray various other character themes during secular holidays, such as an Uncle Sam costume being worn on the 4th of July.

Some people wear costumes for erotic purposes. This is generally considered to be harmless fun, but some people consider this behavior to be a form of fetishism.