THE SPECTATOR
6 JULY 2007

A LITTLE OF WHAT YOU FANCY

Christa D’Souza ponders our national obsession with fancy dress.

There are plenty of things to thank the Lord for. My children’s health. Their father’s. Inshallah, mazeltov, my own.  Then there is the fact that I am not a friend of Elton John’s. Because if I were a friend of Elton John’s, I’d have to love fancy dress.

 

I hate fancy dress parties. Am I in the minority here? In this country, probably yes. Statistically speaking, there are plenty more of you out there who enjoy the whole grim process of taking half the day off to get kitted out in Angels, of having to walk down the street and hail a cab dressed as an al-Qa’eda terrorist or hooker, of wearing a highly flammable, 100 per cent nylon costume that you have no guarantee the previous renter did not pee in, than there are not. Although fancy dress (or ‘cah-stume’ as they call it in the US) is an inherent part of culture all over the world, nobody, but nobody, seems to pursue it with quite such relentless vim and vigour as we Brits do. It is as hardwired into our national psyche as Marmite or public-school buggery. Because it is the one thing in the world we don’t have to be understated about, it is the one thing in the world we go for like stink.

 

Think that, you being you, you’re somehow exempt? Think, like I have done so many times before, that you’ll be able to slip in unnoticed, wearing what you would have worn if the dress code had been merely ‘black tie’? Forget it! Like the man at the Spanish nudist colony who just had to keep his pants and socks on or he’d die, you will very definitely be noticed. And maybe even told off. The designer and fancy-dress enthusiast Alice Temperley, for one, enforces a strict rule at her elaborate annual costume parties down at her father’s cider farm in Somerset. Any man who says he does not want to participate is either forced to wear one of her grandmother’s frocks or asked to leave.

 

According to Tim Angel, whose family  business, Angels Fancy Dress, was founded in 1840 and supplied many a costume for Queen Victoria’s elaborate bals costumes at Buckingham Palace, the industry has grown hugely in the last 15 years. ‘At the beginning of the 1990s, the industry was worth around £130 million,’ says Angel, who, in addition to providing costumes for films such as Star Wars and Pirates of the Caribbean, has a website which does a roaring trade in much lower-priced ‘packeted’ costumes. ‘Now that figure accounts for Halloween alone.’ 

 

But why? What is it about us as a nation that is so drawn to the practice? What gives a person the courage to wrap themselves in a sheet from the airing cupboard, put a ski in one hand, a ski pole in the other and call himself Roman Polanski (Geddit? Roman? Pole and ski?). What gives a man the arrogance to think he will pull in his cardboard Ninja Turtle suit? And why do couples going on cruise holidays always so hopefully pack a few costumes in their luggage ‘just in case?’

 

Partly, perhaps, because it mainlines into our obsession with formality and dressing up for an occasion; partly because it satisfies our need to express our deepest darkest fantasies in a safe, socially acceptable way. Where else, after all, is a judge going to get to wear a baby’s bonnet? Or a colonel a fake pair of boobies and heels? Or a royal an Afrika Korps uniform with a swastika armband? Or a politician as Nelson Mandela? (Although as Mandela very graciously pointed out when the pictures inevitably hit the national press, the shirt that Brian Gordon, the Tory councillor for Barnet, wore to the party was one he would never have been seen dead in.) Interestingly, it is almost always those who have to wear uncomfortable, elaborate costumes anyway (royals and actors), or those who ultimately stand to lose the most out of it (secretive politicians, billionaire newspaper magnates, etc.) who love it the best. 

 

Is it a death wish thing? Is it the inability to resist showing the world who we really are underneath? And that story about Marie Antoinette trussed up as a shepherdess when the peasants arrested her: could it be true? Who knows? But if you cannot wait for an excuse to walk into a room dressed as a pre-revolution French aristocrat, make sure that, like Elton, you do it for charity. Those tumbrels, one day they will roll again.

© Christa D'Souza 1989-2020