As the fancy-dress party season begins again, Leah McLaren wonders why the British are never more themselves than when they’re pretending to be someone else
There is a popular urban legend about a British couple in New York who attended a black tie gala dressed as a pair of pumpkins. Turns out they had misinterpreted the host’s instruction to ‘dress fancy,’ as an invitation for fancy dress — something Americans only do once a year on Halloween. Did they burst into tears and run home? Not a chance. Being Brits, they put on brave faces, pulled their orange foam bellies up to the bar, and proceeded to get shamelessly drunk as the Manhattan glitterati swirled around them.
It might sound like a ludicrous story, but having experienced the cultural flip side, I believe it.
Shortly after arriving in London from Canada I was invited to a fancy dress party at the home of a glamorous and highly respectable west London party-planner whom I did not, at the time, know well. It was just before Christmas, the social season when costume parties are as common as hot cider and twinkly lights. The theme of the event, I was later told, was ‘I Can’t Believe You’re Wearing That’, but I got my wires crossed and assumed ‘fancy’ meant, well, nice. Or to put it in more crassly North American terms: fashionable, upmarket, classy.
I turned up at the smart Kensington flat in a silk cocktail dress and heels. In my hand was a clutch which contained my keys and lip gloss — I’d agonised for ages over whether to go with the sheer pink or sheer beige. Soon after I knocked on the door I realised I’d made a terrible mistake. The young woman who opened it had her tits out. And I don’t mean a plunging neckline. I mean her tits were literally out. If you didn’t count the targets painted on her nipples in red lipstick (and let me tell you, I didn’t), she was completely topless.
‘How do you do?’ she smiled, scrutinising me with mild disdain. ‘And what have you come as?’
Once I’d mainlined some wine and gathered my wits, I managed to enjoy myself at the party, despite feeling a bit like a schoolmistress in Sodom and Gomorrah. The evening, which was populated by twentysomething west London arts and media types dressed as Nazis, dominatrixes, porn stars, countless men in drag, women in dirty underwear, a model in a bikini and a Jesus beard and a couple got up (it is too difficult to explain how) as a vagina dentata, turned out to be an awful lot of fun. It soon became clear that the fancy dress theme was one that everyone except me — the dull Canadian — had taken great pains to commit to because, as A.A. Gill points out, ‘fancy-dress parties, unlike emotional openness, child care and pedicures, are one of those inconsequential and nebulous little things that the English take with an infinite, furrowed-browed, death-or-glory seriousness’. The question is: why?
The short answer, which most people trot out, is that fancy dress, like binge drinking or bawdy humour, is something the English enjoy because it ‘breaks the ice’, and by ‘ice’ they mean centuries of deep-seeded social and sexual inhibition. I don’t think this is entirely wrong, but like most things having to do with sex, manners and Englishness, I suspect there’s much more to it than that.
Ice-breaking might explain why otherwise sensible young women on a hen do are compelled to don matching Playboy bunny ears (‘Oooh, aren’t we naughty ladies?’), but it does not explain the shocking sight of an heir to the throne in a Nazi uniform, a modern 18-year-old Princess Beatrice trussed up in corsets and a blue taffeta bustle, a corpulent Nero channelled by the birthday boy Sir Philip Green or Lady (Barbara) Black parading through the gates of Kensington Palace powdered and wigged as Marie Antoinette — pre-trial and guillotine, obviously.
For centuries the English upper classes have enjoyed a good costume party. The custom originated in late-17th-century Italy with the masked ball. Masquerades allowed otherwise protocol-bound members of the court to behave in openly licentious ways and the craze spread through Europe, continuing through the 18th century and into the next. This being pre-Twitter, the English were rather slow to jump on the trend, and by the time it crossed the channel, Queen Victoria was fat and not amused. In England, masks were discarded in favour of costumes of a morally ‘elevated’ nature — think Moorish slaves, Circassian despots, Redskins with tomahawks. For the ladies, illiterate peasant dress and five-guinea whore get-ups were in vogue, complete with crooks, bonnets and décolleté.
The hilarity of pretending to be of a much lower economic class than one’s own (and perhaps, for a night, assuming their supposedly depraved, animal ways) is hardly lost on the aristocratic fancy dress enthusiasts of today. How else to explain Prince William in hip hop garb at Sandhurst’s chav-themed costume party a couple of years back, or the Queen gussied up as a Swazi at her other grandson’s Out of Africa-themed birthday do? I used to wonder why the British were so keen to look ridiculous. Now I see that in a sense, this is the whole point. Looking idiotic, or more specifically, the act of refusing to take oneself too seriously, is not just the genius of costumery, but also one of the most compelling character traits of Englishness itself.
And herein lies the central paradox of fancy dress: those who do it in order to look good end up looking foolish, and those who don’t care about looking foolish end up looking good. By extension, those who refuse to take part at all — whether out of self-consciousness, lack of imagination or, in my own case, sheer cultural ignorance — look the most ridiculous of all, because fancy dress is a tribal act, one that necessitates an outward commitment to the collective above one’s own individual wants or needs (in this case, the selfish desire to wear something remotely fashionable or flattering).
On a practical level, fancy dress also has great appeal for the competitive host. As Vanessa Story, co-founder of Kasimira party planning and the hostess of the infamous I Can’t Believe You’re Wearing That do explains, ‘If someone’s dressed in an 18th-century hoop skirt and powdered wig, they’re not likely to leave early and go anywhere else are they?’
It would be misleading to imply that fancy dress remains a social diversion only of the rich and glamorous. For decades, in fact, it has been stumbling drunkenly down the class ladder. From the legions of middle-aged suburban vicars and tarts, to the hundreds of post-adolescent naughty nurses and concupiscent coppers getting hammered each Sunday at the Church in Camden (a fancy dress-themed night club featuring variety acts like ‘Ratman and Robin’, a former exterminator who puts his head inside a cage so rats can crawl over it), the custom has, for better or for worse, managed to infiltrate every aspect of British society.
Like queuing, postal strikes and hats at weddings, fancy dress is one of those inescapable and occasionally exhausting customs that must be embraced if one is to have a healthy social life in Britain. For the recalcitrant foreigner, a helpful step toward acceptance is the knowledge that costumes are not about eccentricity but herd mentality — an outward demonstration that one belongs not just to this culture or creed or class but to these people, this party, this night. The sooner you get with it, the better.
For the modest, self-conscious or just plain clueless, may I suggest the following DIY fancy dress shortcuts, all of which I’ve used: a white bin liner over jeans (white trash), a pipe cleaner halo over a mini dress (Madonna/whore complex), a sheath of newsprint spattered with ketchup (dying ind ustry).
And if all else fails, I’d suggest you get your tits out.