Sunday, January 27, 2008

An Obsession Explored

I was supposed to be having a quiet day on Saturday. I'd even done all my usual weekend chores on Friday night, so that I could just sleep in and laze about all of the next day, and recharge my batteries in anticipation of a big night that evening. To be fair, I did get the much-needed lie-in, but then woke to a voicemail from Jen asking for help with her costume for the aforementioned party (Matty's housewarming). She had decided to go as Janis Joplin (the theme being famous dead people) and wanted to rifle through my dressing up box for hippyish accessories.

There seems to be a fancy dress party at least once a month in Brighton, and it gets harder and harder to better one's previous efforts, especially when, like me, you have a reputation for going all-out. As a self-confessed fancy dress fanatic, I have built up a decent collection of costumes and accessories over the years, and have become the unofficial wardrobe mistress to my comrades, who invariably turn to me for help when inspiration and wherewithal are lacking. So I wasn't entirely surprised when Jen's call turned out to be the first of many, meaning that my supposedly restful day instead became punctuated by a string of visitors and frantic trying-on sessions.

Luckily I had sorted out my own attire well ahead of time – I already owned a suitable wig, and had found the most perfect Karen Carpenter (Seventies era) frock on ebay. I'm really not complaining about the disruption to my envisaged tranquility, in fact there's nothing I like more than putting a costume together and watching a character come to life before me (cue maniacal Dr Frankenstein laugh). It's incredibly satisfying looking round a room full of fabulous, flamboyant, and sometimes disturbing party-goers, knowing that the credit is at least partly yours.

It turned out to be an excellent night, and most people had made a big effort to look convincingly like their chosen deceased, who included: Frank Zappa (Ant), Jimi Hendrix (David), Steve Irwin (Stewart), Dick Turpin (Matty), Janis Joplin (Jen), Mae West (Alice), Marylin Monroe (Charlotte), Paula Yates – complete with baby (Harriet), Jim Morrison (Sheldon), Random Suicide Bomber (Dave), Freddie Mercury (Ross), Jackie Onasis (Abbi), Klaus Kinski (Tim), Cleopatra (Nikki), John Bonham (Damien – who looked SO weird with long hair) and, disturbingly, Myra Hindley (Tania) - apologies if I've forgotten anyone on this weird and wonderful role-call. I did a turn on the decks – naturally playing only tunes sung by dead people - and we were also treated to some live music from Barulho, and an as yet unnamed gypsy klezmer band. Most people guessed my costume once I'd prompted them with a line or two of “Close to You” – although I did get accused of looking like some kind of Hammer Horror freak on more than one occasion, though to be fair, so did Karen Carpenter in her more emaciated periods.

Damien, Tim and Me, as you've never seen us before

Every time another costume bash comes up, and I get that giddy tingle of anticipatory excitement, I ask myself from whence this obsession of mine came. I can certainly put it partly down to my theatrical upbringing – both my parents were in professional theatre, and I used to love playing with the various costume cast-offs that made their way into the family dressing up box.

My sister Megan and I would often adorn ourselves and put on plays for our parents and their friends (who were always very good about humouring us), and so I learned from an early age how much fun reinventing yourself can be. Then along came the wonderful Mr Benn – one of my very favourite children's TV characters - whose visits to the fancy dress shop sparked no end of exciting escapades, reinforcing the idea that dressing up equals adventure.

Some of my earliest fancy dress costumes (invariably made from scratch by my talented and creative mother) included Cinderella, Pierrette, one of the Three Kings (for which I was made to black-up!) and the Queen Mother – for Charles and Diana's wedding street party. Then when my 18th birthday came up, I decided to throw what turned out to be the first of many fancy dress parties of my own, the most memorable of which include Moulin Rouge, Gay Icons, Wild West, Bitches & Baddies, and most recently, Seasick! I have thrown non-costume parties too, but I always find that being dressed up gives things a jollier atmosphere, breaks the ice between strangers, and makes the photographs much more interesting.

I'll admit that it does nettle me when people turn up to a clearly labelled 'fancy dress' party in their normal clothes. Call me a fancy dress fascist (I won't deny it), but my good friend Neel will back me up here, in agreeing that to appear at such soirées in 'civvies' is frankly impolite, it makes everyone else feel uncomfortable, and breaks the magic for those of us who like to immerse ourselves in the experience. To put it into perspective, you wouldn't turn up to a black tie ball in trainers and jeans, or walk into a historical re-enactment in modern day clothes, and still expect to be included, would you?

I accept that not everyone enjoys dressing up as much as me, and so am never offended if they choose not to come along for that reason. But, like any team game or hobby, it only really works if everyone joins in. Luckily, lots of my friends in Brighton do love dressing up (nearly as much as me), hence the regular merry-go-round of themed parties, and those inevitable 'fancy dress SOS' phone calls. Maybe it's time I started charging for my services, or at least demanding compensation of the chocolate variety – “will lend wigs for Mingles” - I like that.

Paula, Natalie, Megan & Me - an early fancy dress outing as St Trinians on Red Nose Day

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