Fancy dress; unearthing a Britishism

Every fortnight, we hand over the blog to one of the London Shapers, to give you a flavour of what they do, how they think and what's really going on in our hearts and minds. Today's piece comes from Maxine Mackintosh, who is a PhD student in data science and dementia at UCL and The Alan Turing Institute, and is Co-Founder of One HealthTech.


It’s Halloween next week, so only 7 days until the glitter, fake blood and sweet wrappers will be taking over table tops, carpets and my hair. And afterwards, we'll have a month’s supply of pumpkin in every form possible, from puree to soup to pie. Halloween is a particularly special time of year for some people, for no other reason than seeing a nation all want to don fancy dress. It is a thing of beauty.


However, I did not understand the uniqueness of non-Halloween fancy dress days in the UK, until my Swiss mother, who is about as culturally integrated as a vacuum packed chunk of Gruyere in the cheddar section of Waitrose, pointed out the British fascination with fancy dress. There’s a lot not to be proud of in Britain: almost all that is part of our cultural heritage has been pinched from somewhere else, people think we are grumpy gits and making eye-contact with a stranger is somewhat of a social sin. But the British urge to wear fancy dress at almost any occasion is something I had taken for granted. And quite frankly, it’s amazing.


To be crystal clear here, fancy dress, albeit the same words, has a very different meaning to dress fancy. This is often a distinction and explicit conversation I have to have with, well, just about everyone who is fortunate enough not to have spent substantial periods of time in the UK. “What? Like fancy dresses and heels?” is the usual question. To which the response is usually “Unless said dress is a rip off from Marie Antoinette and your heels are Emma Bunton’s Spice Girl platforms, no, that is not fancy dress”. For those still confused, fancy dress here is of course referring to costumes: from onesies, to celebrity impersonations to outfits so conceptually clever, Buzzfeed will have covered your ingenious approach.


We of course didn’t create fancy dress (like most things), but long ago, England’s upper echelons of society pinched it from the Italian masquerade balls, as some quite literally thinly veiled attempt to hide the debauched behaviour of the protocol-constrained upper classes. We were a little late to the trend compared to the rest of Europe with that said. But for whatever reason, by the time it did hit England, it was no longer to mask licentious behaviours, but a mechanism to look like a complete and utter idiot. Numerous non-Brits seem to wonder why Brits are so keen to look so silly (again, I am using my mother as a benchmark here; “Maxine, vy do you look zo reedeeculoose?” are usually the words hanging on my circus master’s coattails when I leave). But really, that is the whole point. Looking ridiculous, or more exactly, the act of refusing to take yourself seriously, is not just the essence of the beauty when it comes to fancy dress, but on further digging, becomes unearthed as one of the most endearing or at least intriguing traits of Englishness. I can hear Americans protesting as they read, but having now spent numerous Halloweens in the US, it is now clear to me that the scene where Lindsay Lohan turns up as an ugly corpse bride to a room full of sexy lingerie bunnies in Mean Girls, is really just a representation of our culture clash. We are of course Lindsay.


But here is the best, and paradoxical part of fancy dress; if you try to look good (cue sexy, lingerie-adorned-bunnies), you end up looking silly, and those who don’t care about looking silly, end up looking spectacular. Extending this further, those who refuse to engage at all, whether out of cultural ignorance, embarrassment or lack of botheredness, look the silliest of them all because fancy dress is really a crowd act, one that forces a commitment to the herd above one’s own individual wants, such as the self-centred want to wear to fashionable or at least flattering clothes.


For some, travelling to the destination of said herd gathering can be the most daunting part, especially on days not flanking Halloween or Christmas party season. But this is my most favourite part of the whole experience, because you realise that Brits have friendliness within them, even in London. Nothing breaks down barriers between people like being dressed as an octopus on the tube, trying to contain your tentacles, made of up poorly packed tights, from spilling onto your neighbour’s lap. It’s the gentleman across the carriage who is trying to pretend he is reading, when in fact he is staring… and staring. Or it’s the older lady who is sitting simply grinning at you in your octo-fabulousness with a look of “You go get ‘em love”, or it’s the tens of new friends who make immediately once that brave soul says “Mate, you look lush, where the hell are you going?”. Before you know it, you are everyone’s best friend, taking selfies with fellow passengers and being handed beers from previously hidden Sainsbury’s plastic bags. The act of looking stupid is the real mechanism by which to disarm an inhibited English person, who is really only suffering from decades of deeply-rooted social and sexual repression.


Fancy dress, like queuing is one of those inescapably, and I’m sure for many, at times nauseating, cultural idiosyncrasies that really need to be embraced in order to understand the softer potential of the British psyche. It’s a real shame that Brits are not more themselves than when they are trying to be someone else, but at least for some, there is opportunity for sartorial salvation amongst their cupboard of vicar outfits, skunk onesies and appropriated headdresses.

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