Out Of The Closet

19th February 2010

Heather Harris, who counts being overtaken by a sausage at 22 miles as one of the most depressing moments of her last London Marathon, looks at the British obsession with fancy dress…

It’s all Queen Victoria’s fault. Fair enough, so she probably didn’t don the garb of a small chipolata at her regular masked balls but she was certainly partial to the odd spot of fancy dress, and she encouraged her subjects to do the same.

During the 1820s and 1830s the most popular costumes were those of characters in romantic poetry and fiction plus the odd Circassian slave. By the mid 19th century, the English would dress up at the drop of a hat – well, at the opening of a bridge, a civic holiday, a daughter’s coming out or the occasional hanging.

Today things haven’t changed all that much: whether it’s running 26.2 miles, going Trick or Treating, celebrating a milestone birthday or Morris Dancing, the British like nothing better than to pull out the dressing-up box.

As Natasha Grainger from the Press Office of the London Marathon (which this year is sponsored by Virgin; not sure what implications that has for the dress code…) told me, “Every year over 80% of competitors run for charity and the majority in fancy dress – and we’re the only country who do this!”

Certainly, in the New York, Sydney, Berlin and even the Disney Marathons, there’s no danger of being beaten by a pantomime cow – both ends – or tripped up by a giant tap (running for Water Aid).

It’s actually no laughing matter running in a giant polystyrene head, as one fellow runner discovered, adding, “I quickly realised that I should have done more of my training in the Rhino outfit, but I thought I might terrify the children in my local park!”

Jozef Machnicki, who runs Wonderland Party, the country’s leading seller of costumes, has a theory about the UK’s love of pulling on the superman pants and the fairy wings.

“The British love taking the mickey out of themselves and, ironically, the more doom and gloom around the more they want to party and have fun.”

Jozef is literally laughing all the way to the bank, having made over £2.2 million in 2008. “And 2009 profits were up 22%. It’s just sad that we’re the only business in Stoke on Trent making money.”

Among his top clients are students who’ve realised that a budget pirate or nurse costume from Wonderland, at just £8, is far cheaper than even Topshop’s party range, and it doesn’t matter if it gets covered in kebab and ketchup at the end of the night.

“Older women are also a rising market,” explains Jozef, “with the men being dragged in reluctantly behind them. More and more people are saving money on venues and having parties at home, so make it fancy dress to break the ice!”

And there’s no disputing that walking into someone’s lounge, stone cold sober and dressed as a Christmas Elf is a guaranteed conversation starter, especially when the host has come as the Baby Jesus – complete with swaddling clothes and detachable manger.

Such adventurous attire is a step too far for the majority of modern day masquerades, though. Dilhani, from the country’s top internet hire site, Party-Britain (sales up 30% year on year) tells me that their most popular costume for men is the Naval Officer, along with the Disco Dude, “both very simple classic outfits.” Fantasy features too. “Batman is also always in demand. I think men just love turning into a superhero if only for one night!”

The choice of fancy dress is a psychologists’ dream – why does one man want to wear tights while another prefers to hide inside a gorilla?

“For women, the hippie costume is popular because it’s great for the larger lady and ideal for a 60s or 70s bash,” observes Dilhani, adding that “the Bumble Bee and Pirate are snapped up by ladies keen to look cute and sexy!”

Much, of course, does depend on what activity the customer is planning to attempt while in their costume of choice. As Jozef explained, “If drinking and/
or driving is involved then a mask is unadvisable. But you try telling that to a customer who has his heart set on Darth Vadar for his pub crawl…”

Dancing in anything that involves ‘fur’ can also create a sweaty problem. Jozef advises against it especially if looking for a ‘potential mate’.

When it comes to romance, it literally is ‘love at first bite’ in the costumiers’ world. Female and male vampire outfits flew off the shelves at Halloween last year, following the release of the Twilight films, which made blood sucking positively sexy.

Films clearly have a powerful influence. The Mamma Mia phenomena saw a stampede for Abba outfits, as all over the country cinemas encouraged its audiences to dress up for screenings. As one ‘mid-40s’ friend confessed, “In my twenties I dressed up for the Rocky Horror Show, in my thirties I was a nun for the Sound of Music and now I’m queuing up at my local multiplex in a blonde ‘Waterloo wig’ and spray-on trousers!”

Even the local pantomimes have seen a change in their audiences’ attire as Lee Waddingham, Marketing Director for the 2009 production of Snow White at The Watersmeet Theatre in Rickmansworth, told me, “Panto is as popular as ever and increasingly people are getting into the spirit by coming along to watch in fancy dress.”

And what parent doesn’t dread the note detailing the outfit required for their child’s three second nativity play appearance? It was fine in my day, when a crown of paper or a white bed sheet sufficed… last Christmas my son was a hedgehog: ‘Costume Please By Monday’.

Knowing my artistic limitations, I confess to reaching, not for the sewing machine, but the computer. Google ‘Fancy Dress’ and there’s more online stores than there are villages in the UK. I’ll put my hat (sexy witch, £9.99) on the fact that if every adult wanted to go to a Fancy Dress party tonight there would be enough costumes available to go round. And the children could probably have two each, such is the current stock of fairy, batman, policemen and Bob the Builder outfits all just a click away.

And long may it continue... Well certainly until 2012. Surely, there’s an argument to introduce a level of fancy dress into the London Olympics. After all, it’s the one event where we are truly leading the world...

Just imagine: “The Bronze goes to The Sexy Nurse, the Silver to Captain Hook, and the Gold is a photo finish between James Bond and Usain Bolt dressed as a chicken…”

You read it here first.

www.partybritain.com • www.wonderlandparty.co.uk

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