Wednesday, 28 July 2010

British dress code: what to wear to look like a native

When I was a grad student, my adviser would occasionally let slip a few anecdotes about his previous life as a student in Britain, and one of the recurring themes was the wearing of unusual (one might even say inappropriate) clothing out in public, often for no reason at all. In fact, he even brought this fondness for playing dress-up to America, where his outlandish Halloween costumes became legendary in our department. At the time, I thought this was a part of my adviser's personality; it never occurred to me that it might actually be a part of the British psyche. But then I began dating my now-husband and, as is practically mandatory in these modern times, I Facebook-stalked him. Imagine my surprise at finding this:

(Dressed up at one of the retro-themed nights at Falmouth Week. He's the one in the red shirt and the once-ubiquitous-but-recently-misplaced black 'fro wig.)

...and this:

(Dressed up at another retro night during Falmouth Week--this is supposed to be a Miami Vice costume, by the way.)

...and even this:

(My husband is the one who's sitting down, thank God. The person in the lovely pink ensemble is a guy from his team who's torturing him with a cross-dressed lap dance in honor of his birthday.)

Interestingly, these photos are relatively mild examples of my husband's costumed past; other pictures have even more extreme costumes, not to mention the many where he is dressed as a woman. You'll have noticed that two of the above pictures come from a single event (Falmouth Week is an annual occurrence and has multiple nights that involve costumes, including "'70's Night," "'80's vs. '90's Night," and "Caribbean Night"). However, I am happy to tell you, my husband is hardly the only Brit to engage in costume-wearing, and Falmouth Week is hardly the only event associated with dressing up. In fact, special events aren't even necessary.

In Britain, "costumes" are known as "fancy dress," and there are fancy dress shops all over the place, in addition to all the vintage clothing stores that are also a useful source of costume pieces. In a town so small that it doesn't even have a full-size grocery store, we have two large costume shops. People wear fancy dress for all sorts of occasions--birthday parties, holiday parties, regular parties, dances, the beginning of the school year, the end of the school year, after-parties for athletic events (whether you've participated in the events or just watched them), bachelor/bachelorette parties (stag/hen dos), and many more that I can't think of because the Brits seem capable of making pretty much anything into a reason to put on a costume before wandering up to the pub. If you are on High Street late on Friday or Saturday evenings, you are nearly guaranteed to bump into at least one person wearing fancy dress.

Now, obviously, not everyone indulges in this national pastime; as you might expect, there is a correlation between age and frequency of costume-wearing. However, there's a plateau between childhood and, oh, middle age; only after about 50 do people seem to feel less inclined to make fools of themselves. This is particularly interesting to me given the amazing amount of money you can sink into costumes. One of the major reasons I stopped wearing Halloween costumes when I was in college--despite the fact that there were many costume parties to choose from--was that I just didn't have the money to buy outfits, or even to buy supplies to make outfits. It is not cheap, even if you reuse some of the pieces (which people here do--my husband has a couple wigs, in particular, that appear quite regularly in all his fancy dress photos). Shortly after I first moved to Falmouth, I visited the costume shop in order to buy supplies for the "'80's vs. '90's Night" at Falmouth Week. Here is the outfit I put together:

(I am representing the '80's here, in case you couldn't tell. I purchased leg warmers (which, unfortunately, you can't see here), as well as fishnet stockings, the see-through shirt, the elegant neon plastic necklaces, and the fishnet fingerless gloves. If only I'd been old enough to actually dress like this in the '80's.)

I also purchased a few items for my husband:

(My husband, dressed as Billy Idol, or the lead singer of The Prodigy--whichever you prefer. I bought him the gloves, a leather cuff, and some fake nose rings.)

Altogether, I spent about $70 on our outfits, which is pretty outrageous considering that I was still on my graduate stipend at the time and didn't exactly have a surplus of cash. However, since it was my first time living in the UK, I wanted to act like a local. Now, imagine how much is invested in a collection like this:

(A small portion of the total collection--these were chosen as especially embarrassing pieces to be worn by a hen at a hen do.)

Another interesting thing is that people here are not obsessed by choosing the sexiest/sluttiest outfits possible, as is the case in the US. One of the other reasons I stopped wearing costumes in college was that most girls saw dressing up as an opportunity to go out in public looking as scandalous as humanly possible--the naughty nurse, the naughty librarian, the naughty Mrs. Claus, the naughty kitten, the naughty anything-you-can-think-of. Every year when I was in college, one or more girls attended the annual Halloween party wearing nothing but saran wrap (I'd like to point out that these girls were always from Bryn Mawr College, rather than my alma mater, Haverford). When I was a girl, costumes were fun because they involved ingenuity to create (in my case, my mother's ingenuity) and they reflected things that I liked. For instance, over the years, I was a butterfly, a Cleopatra, a Spanish dancer, and a gypsy, to name a few. During one of my rare costumed appearances in college, I was a bluebird nest (my study species); on another occasion, I was a hermaphrodite (don't ask). However, these biologically-themed costumes couldn't really compete with all the short skirts and cleavage-revealing tops around me. In the UK, though there is still plenty of flesh being revealed, people are at least doing it creatively, and there are also many more people who just care about putting together a convincing ensemble that is notable for any of a variety of other reasons.

There are also many events where your costume needs to meet certain rules. For instance, I attended a weekend-long getaway to celebrate the birthday of my friend Tom. We were all requested to dress like him for dinner on the evening that we arrived. Because Tom has attended several meditation retreats, I dressed as the Buddha:

(The tissues are not part of the costume. I was very, very sick during the whole weekend, which is why I'm as pale as a ghost here.)

The reason that I happen to have fancy dress on my mind right now is that I attended a hen do over the weekend (my first!) and got to witness first-hand the power of fancy dress. It is fairly routine to make the hen put on something ridiculous and/or embarrassing before hitting the town. Indeed, we had a quiz game where every wrong answer was rewarded by an additional bit of costume. Here is what the hen looked like after a few questions:

(I'd love to show you what she looked like at the end of the game, but that is just not appropriate for a family audience.)

Before we went out for dinner and drinks, we changed into our fancy dresses, but the hen was also forced to wear fancy dress:

(Yes, that is a pair of granny panties stuffed with a wig on one side and a pair of gloves on the other. You'll notice the hen is also wearing a feathery tiara.)

During our evening out, the hen's costume pieces were slowly discarded, but when we got back home at about 12:30 AM and headed to the kitchen to listen to music and snack, someone (who'd obviously had a few drinks) got the idea to delve back into the dress-up box. What ensued was another 30-45 minutes of fancy dress dancing:

(Both of these outfits were put on, in their entirety, during the midnight dress-up session. I believe the background music was provided by Paolo Nutini.)

(Even the dog got in on the action by donning a lei.)

I should mention, by the way, that the hens were hardly the only ones who got in on this type of action: The stag also had a costume--rented from a costume shop, no less--and I noticed that the members of his entourage were also wearing some unnecessary accessories.

I was quite surprised to make these discoveries about the British, since normally we Americans think of them as being rather proper and uptight. We don't generally envision Brits running around every weekend in Halloween outfits, and we certainly don't envision British men having an inclination to cross-dress every chance they get (okay, that's an exaggeration--but there's still an awful lot of cross-dressing). It's rather endearing, though, and it's also fun. Falmouth Week is coming up again in less than two weeks, and it will be happening while my parents are visiting. I wonder if I can persuade my mom and dad to be a wench and a pirate (or a pirate and a wench--after all, cross-dressing is the norm here) for the Caribbean night? As they say, when in Rome, do as the Romans do...

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