‘Suggestions for Fancy Dress’ by Cecil Beaton, British Vogue, Younger Generation Number, December 22, 1937; ‘Symphony in Silver’ by Cecil Beaton (1925), featuring Barbara Beaton in a fancy dress costume designed by Cecil, currently on display at Theatre of War
The above article by Cecil Beaton has to go down as one of my all time favourite Vogue moments. The piece is crammed full of Vreelandisms (is it any accident that her ‘Why Don’t You’ column in Harper’s Bazaar started the same year?), from “What about taking all your coloured handkerchiefs and bandaging your entire body?” to “What about pinning roses from your great aunt’s hat all over your cherry-coloured velvet evening jacket, and cutting white kid leggings above the knees, to go as a garden boy?” In somewhat Dadaist style, Beaton also champions the use of found objects, which again chimes perfectly with the times as the Surrealist Exhibition of Objects in Paris opened just the year before in 1936 and marked the crescendo of popular interest in the movement.
Nowadays an effective grandeur can only be legitimately achieved with everyday utensils, and materials being used for purposes for which they were not meant. Steel wool pot-cleaners, egg-beaters, egg-separators, dish-cloths, tin moulds and patent hangers all make excellent costume trimming. – Cecil Beaton
Beaton’s article, and its placement in Vogue, also illustrates that fancy dress doesn’t have to be relegated to hen nights and halloween, as it so often is today. All the very chicest parties should have an element of fancy dress to them. Otherwise, what’s the point? Anyone who knows me IRL or indeed has perused my bio will know that I’m rather partial to dressing up, something I think I must get from my mother.
My mum in the 60s, as Robin Hood and as Cat Woman, in costumes made for her by her mother
The history of fancy dress is interesting not only because of the aesthetic novelty (see Rob Flowers’ twitter and his Fancy Dress Friday hashtag for some real delights), but also because unlike film or theatre costume it is not well documented, as a private pursuit (albeit in public places) there is very little in terms of archival pieces or documentation. This of course adds to the hagiography itself; for something as flamboyant as fancy dress it goes without saying that many apocryphal tales will emerge from the twilight hours and cocktail haze of parties and balls. And so here, dear reader, is my fledgling attempt to right that wrong, and to document a partial history of fancy dress.
Minuet by Venetian artist Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, 1756
I have chosen the Republic of Venice as the starting point for my history of fancy dress. Venice is a curious place, a place where the idea of disguise intermingled with everyday life through the proliferation of masks. Traditionally a feature of Venetian carnival, residents were permitted to wear masks between a number of Christian festivals, resulting in mask-wearing for much of the year. Mascherari, the mask-makers, held a privileged position in society and had their own statute dating back to the 15th century. The widespread use of masks in Venice has been the subject of much speculation. Some scholars believe it was kickstarted by the sacking and defeat of Constantinople by Venetian command in 1204. The access this military victory gave to the Middle and Far East led to rare commodities flooding into Venice, which could have included masks. Another argument holds that masking could have been a response to one of the strictest class hierarchies in Europe. For more on this you can check out Venice Incognito.
Masquerade portraits by Antoine Pesne, French rococo portrait artist found at 18th Century Blog. From left: The Actress Babette Cochois, 1750; The princess Amalia von Preussen dressed a l’ amazone, pre-1757; Charlotta Fredrika Sparre as La Folie (the Fool), 1744
By the 15th century masquerade balls were a popular feature of the Venetian carnival. The carnival spirit had spread throughout Italy and often involved royal processions and pageants that also featured public sport competitions and shows by roving minstrels and actors. Masquerade balls were elite affairs: elaborate dances for the aristocracy, while the boisterous Commedia dell’arte began to infiltrate public celebrations from the 16th century onwards.
Water Festival at Bayonne, tapestry from 1580–81 and the Valois tapestry depicting the ball held by Catherine de’ Medici in 1573 at the Tuileries in Paris
The formidable Catherine de’Medici takes the credit for transporting the spirit of carnival from Italy to France when she married the future French King Henry II in 1533. Her court festivals – or ‘magnificences’ – were opulent, exuberant affairs that also had a political purpose to prove the power and financial superiority of the French throne at a time of increasing civil war. A generous patron of the arts, she used her interest in theatre to put on elaborate spectacles with the aim of distracting courtiers from the squabbling and in-fighting that was beginning to characterise the French court. The festivities occurred over several days and included martial sports and tournaments as well as costumes drawn from romantic or mythological stories. Guests (and jousting participants!) dressed variously as shepherds and shepherdesses, Greeks and Trojans, and Amazons and Turks. If the tales of her court festivals are to be believed they could rival any contemporary theatrical production. See here for the sumptuous details.
By the by: the fighting between Catholics and Huguenots in Valois France would ultimately lead to exile for the Huguenots and the birth of a flourishing brocade silk trade around their new home of Spitalfields in east London.
Entertainments at Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens, c.1742 found at the British Library
Back in England, Tudor and Stuart court masques (most famously by Ben Johnson and Inigo Jones) entertained kings and queens and have been described as the highest artform in the country until those pesky Puritans closed the theatres in 1642. It’s no secret that Cromwell and his fun-quashing Protectorate Parliaments weren’t really keen on a good old knees-up, so for a return to more public and egalitarian affairs we skip over the Restoration and its reinstated theatre tradition to the Pleasure Gardens of the 18th century. The Pleasure Gardens (first Vauxhall and then Ranelagh) were set up with the idea of providing entertainment and access to the arts to people outside of court circles. Masquerade balls were a popular feature, alledgedly introduced to London from Venice by the Swiss Count, John James Heidegger, who also helped to set up Vauxhall Pleasure Garden. Open to anyone who could afford the cost of entry (as opposed to the rigorous exclusion of court circles), a sense of licentiousness pervaded these public spaces, where unchaperoned women and costumed crowds tickled fancies and titillated the senses.
Masquerade portraits by Antoine Pesne, French rococo portrait artist found at 18th Century Blog. From left: Lady in Waiting in the court of King Frederick II; Lovisa Ulrika of Prussia, Queen of Sweden, 1744; Anna Elisabeth von der Shulenburg-Beetzendorf, 1730s
Vauxhall Pleasure Garden was celebrated earlier this year in The Triumph of Pleasure at the Foundling Museum.
Horace Walpole wrote of the Venetian Masquerade at Ranelagh in 1749, What was called a Jubilee Masquerade in the Venetian manner, at Ranelagh; it had nothing Venetian in it, but was by far the best understood and prettiest spectacle I ever saw; nothing in a fairy tale even surpassed it… When you entered you found the whole garden filled with masks and spread with tents… In one quarter was a Maypole dressed with garlands and people dancing round it to a tabor and pipes and rustic music, all masqued, as were all the various bands of music that were dispersed in different parts of the garden; some like huntsmen with French horns, some like peasants, and a troop of harlequins and scaramouches in the little open temple on the mount.
Eton Montem and Montem poleman uniform from Beau Brummell by Ian Kelly
A little-known festival that was brought to my attention by Ian Kelly is Montem: the holiday of misrule and fancy dress at Eton. It’s origins apparently pre-date the 15th century college as even in 1561 it was described as an ‘ancient tradition’. Ad Montem (Latin: to the hill!) involved a military-style parade (which included assigning the boys ranks and titles) to the nearby Salt Hill on the first Tuesday after Whitsun. Costumes were hired in from theatres across the country and included ‘Turks, Albanians, Courtiers of Charles II and George I, Highlanders and hidalgos’ as each rank attempted to out-dress each other. The festival became so bawdy and disorderly that Prince Albert, bastion of Victorian prudery, eventually banned the festivities in the 1840s. Kelly hypothesises that Beau Brummell, student at Eton in the late 18th century, was influenced by his costume (a quasi-militaristic ‘suit’ in sober colours) to such a degree that it became the foundation of his look which revolutionised mens’ fashions in Regency London.
Fancy dress from the Liberty store, late 19th century, found in Victorian Shopping by Maurice Baren
From a book of Victorian Masquerade costumes found at Isis’ Wardrobe
Throughout the 19th century the burgeoning middle classes popularised and sanitised fancy dress parties in the way only Victorians could. But that’s not to say it was without its avant-garde elements. Victorian Masquerade at the National Portrait Gallery, open from 22nd October, tells the story of Victorian enthusiasm for fancy dress from masked balls to disguise. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s interest in fancy dress helped to grow its popularity, and an emphasis towards privately held parties rather than lavish public affairs took hold. This in turn led to the tradition of the ‘fancy portrait’ among artistic and literary circles. These are testament not only to the appeal of fancy dress, but to the use of historical costume (most often Medieval) to underpin and illuminate contemporary interests in revivalism and pre-industrial fantasies. Artists such as Walter Crane and John Everett Millais were able to embody and manifest their interest in the past through the use of costume and dressing up.
Walter Crane as Cimabue by Sir Emery Walker, c. 1897 at the National Portrait Gallery; Masquerade on Wheels, 1877
It was also at the end of the 19th century (1894 to be precise) that fancy dress company Smiffy’s started out as a hairdressers and wigmakers in Lincolnshire. The company was founded by Mr Robert Henry Smith and as his family grew so did the business. Wigs, beards and moustaches were made by hand on site using real hair imported from China and subsequently Italy. The laborious process involved knotting individual hairs to the gauze, and moustaches would then be ‘dressed’ which involved trimming, waxing, curling and spraying with setting lotion. The finished results were initially for use as theatrical (rather than private) costume and from the 1940s wigs were also produced for the NHS, tailored to each individual and even available to be returned for cleaning, washing and setting with rollers. Other products included mannequin wigs for shops and doll’s wigs.
Wig catalogue, 1974-76; Smiffy’s founder Robert Henry Smith (on the left); 1970s catalogue
By 1981 Smiffy’s were running a specific fancy dress shop at a separate site to the manufacturing business. You could buy or hire full costumes, wigs, masks and accessories including glitter space suits, Hawaiian grass skirts and leis, and Nell Gwynn costumes, as well as cavaliers, monks and nuns, peasant girls, crinolines and soldiers and theatrical cosmetics. The business grew so fast that by 1987 they had a range of 500 costumes. They were the only UK manufacturer of carnival wigs, and as such were the inventors of the notorious tinsel wig of the 1980s – which were in fact so popular that by October 1987 a whopping 14,000 had been sold.
Smiffy’s catalogues: 1960s/70s; 1980s; 1984 catalogue
My pick of Smiffy’s halloween costumes available now. See Smiffy’s Halloween for more
Dipping back to the early 20th century and Paul Poiret was taking the fashion world by storm with his scant regard for corsetry and his fantastical Orientalist styles. In June 1911 he organised a party to capitalise on the ‘Eastern’ trend he initiated with the apt title of the One Thousand and Second Night. The gala was held in the gardens next to Poiret’s Paris mansion and the invites stipulated that an appropriate costume was non-negotiable. Poiret himself dressed as Sultan Poiret the Magnificent and greeted guests from beneath a blue canopy adorned with his initials. His wife Denise was captive beside him in an enormous gilded cage, resplendent in harem pants and jewelled bustier of Poiret’s creation, fulfilling many a western fantasy about harem culture. Poiret vehemently denied that his work was derivative of the Orientalist fantasies of the contemporary Ballets Russes, but there’s no denying that his party and subsequent collections had a touch of Diaghilev and Bakst’s Schéhérazade to them.
Georges Lepape – Denise Poiret at ‘The One Thousand and Second Night’ party, 1911 from Ballets Russes Style by Mary E. Davis; Paul Poiret-designed costume for the party from the Met Museum
The monumental parties thrown at the Bauhaus certainly put the design house’s costume and sets to good effect. Parties and festivals were integral to life and learning at the Bauhaus and they were often fronted by the Stage Workshop who would create the decor and clothing. Themes ranged from the Beard, Nose and Heart party to the White party – in which revellers were asked to dress in ‘two thirds white, one third spotted, checked or striped’. The Metal party took it even further: costumes consisted of tin foil, frying pans and spoons (Cecil Beaton would approve), and the party was entered by sliding down a chute into a room decorated with silver balls and the sound of bells. The heady, pre-Crash days of the 20s are often charcterised by gaiety and excess: Gatsby-eqsue dances in the States and the treasure hunts and costume balls of the Bright Young Things in the UK. The Bauhaus parties run by art and design students in Germany are often left out of this history, it’s time they were given their rightful place. Read more about the Bauhaus here
Bauhaus Parties: New Objectivity Party, 1925; Bauhaus Dance in Weimar, 1922 or 1923 from Theater of the Bauhaus; Nonsense Soldier at the Metal Party, 1929
In the 1930s, shortly before Cecil Beaton’s article in Vogue, leading Surrealist Salvador Dali caused great consternation through his decision to dress as the kidnapped Lindbergh baby at a masquerade ball in New York. The press and public were outraged and Dali duly apologised, much to the anguish of his fellow Surrealists in Paris who didn’t believe in compromise over Surrealist acts, no matter what the consequences. Earlier in the decade New York’s architects had successfully borrowed the Parisian tradition of the Beaux Arts Ball; the annual costume ball held by the students of the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts. Its reputation for nudity, louche behaviour and extravagant costume (including cross-dressing) was described as a revival of paganism and was manifested in New York in one of my all-time favourite images: architects dressed up as their own buildings.
Architects dressed up as their buildings at the Beaux Arts Ball in 1931, picture found here. From left to right: A Stewart Walker as the Fuller Building, Leonard Schultze as the Waldorf-Astoria, Ely Jacques Kahn as the Squibb Building, William Van Alen as the Chrysler, Ralph walker as 1 Wall Street, D.E.Ward as the Metropolitan Tower and Joseph H. Freelander as the museum of New York
Leaping forward to the 1980s and the idea of dressing up and performative identity had been taken to a whole new level by LGBT subcultures in Harlem. Immortalised forever in the incredible 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, Ball culture is part catwalk show, part drag show and part identity deconstruction, and in total forms one of the best films you will ever see. The dancing, known as Voguing, was made famous by Madonna around the time that the documentary was released. Costume is a vital component to the balls and is one of the many criteria on which the performers are judged.