Newsflash: Theatre of Fashion at the V&A – Bowie Weekender



The theatre is a wonderful place, a house of strange enchantment, a temple of illusion    – Noel Coward

bowie vogue

I’m pleased to announce the next date of the Theatre of Fashion In Conversation series at the V&A will be Sunday April 28th at 3pm as part of the V&A’s Bowie Weekender. *Please note the new location: Seminar Room 1, V&A Sackler Centre*

David Bowie has been a perennial influence on the worlds of fashion and performance. I will be talking to former arts journalist and specialist in Japanese culture, Helene Thian, who completed her Masters degree at London College of Fashion with a thesis on Japonism in fashion in the 1960s and 1970s, focusing on the Japan-inspired collaboration between Lindsay Kemp and David Bowie and later costuming by designer Kansai Yamamoto for Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust.

A former speaker at the Costume Society and the first David Bowie Symposium in Ireland last year, Helene’s research was used by the V&A to inform aspects of the ‘David Bowie is’ exhibition. The discussion will focus on her research, looking at the designs of Kansai Yamamoto and the theatre of Lindsay Kemp, especially the influence of Kabuki theatre and Japanese costume and how these were articulated in Bowie’s performances, affecting and reflecting gender binaries, the relationship between East and West, and Japonism in fashion as a whole.

If you’re unable to attend you can still get involved, as the event will be broadcast as a video and podcast on TheatreVOICE – the leading online audio resource for British theatre.

I hope you can make it along!

Theatre of Fashion In Conversation… with Helene Thian: Bowie Weekender
Sunday 28th April, 3pm, FREE but you must reserve a space: please email TICKETS now limited
Seminar Room 1, V&A Sackler Centre
, V&A, Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL

BowieKansai Yamamoto designs for David Bowie
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Theatre of Fashion: London Fashion Week AW13

I kicked off London Fashion Week this season with my feet still firmly – if metaphorically – in New York with a SHOWstudio live panel discussion on catwalk theatre at Marc Jacobs.

showstudio 1See the Marc Jacobs SHOWstudio discussion HERE

I spent the next few days whizzing between Somerset House, Tate Tanks and Freemasons’ Hall reviewing shows for Fashion156. Click through below for full reports! All pictures from Fashion156.

AshishWorkwear gets the Ashish glitter treatment with high-vis and plaid rendered in his trademark sequins

ekaterinaKnitwear designer Ekaterina Kukhareva gave us technicolor housewives on acid inspired by Ottoman crockery

edelineA celebration of female rulers in a Tudor-infused presentation at a 16th century heraldic hall from Edeline Lee

simulationCan politics and fashion mix? The dubious use of protest movements as design inspiration had me unsure at Heohwan Simulation

Among others I also reviewed the tarot and witchery at KTZ, the grown up ’70s glamour at Felder Felder, and the punk ethos at Maarten Van Der Horst.

This Sunday from 1pm I’ll be back in Knightsbridge with the SHOWstudio live team reviewing the Dolce & Gabbana show, so be sure to tune in if you love a bit of Italian glam.

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Lost in the Closet: Biba

biba girlHistory, in short, is not just about events, or structures, or patterns of behaviour, but also about how these are experienced and remembered in the imagination.

- Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past: Oral History

Biba occupies a legendary place in the history of fashion, streetwear and retail. In just over a decade, Barbara Hulanicki and Stephen Fitz-Simon succeeded in embedding their shop firmly within the hearts and memories of a generation of consumers. Arguably the inventors of the ‘designer lifestyle,’ the shop has become synonymous with the epitome of cool, subversive fashion in the late 60s. Big Biba, opened in 1973 under the moniker ‘the most beautiful store in the world,’ really was just that. Reviving the 1930s on the bodies of its shoppers at around the same time that Cabaret was reviving it in movie theatres, it epitomised an affordable elegance and a timeless chic with a hefty dose of kitsch thrown in for good measure. Art Deco fantasies were enacted among giant mushrooms, Egyptian-style changing rooms and lashings of leopard print. And if that wasn’t enough there were always the flamingos on the roof. I have been obsessed with Biba for as long as I can remember, mainly due to a green dress owned by my mother, and spurred on by reading Barbara Hulanicki’s autobiography as a teenager.

biba dress greenMy mother’s Biba dress
biba dress labelMy other Biba ensemble (it comes with wide-leg trousers) from one of Liz Tregenza‘s eBay sales, formerly belonged to Naomi Thompson. Hulanicki said it was one of her favourite tops… Biba label on my mother’s dress

The dress lingered in the background of my childhood as a reminder of my mother’s exotic life before I was born; its extravagance mimicked the contents of our dressing up box, yet this was far too precious to be considered a plaything. The heaviness of the soft towelling complimented the rich emerald green colour, and the luxurious medieval sleeves and gathered shoulders exemplify the historical decadence that Hulanicki’s designs were famed for in the late 60s and early 70s. The dress has a varied history of being worn by many people, as evidenced by the alterations: taken up by shorter friends, stitched down the front by friends for whom modesty prevailed; every stitch marking a new wearer imprinting their story for future generations. The current exhibition on Barbara Hulanicki in Brighton showcases a number of Biba pieces, but it was the catalogue from an earlier exhibition – Biba: The Label, The Lifestyle, The Look in Newcastle in the mid 90s – that helped me to date my mum’s dress to 1972.

MumMy mother (c. 1961 and 1963); Sitting on a car bonnet in 1966/67

I’m not alone in my devotion to Biba. Many former customers – and those of us too young to have seen the stores – are enamoured with the brand as a lost snapshot of British retail magic. Consistent attempts to revive the brand in recent years have fallen on deaf ears – people inherently know that no one will truly be able to recreate the phenomenon – a sentiment also felt in the furore over the Ossie Clark relaunch. It’s interesting in this respect that the relaunch model which works in Paris doesn’t seem to work so well in London – possibly because we feel passionately that these brands were part of the democratising process of fashion and we don’t want to see them usurped by high end prices or low-end retail environments. The egalitarian nature of British street wear seems at odds with the Parisian model of fashion Houses continuing after their creator’s death or retirement; something that couture labels such as Hardy Amies seem to have less of a problem adjusting to.

biba badgeStyle sleuth: A Biba badge owned by my mother (and now by me), and the same badge featuring in a Nova fashion shoot, March 1971 (on the model’s hat)

Yet another failed revival from the ‘Swinging Sixties’ was Nova magazine, which relaunched in 2000 and subsequently folded the following year. Correlations between Biba and Nova are manifold. Aesthetic similarities exist in the use of shared photographers such as Sarah Moon and Helmut Newton (the Biba mail order catalogue, when launched, was designed to resemble a fashion spread from Nova), and the short life span that each enjoyed also connects them: Nova only existed for ten years in its initial incarnation. But more than the facts of their existence, it is the way that these items are passionately remembered by customers and readers alike that forges an indelible bond between them.

nova 1Shoot in Nova, March 1972
nova 2Left and centre: Shoot in Nova from March 1972; right: shoot in Nova featuring Biba turban and dress (on the left), February 1972

Biba has come to symbolise the meritocracy that the sixties allegedly gave birth to, with clientele including not only the working class ‘Biba girl,’ but also celebrities such as pop stars and actresses and even young aristocrats. Debate rages over whether the clothing was as affordable as we are led to believe (contemporary reports in trade magazines Drapers’ Record and Men’s Wear both dispute this), but when Biba launched their mail order catalogues in 1968 the system was truly egalitarian in its extension of urban street fashion to regional and suburban areas.

seamlessI was recently lucky enough to meet Barbara Hulanicki herself at the launch of her new book. I was somewhat starstruck, as you can see from my ‘rabbit in headlights’ expression

My clothes have soul, emotion goes into them in the design, and they are picked for emotional reasons. This is their impact.

-       Hulanicki, in British Clothing Manufacturer, December 1969

Personal testimonies are a big part of Biba exhibitions, featuring at the current show in Brighton and Biba: The Label, The Lifestyle, The Look in 1993 (the fact that these were both successful outside of London highlights the success of the mail order business). The predisposition towards emotional hyperbole is reflected in Hulanicki’s autobiography, dedicated to ‘All Optimists, Fatalists and Dreamers,’ with a tendency to anthropomorphise the clothing, using a lexicon of compassion that has resonated with Biba consumers throughout the decades.

A machine cannot imitate the magic a human being can inject into a dress. You can make a sample in the workroom that is simple and has soul. When it comes back to you from a manufacturer it may seem identical but lack any feeling. I would pat and talk to a rail of dresses to put some life into them. It was amazing what a difference this made.

- Barbara Hulanicki in her autobiography, From A to Biba (1983)

Biba 3Biba and Beyond exhibition in Brighton

While Hulanicki situates the financial success of Biba purely within the sphere of sentiment, it can’t be denied that the Biba stores developed sophisticated technological and promotional strategies that were more likely the root of its success, along with the simple recipe of having a great product. It was heralded in trade journals as a retail phenomenon in terms of store interior, selling techniques (or lack of), and merchandising. In 1974 Drapers’ Record ran a feature on the advanced technology (“the first of its kind in Britain”) that the store used to achieve “rapid analysis of fashion trends.” And the proliferation of celebrities such as Cathy McGown wearing the clothes has been hailed as an early example of product placement. That Biba is perpetually cited as the first ‘designer lifestyle brand’ also demonstrates an understanding of marketing and brand awareness that was pretty ahead of its time.

The infamous Biba baked beans; the Biba floor at Big Biba. Both from Welcome to Big Biba by Steven Thomas and Alwyn Turner. I recently interviewed Alwyn Turner at the V&A, you can listen to the full conversation here at theatreVOICE

Biba is a poignant example of the place that fashion and clothing can inhabit within emotional memory. For many people their Biba items are stashed away in a personal treasure trove, beloved heirlooms waiting to be passed to future generations. When Big Biba closed its doors in 1975 the boom of the ‘Swinging Sixties’ had morphed into a period of high inflation with industrial strikes, the three day week and increased consumer prices following the onset of decimalisation. Encapsulating such a fleeting moment, Biba has become a very personal and significant recollection for many women, a crucial reference point to their teenage and young adult lives, to the extent that it is not unknown for people to name their pets, and even children, after the store, as Hulanicki recounts in her autobiography. Clothing – perhaps more than any other form of material culture – is central to the lived experience of most people due to its proximity to the body. This is nowhere more evident than in the memories of successive generations of Biba fans, myself included, as passed down through my mother’s dress.

Biba 1Biba jacket; visiting Biba and Beyond in Brighton with Kerry of Yours Truly and Kelly-Marie of A Harem of Peacocks
Biba 2Biba and Beyond exhibition in Brighton

Biba and Beyond is on at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery until April 14th.

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No People Like Show People: Professor Jingles

JIngles 2Professor Jingles with his hand-crafted puppets

Over the summer my brother and I made a short film about the man who was once Britain’s youngest Punch and Judy performer: Professor Jingles. He was a fixture of our childhood growing up by the sea, and I’d also come across his puppets on holiday in Sicily at the International Museum of Marionettes in Palermo. I had been keen to speak to him about his life as an entertainer for a long time, and when he was featured in the 350th anniversary of Mr Punch exhibition at the V&A’s Museum of Childhood earlier this year I knew I should put it off no longer.

jingles 5That’s the way to do it! My brother Toby and I filming in Lowestoft; Professor Jingles with his first home-made Punch puppet in the 1950s

When we returned to Kessingland to interview Professor Jingles we were met by a charismatic and very dapper gentlemen and his glamorous wife Dorothy (who creates the clothing for the puppets he makes). We were lucky enough to be treated to a host of inspirational stories from a man who has spent 6 decades performing with puppets and entertaining crowds. I learnt a lot that day, from the history of Punch and Judy to how he was influential in improving the sartorial standards of performers. It was also a great excuse to wear my trusty seafaring dress from the Rodnik Band‘s Cod Save the Sea collection. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…

Beside the Seaside with Professor Jingles. By Amber and Toby Butchart, 2012

Far from an obsolete folk art, puppets are still making headlines today, whether it’s from their appropriation by huge corporations or their use as a marketing tool by fashion brands (Missoni/Target). Shortly after I interviewed Professor Jingles, Dolce and Gabbana showed their S/S 2013 collection which drew heavily on the Sicilian heritage of Domenico Dolce. While some aspects of the collection were undeniably problematic for a global audience, it’s clear that a celebration of Sicilian heritage was the key message; the designs also incorporated traditional Sicilian ceramics and motifs of the carrettu sicilianu (horse drawn carts) that are particular to the island.

D&G puppetsSicilian puppet theatre in the designs of Dolce and Gabbana S/S 2013

What interested me the most was the incorporation of Sicilian puppet theatre into their designs. The marionette tradition in Sicily has been designated as one of the world’s ‘Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ by UNESCO, which makes it even more significant that Professor Jingles’ puppets are on display at the International Museum of Marionettes in Palermo. An important part of folk culture stretching back to the 15th century, the shows enact medieval tales and legendary events using string puppets that stand up to a metre tall. While they lacked some of the anarchic spirit of Mr Punch – the stories were often used to uphold the feudal hierarchy and venerate the nobility – they could be just as violent, with limbs and heads able to dislocate during frantic fight scenes. They reached a crescendo of popularity in the mid-19th century, just as Punch and Judy were drawing their biggest crowds on the beaches of Britain.

Sicilian marionettes and backdrops from Sicily GuideDolce and Gabbana S/S 2013
BLOG Beside the Seaside with Professor Jingles: illustrated by Rob Flowers
dolce-ss-13Dolce and Gabbana S/S 2013 was an homage to the Sicilian heritage of Domenico Dolce, but is in part also reminiscent of the deck chairs found on British beaches
Jingles 3Percy Press, mentor to Professor Jingles, commemorated at the Actor’s Church in Covent Garden; Professor Jingles with his handiwork
Jingles 1
jingles 4In the puppet workshop

If you’re keen to see more, Mr Punch’s birthday is celebrated in Covent Garden every year in St. Paul’s Churchyard, also known as the Actor’s Church. And for puppet commissions I highly recommend you check out Professor Jingles’ website.

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Newsflash: Theatre of Fashion at the V&A – Alwyn Turner

The theatre is a wonderful place, a house of strange enchantment, a temple of illusion    – Noel Coward

I’m pleased to announce the next date of the Theatre of Fashion In Conversation series at the V&A Theatre and Performance Galleries will be Friday 7th December at 7pm.

In conjunction with the current Halfway to Paradise: The Birth of British Rock, Photographs by Harry Hammond exhibition I will be talking to writer Alwyn Turner, author of the accompanying book. Alwyn’s work covers a diverse range of interests from pulp fiction to fashion and rock & roll with an emphasis on the cultural, social and political history of post-War Britain, including two illustrated tomes on Biba, social histories of the 1970s, 80s and 90s and a biography of Daleks creator Terry Nation.

If you’re unable to attend you can still get involved, as the event will be broadcast as a video and podcast on TheatreVOICE – the leading online audio resource for British theatre.

If that wasn’t reason enough to head to South Ken on the evening of the 7th, the V&A’s Raphael Gallery is hosting Fashion in Motion. This month sees the Fashion Fringe Award-winning design duo Fyodor Golan showing highlights from their collections in four free catwalk shows. Booking is essential, see HERE for more info.

I hope you can make it along!

Theatre of Fashion In Conversation… with Alwyn Turner
Friday 7th December, 7pm, FREE but you must reserve a space: please email
Theatre and Performance Galleries, V&A, Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL

Billy Fury at Wembley (1962) and Shirley Bassey at the London Palladium (1963) photographed by Harry Hammond from the V&A collection
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Newsflash: Recommendations for Autumn

Close up of print from a 1970s Jonathan Logan blouse

Well it’s that time of year; Halloween is over, fireworks are planned, and all that’s left to see you through to Christmas is the promise of mulled wine at the recession-friendly Christmas party. But fear not! As I come laden with top recommendations for the misty days and lengthening evenings of November.

Vogue covers 1 and 3 from A Sip of Sarsaparilla

First up, next Friday the V&A are hosting a fabulous conference entitled Hidden in Plain Sight: The Art of Hollywood as part of the Hollywood Costume exhibition. Unless you’ve been living in a ditch for the past couple of months the Hollywood Costume show should be well on your radar, with show-stoppers ranging from Dorothy’s ruby slippers to the Ming the Merciless ensemble there really is something for everyone. Not to mention the enormously innovative exhibition design that truly brings the subject matter to life.

Chaplin’s Little Tramp costume from The Circus; the famed ruby slippers

The conference will bring together international Hollywood costume designers with exhibition curator Professor Deborah Nadoolman Landis to explore many areas of costume design, from the role UK art schools have played in creating designers for Hollywood to the unique design of the exhibition itself. The panels will feature Oscar winner Lindy Hemming and a host of other luminaries including costume and creature designer Vin Burnham. Hope to see you there!

Hidden in Plain Sight: The Art of Hollywood, Friday 9th November at the Victoria & Albert Museum from 10 – 17.15. You can see the full programme HERE.

Book your tickets RIGHT HERE!

Hollywood Costume: Addams Family, Scarlett O’Hara

Good news for anyone who missed the September release of the brilliant biopic Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel is that as of October 29th it’s out on DVD. The story takes the form of a chronological journey through Vreeland’s life from Belle Époque Paris to New York in the 70s and 80s with lashings of hedonism and glamour thrown in for good measure. It charts her incredible career, starting out at Harper’s Bazaar, going on to Editor-in-Chief at Vogue and finally consultant to the Costume Institute at the MET where she inaugurated the concept of the fashion exhibition as we know it today (albeit with slightly less historical accuracy and slightly more high drama).

Diana Vreeland: a fellow turban-aficionado

Vreeland herself never let the truth get in the way of a good story (while that phrase could have been coined for her she preferred the term ‘faction’), and her stories have become part of the myth surrounding her. The blurring of life and work, style with substance and her quotable bon mots (“the best thing about London is Paris”) all appear in abundance throughout the film. As a documentary the film has been criticised by some for not paying enough attention to Vreeland’s questionable parenting, but as a portrait of a bona fide fashion legend crammed full of beautiful imagery and memorable quotes it can’t be beaten. It could also be the case that the closeness of the director – Vreeland’s granddaughter-in-law, Lisa Immordino Vreeland – to the Vreeland family may have put her off from delving into these murkier waters.

Anyone who is a fan of Iris Apfel or the late Anna Piaggi and Isabella Blow will adore this look at one of fashion history’s true innovators and most original thinkers and dressers. Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel is hugely inspiring and is a must-see for anyone interested in the world of fashion and style. The DVD also comes complete with added Vreelandisms in the form of deleted scenes.

Nab yourself a copy HERE!

Finally, as of 20th November the Breese Little gallery in Clerkenwell will be hosting the show Forget Nostalgia – A Little Theatre of Self exploring photography’s ability to trap and record time by recreating Victorian photographs. A solo show by Clarisse d’Arcimoles, she will be reconstructing a local photographer’s studio from a century ago and using a variety of styles, characters and backdrops to encourage the viewer to follow the historical photographic journey of women and their victories of emancipation.

Having studied Set Design for Performance before her MA in Photography at Central Saint Martins, d’Arcimoles’ projects fuse her two interests by creating works that are staged specifically for the camera, exploring ways of documenting the performance of art itself.

Forget Nostalgia – A Little Theatre of Self at the Breese Little gallery from 20th November – 19th December.

Discover more HERE and HERE, and especially the Day by Day documenting.

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In the Spotlight: An Unofficial History of Fancy Dress


‘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.

1932 catalogue
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.

And so ends my potted history of fancy dress. To be prepared this halloween you can fulfill all your grisly needs at Smiffys Halloween, and I would also advise checking out this Jezebel piece on the history of sexy halloween costumes that also dabbles in the history of masquerade. You should also visit the halloween post on Harem of Peacocks for some to DIE for inspiration, or for a more satirical approach you could take Eva Wiseman’s lead. Happy Halloween!

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