When I was very small my favourite outfit for playing outside was a Native American style dress. A loose fitting 1970s reproduction for British children, made in brown cheque cotton with upholstery tassel fringing hanging from under the arms. The tassels were silky like nothing I had touched before, swooshing in sync as I waved. Best of all, putting the dress on gave me unspoken permission to canter around the garden, jumping over logs on my invisible horse. Although stereotypical, I’m grateful to my ‘dressing up’ dress, for helping me learn the art of transformation. Now older, I appreciate the way clothes affect me, or others towards me. It’s easy to forget this joy, this wicked tool for life, becoming stuck in a favourite garment or look.
For some, dressing up is putting on a suit for a wedding, or a week planning hair and make up with friends for one night out. It can be the simple switch from flats to heels. Dressing up dissolves boundaries, as clothing alters identity, transports you in time, assists in social mobility or even change of sex. The act of becoming something you’re not in your ‘usual’ state, you can be more or less shiny, changed. Maybe you consider being dressed up as your day-to-day? I wonder what Dolly Parton would have to say about this.1
Contemplating the appeal of dressing up in adult life, I discovered the National Association of Re-enactment Societies, who claims to represent 18,000 people that enjoy dressing up to re-create historical events. The NAReS’s website says “The common theme seems to be the way in which re-enactors put aside their everyday lives as they immerse themselves in the re-enactment water. In many cases, re-enactors will tell you they do not actually know what are the ‘real life’ occupations of their fellow participants. On a personal level, this is one of the great attractions of re-enactment; that an individual’s worth is measured by their skills and abilities rather than their wealth, class or occupation.”2
Looking for a place to submerge myself in a type of dressing up ‘water’, I invited Me (via a flyer found in a North East London cafe) to the White Mischief’s WAR of the WORLDS BALL, with ‘The Best Live Music In The Galaxy’. I decided I must go! ‘Dressing up is not compulsory but encouraged’ it read. Hmm, to dress up or not to dress-up? I thought reading the list of inspirations:
SCI-FI • SCIENCE • B-MOVIES • MONSTERS • ALIENS • SPACESHIPS • ROBOTS • HG WELLS • JULES VERN • FORBIDDEN PLANET • THE TIME MACHINE • LOST IN SPACE • WAR OF THE WORLDS • WILLIAM GIBSON • PHILIP K. DICK • TESLA • DOCTOR WHO • BABBAGE • LOVELACE • HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE • STAR WARS • STAR TREK • BLADE RUNNER • BUCK ROGERS • RED DWARF • VICTORIANA • DIESELPUNK • STEAMPUNK
Choosing a sort of holographic giant circuit board dress and a pair of flashing blue spectacles, a friend generously announced I was “lost in space”. Probably not the flyer’s intended meaning but it sounded like me so I left for the ball.
Tobias Fauntleroy the event organiser and promoter of White Mischief welcomed me. His event the culmination of months of preparation of themed rooms and props to enhance the guest’s experience. He told me it upsets him if he reads comments like ‘you have to dress up or feel left out’. I met a few people in jeans and a t-shirt who certainly didn’t seem left out. Probably because they were civilians experiencing an alien invasion. Tobias said “The night is a place where you can loose your inhibitions, exploring the art of dressing up. Where you can be a maker.” He then gave me a list of further reasons to be there.
- To be the most fabulous version of yourself
- To be a different version of yourself
- To explore the past or neo-past, when you might express the absolutely perfect vintage look
- Be a part of the coming together of subcultures i.e. Neo-Victorian, Goth, Steampunk or Craft Cultures
Depending on your chosen look, he said “Sometimes, dressing up is almost, dressing down” I appreciated this sentiment believing many of us choose to dress down in our everyday. Tobias’s outfits include She Ra3 and a Giraffe4, dressing up? down? neutral? I’m not sure. Below you can see Tobias in two of his other looks, and decide for yourself.
It wasn’t long before I’d lost (to other people) the 3D glasses Tobias had given me as well as my own battery operated ones. I had managed to speak to a lot of people though, all of which were very welcoming to my interest in them. People who knew how to promote themselves. I was given a number of business cards, by the ones not completely incognito; one lady carefully selected from a variety pack which business cards she thought I would want. I loved that. Good communicators always make me happy but this also felt like an environment where anyone was welcome. I could go there alone and make friends without meeting scary people. Not what you might expect from a girl wearing a bunnies head on her head or a man carrying laser guns, and your new friends might be green but who cares about that!
One of the performances, by The Correspondents, Ian Bruce and Tim Cole, particularly stood out. Front man Ian, delivered dance expressions like none I have ever seen, well coordinated and completely arresting. His costume, by Carley Hague5 combined with backdrop from Christina Hardinge6, also exhilarating. Ian told me “The costume needs to be super hardwearing and very stretchy, particularly around the arms and crotch area to survive the relentless shape throwing. For the latest outfit we looked at Constructivist imagery as well as the performance artist Klaus Nomi. David Bowie is always an influence directly or indirectly.”
Ian said, the meaning behind his outfit is simply “It looks good!” If he’d been wearing a pair of shorts and a t-shirt throwing his shapes, I don’t think I’d have been so receptive. I might even have thought there’s another one of London’s crazies! Instead, the monochrome, linear and geometric seam detail added to the ker-powness of dance miming sounds – as you can see from the image above, he’s in motion even when standing still. The two muses mentioned were masters of using clothing to exemplify their stage presence and ever-evolving identity. What would Nomi7 or Bowie8 sound like if for every performance they wore double denim? Picture it and see what you hear.
A lot of effort had gone into Ian’s outfit, and many outfits I saw in the audience, men and women. Tobias feels, “In our society, men are not meant to peacock, to attract attention” He’d created a space where men could and Ian certainly did! He also wanted it to be a place where you could connect with a stranger as people look at you and say “Oh, I see what you are…” Common ground, without even having to tell anyone your real name, many apparently adopting a pseudonym for the night or their character’s. On that note, I’d like to introduce you to the Invisible Man.
I probably won’t become a Steampunk lifestyler. I will however, be adopting a more playful attitude towards clothes, like I did before fashion and life got so serious. Encouraged by the participants, my new found energy to stop hiding in clothes will also be more considerate to the way I am advertising myself; the walking billboard that I and you are. How I will balance, as Jamie put it, the expectations of social conformity and the freedom of expression, I don’t yet know. I’m not saying we should all go Lady Gaga, but there is room for clothes to be far more engaging, pleasurable and playful en masse. Albeit subtle details of your shirt collar or choice of stockings, to dressing as a cardboard robot or a light-up umbrella-octopussy man. I’m in!