déguis-eh? why fancy dress in france isn’t so fancy
foreword: this is an article i wrote for my university magazine back in 2007. i do refer a lot to “britain” and “the british” here, but i think it’s safe to say that in many cases the same attitude to fancy dress could apply to ireland and the irish, too (i just didn’t realise it at the time of writing).
every year when i was a child, i would take part in the fancy dress competition at my school’s summer fête. and every year, i would win that competition. whether i was a safari explorer, a gangster’s moll, a chef or a hippie, the judges loved me. thus started my love affair with fancy dress, one that continues to this day. and i’m not alone. all over britain and ireland, all sorts of people, for all sorts of reasons, get out their dressing-up box and party the night away in disguise. at most uk universities, fancy dress pub-crawls and parties are almost a weekly occurrence, and so, upon arriving in paris to begin my university education two years ago, i was very much looking forward to carrying on this tradition.
l-r: the black cat was a halloween favourite for many years (complete with nylon tail); rocking the boho look in my mum’s 70s garb.
however, i soon discovered that on this side of the channel, one does not make a fool of oneself by dressing up, and one certainly does not do so in public. suffice to say that despite the large number of british expats and year-abroad students that arrive in paris every year, the parisians have not quite yet grasped the concept of fancy dress; my proof of this theory being the strange looks awarded towards myself and my fellow anglais déguisés any time we leave the house in costume. be it as pirate or pimp, roman or ragdoll, if i got a euro every time i dressed up and got a funny look from a frenchy, why, i’d probably be able to set up my own fancy dress shop by now. so why is it, that in a city as exotic and romantic as paris, people get so stuck up about dressing up?
the tradition of the bal masqué dates back to the fifteenth century in renaissance italy, and was even found in the ducal courts of burgundy. in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries still, these masked balls were very popular all over the european continent. however, in today’s modern society, fancy dress is mostly practised on the other side of the channel in britain, where people will dress up as anything just to get a few laughs. even in the united states, “costume parties” are usually exclusive to halloween and are rarely taken onto the streets, with the exception of festivals such as mardi gras.
in a wildly generalising manner, i would venture to say that the british enthusiasm for dressing up head-to-toe in argyle for a round of pub golf, or as a playboy bunny for the ever-popular tarts and vicars party (think bridget jones’s diary), is largely due to two factors: alcohol and sex appeal. theory one: when you’re pissed off your face, you don’t care what you look like, plus it makes for even funnier drunken photos to tag (and subsequently, for others to shamefully de-tag) on facebook. theory two (mostly applicable to girls): in the wise words of lindsay lohan in mean girls, fancy dress means that “a girl can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it”. and so, in 90% of cases, when it comes to a british fancy dress party, amongst students anyway, what you’re likely to find is a group of drunken lads with s.w.a.t. printed on their t-shirt (i’m sorry but that just does not count as good fancy dress) and numerous fishnet-clad coquettes spilling out of their new look corset-style tops (idem for this too).
however, that’s my view of fancy dress at its most cynical; that the infamous british culture of binge-drinking and raging adolescent sexuality is ruining what is essentially a great night out: a chance to be creative, a chance to have some fun, and more profoundly, a chance to be someone else for one night only. on a more existential plane of thought, fancy dress could indeed be considered as a form of escapism, but one that i doubt the majority of bog standard university students read into that deeply.
as for the french reluctance to don un déguisement, i decided to investigate further. a recent web survey on cityvox.fr found that over 50 percent of those that answered believed that halloween for them was “ringard et commercial” (lame and commercial). 22 percent said that they felt it was only for children and nine percent dubbed it the time for “sucettes, caramels et bonbons chimiques” (lollipops and chemical candy). only six percent of answers recognised halloween as a chance to revisit the great horror classics.
regarding fancy dress during the rest of the year, i have witnessed very little enthusiasm. which is a shame, really, because in my opinion, fancy dress allows us to stay forever young and is guaranteed to add some giggles to any party. and with christmas just around the corner, ‘tis the season to be jolly. roger, that is. yarrrgh. anyone? pirates? anyone? just me then…
l-r: in costume for my role as cinderalla’s father in my university’s 2006 christmas panto; dressed as dangermous for a student charity event; celebrating a friend’s birthday with a classic night of pub golf
- October 30 2010 | - Read More →