What Lies Beneath: the meaning & motivation of (aristocratic) fancy dress costume

Since the eighteenth century, when fancy dress entertainments became a more regular and popular form of entertainment, social commentators have wrestled with what people’s costumes reveal about their character. In April 1880, an author for London’s Gentleman’s Magazine averred:

The character of the dress of a person stands so near to the character of the person who is the wearer of it, it is difficult to touch on one without the other.[1]

Nearly one hundred years later, in 1959, American author Lawrence Langner was still pondering the issue:

The selection of the fancy dress costume is never an accident when there is full freedom of choice, but it is an expression of a conscious or unconscious desire of the wearer.[2]

The enquiry is no less pressing today, and in 2009 journalist Leah McLaren wrote a short piece for the Spectator entitled, ‘Why do we long to be Nazis and tarts?’. At its heart, McLaren’s playful essay raises an interesting question about the motivation for fancy dress costume among the social elite.

It is conventionally argued that the donning of fancy dress in public enables people to vent; this is clothing as psychological salve. By temporarily inverting established norms and criticising social traditions and civic leaders, people are able to appreciate their necessity. I’m simplifying things, but for a large number of examples where fancy dress costume is worn, this basic notion seems to hold. However, the explanation is less satisfactory for fancy dress entertainments involving social elites – and a large number of recorded fancy dress events have been hosted by this privileged group – who have tended to dress as controversial figures from history, including Emperor Nero (businessman Philip Green), a Nazi Stormtrooper (Britain’s Prince Harry) and Marie-Antoinette (Britain’s Princess Beatrice).

If it seems unremarkable that the wealthy would wish to find pleasurable outlets for their money in the form of lavish fancy dress entertainments, the subjects they have favoured for their costumes appear perplexing, even troubling.

One of the first royals to adopt what might be considered a controversial form of fancy dress was Queen Victoria. Victoria held three costumed balls during her reign. Her third, hosted in the claustrophobic throne room of Buckingham Palace on 13 June 1851, was a Stuart Ball. Now this was surely an odd choice. Just under a decade earlier, The Queen had hosted a fancy dress ball to recreate the court of England’s conquering King Edward III, who had triumphed over the French in the Hundred Years’ War. This subject may not have been ideal for Anglo-Franco relations, but you can imagine how the concept would have appealed to an English monarch, especially as the medieval virtues of chivalry had become newly popular thanks to the writings of Walter Scott.[3] The reason for hosting a costume ball in honour of the Stuart King Charles II, who belonged to one of Britain’s longest ruling and most controversial dynasties, is less clear.

The Queen was not alone in her sympathies for this family, however. Throughout the nineteenth century, many aristocrats and royals dressed as figures from Britain’s Stuart dynasty and court. France’s equally controversial Bourbon dynasty, which included the autocratic rulers Louis XIV and Louis XVI, were no less popular at this time. According to Emilia Müller, ‘at the Bradley Martin’s Ball [hosted in New York in 1897] there were more than fifty women clad as Marie-Antoinette, whereas for the Vanderbilt Ball [hosted in New York in 1883] no less than twenty men chose to personify “Louis XVI”’.[4] Across the Atlantic, American elites went so far as to decorate their costumes with jewels that had belonged to Marie-Antoinette and Catherine the Great of Russia. These socially insensitive garment choices are perhaps analogous to today’s ‘Colonial and Native’ and ‘Chav’ parties favoured by royals and entrepreneurs.

So what is going on? Two suggestions come to mind, although I’m not convinced they provide a full explanation: First, and as anthropologist Victor Turner notes, nothing underlines regularity so well as absurdity or paradox.[5] This is a rendition of the ‘fancy dress as psychological salve’ thesis, but the comedic reversal of order and social position through costume has long been used by rulers to reinforce their singular authority. A good example of this is provided by the eighteenth-century court of Peter the Great of Russia. Peter’s loathing of long sermons and stuffy court etiquette may have influenced the antics of the Assembly, but historian Lindsey Hughes argues that the Tsar’s comedic reversal of order reinforced his authority, even if it did help to let off steam in a manner akin to popular festivities held throughout the period.[6] Peter’s rule in this fantasy placed in sharp relief his rule in reality.

Second, by dressing as their ancestors, the political and social elite could remind people of their distinctive heritage. If the hosts and party-goers were newly minted and their genealogy were insufficiently grand, no problem: a fancy dress costume would enable them to create fictional linkages to figures of the past; whether the people they imitated had been loved or loathed was of little consequence, for this was fancy dress worn, subtly, but no less significantly, to challenge and to assert.[7]

Both explanations have merits, but both assume that the aristocrats concerned were fully conscious of the signification of their clothing. When Mrs Bradley sent agents from Tiffany & Co. in New York to a Parisian auction house to buy jewels formerly worn by Marie-Antoinette, it is reasonable to assume that she knew what she was doing.[8] It is difficult to suggest the same for Prince William, who once dressed as a ‘Chav’, and his brother, Prince Harry, who dressed as a Nazi Stormtrooper. The Princes’ fancy dress decisions could have been influenced by a subconscious socialised behaviour, but this point is easier to raise than refine. This is something I need to think on…


[1] Anon., Gentleman’s Magazine, April 1880, vol. 246, 469.

[2] L. Langner, The Importance of Wearing Clothes (Los Angeles: Elysium Growth Press, 1991), 149.

[3] M. Girouard, The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1991).

[4] E. Müller, ‘Fashion & Fancy in New York: The American Monarchs’, 5.

[5] V. Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (New Brunswick & London: Aldine Transaction, 2008), 176.

[6] L. Hughes, Russia in the Age of Peter the Great (New Haven and London: Yale University Press,1998), 249-266.

[7] Müller, ‘Fashion & Fancy in New York’, 4.

[8] Ibid., 5-6.

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