Unmasking Fancy Dress


This article was first published with The Costume Society.

There are typically three reactions when I tell people that I am writing a book about fancy dress costume: 1. a broad smile, verging on a laugh; 2. a bemused request for clarity, along the lines of, “Really?”; or 3. both responses combined. If I go on to say the book is an academic text, a fourth response involves degrees of eyebrow arching.

The playful and bemused responses that my current book project elicits reflect the fact that fancy dress costume is at once ubiquitous and peripheral. It is probably one of the few forms of dress that all people alive today have worn, or will wear, regardless of sex, status and society, however creatively and for however short a period. A popular form of entertainment for children, especially in the West, fancy dress costume is no less appealing, and socially acceptable, for adults. Most forms of juvenile amusement cease to be publicly palatable from the time people enter their late teens, but dressing up circumvents this unwritten rule. When it is worn by adults, the contexts in which fancy dress costume appears are also extremely varied. Whilst it is often associated with celebration – and this is very much the view that Anthea Jarvis and Patricia Raine take in their book, Fancy Dress[1] – the Brexit protests in London and the global Women’s Marches that were held on 21st January 2017 to protest Donald Trump’s inauguration as America’s forty-fifth president, reveal that fancy dress costume can pack a punch and be overtly political. And yet, for all of this, fancy dress costume is typically considered frivolous.

So, how should I define fancy dress costume for my book?

First, the words of the term needs consideration. ‘Fancy dress’ appears in English in the sixteenth century, but it was not widely used until the eighteenth century, as noted by Aileen Ribeiro.[2] The term has always been a little fuzzy and in colloquial American today, ‘fancy dress’ can refer to smart or formal attire. (This is why I add ‘costume’ as a suffix). Across continental Europe, linguistic variation seems to mask a shared conceptual understanding. In France and Spain, fancy dress costume is referred to as ‘disguise’ (‘les déguisements’ and ‘la disfraz’, respectively) and in Germany and Italy as ‘costume’ (‘das Kostüm’ and ‘il costume’, respectively).

Second, it is worth looking to scholarship of the present and past. Arguably, this is something of a false friend because much of the (sparse) historical analysis has tended to focus on three chronological phases: 1. medieval and early modern carnival, 2. eighteenth-century masquerades, 3. elite balls of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In each of these periods, the reasons for donning fancy dress costume, and the people doing it, were very different indeed.

Third, to define fancy dress in what will effectively be a thousand-year study from the Middle Ages to modernity, it is necessary to consider what it is not. For me, three categories can be instantly omitted. First, fancy dress is not disguise, worn either for the purpose of camouflaging a person’s conventional identity to gain acceptance into another community, or, in the case of criminals, to remain anonymous within their existing community. When Emperor Nero dressed as a plebeian, apparently to rough up Romans, or when Heinrich Himmler shaved his moustache and wore the uniform of a discharged Gestapo agent to avoid identification in 1945, the costumes worn by these men were imaginative and incongruous on a personal level, but congruent with the society they sought to join. The anonymising dress of a criminal effectively places them beyond their community which is an extreme few fancy dress participants seek to go. Second, fancy dress is not religious or ceremonial clothing. In many cultures, the garments worn by spiritual and social leaders on important public occasions can appear unusual – for example, ecclesiastical vestments and shamanistic dress accessories – but these items of clothing tend to possess fixed meanings that do not appreciably change over time, chiefly because they are symbolic of the entrenched beliefs of the society in which they appear. A final category to be excluded is clothing worn for re-enactment. This is perhaps more contentious, for Pat Poppy has argued that re-enactment was a form of fancy dress in her 1997 article for Costume.[3] To my mind, the adoption of period-specific clothing and comportment may appear incongruent, but the desire for authenticity and accuracy restricts personal imagination. Typically confined to members-only societies, re-enactment has little impact on social and political relationships.

So, what does all of this amount to? For the purposes of my forthcoming book, I define fancy dress costume as…

the wearing of socially incongruous and imaginative clothing that (un)intentionally heightens social and political (ie. secular) relationships within a specific society at a specified time.


[1] Anthea Jarvis and Patricia Raine, Fancy Dress (Aylesbury: Shire Publications Ltd., 1984).


[2] Aileen Ribeiro, Masquerade (London: BAS Printers Limited, 1983).


[3] Pat Poppy, ‘Fancy Dress? Costume for Re-enactment’, Costume 31 (1997), 100-104.


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