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Carnival to Catwalk: Global Reflections of Fancy Dress Costume

From West African masquerades to Venetian carnivals and New York society galas, fancy dress has long been used to convey important social and political messages. The only form of clothing that all people, regardless of gender, race, class or sexuality are likely to wear at some point in their lives, fancy dress is a symbol of both escapism and protest; it stands for a vision of fantasy and fun, while also confronting the reality of cultural stereotypes.

Exploring all the allure, playfulness and daring of dressing up, Carnival to Catwalk takes the reader on a fascinating journey through the global history of fancy dress. Drawing on a treasure-trove of textual and visual resources, the book encompasses Halloween festivities and transvestite clubs, Mardi Gras parades and gatherings at Versailles, revealing how fancy dress has long been used to celebrate as well as to disguise individual identity.

Vividly chronicling evidence from the Middle Ages to the modern day, cultural historian Benjamin Wild throws open the historical dressing-up box and demonstrates the enduring appeal of fancy dress, as it becomes an increasingly central part of modern couture and clothing design. Meticulously researched and beautifully illustrated, Carnival to Catwalk is a remarkable resource for scholars, students and costume enthusiasts alike.


“… An eloquent overview of a topic that is all too often overlooked in fashion studies. Wild provides thoughtful social, political, and personal connections that underscore the broad significance of fancy dress throughout history and today.” –  Colleen Hill, Curator of Costume and Accessories, The Museum at FIT, USA

“Wild has made an enormous contribution to the study of dress by bringing fancy dress to the forefront of scholarship. Often considered too frivolous for serious study, Wild demonstrates that fancy dress is a strategy used by people around the world and over time, to make sense of changing times.” –  Sandra Lee Evenson, University of Idaho, USA

“Benjamin Wild’s transnational study of fancy dress costumes and their sociohistorical contexts is an impressive feat of scholarly synthesis. Wild’s case studies-ranging from royalty to renegades, from playful costumes to purposeful masks-illustrate the enduring mystique and ambivalent cultural value of fancy dress across the centuries.” –  Colleen McQuillen, University of Southern California, USA

A Life in Fashion: The Wardrobe of Cecil Beaton

When Cecil Beaton died in 1980, it was not surprising that one of his tailors was telephoned with the news before Buckingham Palace, despite his close association with the Royal Family. From the moment he arrived at Cambridge University in 1922 wearing an evening jacket, red shoes, black-and-white trousers and a large cravat, to his first meeting with Greta Garbo ten years later in ‘pristine white kid coat, sharkskin, and new white shoes and socks’, to his appearance nearly forty years later at Truman Capote’s 1966 Black & White Ball, Beaton expressed a flamboyant sartorial nonchalance – a sprezzatura. Using records from his tailors, unpublished photographs and a close study of Beaton’s surviving clothing in the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, I to explore Beaton’s carefully curated character from a different angle by studying his ever-changing wardrobe, which reveals new insights into his personal and professional lives.


A fresh fashion read. MARIE CLAIRE

Benjamin Wild writes with the verve the subject himself would surely applaud. WORLD OF INTERIORS

His flamboyance and nonchalance is unraveled and decoded. CENT

The first study to chronicle Beaton’s own impeccable style through the decadesJOCKS & NERDS

Beaton’s sartorial adventures have been lovingly curated by writer and fashion historian Benjamin Wild in A Life in Fashion, featuring previously unpublished archival material, conversations with Beaton’s former tailors (of which, unsurprisingly, he had many) and a foreword by renowned fashion photographer Tim Walker. ESQUIRE

Sheds light on the personal style of the renowned photographer and costume designerAESTHETICA

Journalism (select)

‘L’imitation dans la mode’ Sciences Psy, June 2018. 

‘Dressing Up: The Clothing & Curation of Cecil Beaton’ Scala Regia, 3, Summer 2017.

‘Through a Glass, lightly’ History Today, 66:9, September, 2016.

‘Outrageous!’ Article Magazine, 7, May, 2016.

‘Who was the best-dressed Briton in History?’ BBC History Magazine, October, 2013.

Academic (select) 

‘Clothing Royal Bodies: Changing attitudes to royal dress and appearance from the Middle Ages to Modernity’ The Routledge History of Monarchy, ed. E. Woodacre et al., Routledge, c2019.

‘Romantic Recreations: Remembering Stuart Monarchy in Nineteenth-Century Fancy Dress Entertainments’ Remembering Kings and Queens in Early Modern England and France: Reputation, Reinterpretation, Reincarnation, ed. E. Paranque, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

‘Imitation in Fashion: Further Reflections on the work of Thorstein Veblen and Georg Simmel’ Fashion, Style and Popular Culture, 3:3, 2016.

‘To Have and To Hold: The Clutch Bag & Masculinities’ Critical Studies in Men’s Fashion, 2:1, 2015.