Back Catalogue

‘Unprecedented’ is a word much in use at the moment. As the realities and worries of the Coronavirus spread, people the world over are being encouraged, even forced, to make fundamental changes in the way that they live. For many of us, this means spending a lot more time within the four walls we call home.

Adversity is frequently the springboard of innovation and across the education sector, individuals and organisations in the private and public sectors have been quick to make learning resources available to students and teachers, and to those with time on their hands now that physical socialising is stigmatised and stymied.

Whilst I ponder how best to make some of my lectures and teaching materials available, a start is to highlight the media I have been involved with that is already in the public domain:

Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II: Britain’s Golden Queens. In this Channel 5 documentary, I analyse the imagery and dress of Britain’s two Elizabeths to show the remarkable similarities that connect these two women and their reigns that are over 400 years apart.

The Magnificence of Marginality. My TEDxSherborne talk focuses on the life of mathematician Alan Turing and argues that people marginalised in our communities often have more to contribute to the betterment of our lives than we may initially think.

Heritage: A Paradox and a Potential. Here, I consider the enduring appeal of heritage for companies and consumers within the luxury industry, and how to create it in a contemporary context.

The Siege of Kenilworth Castle. In a BBC Radio 3 series on The Rise and Fall of the British Castle, I tell the story of the longest siege in British history, which involves fancy dress costume and a dead whale.

King Henry III and the Communication of Power. Against the backdrop of King John’s ignominy and the political challenge posed by Magna Carta, this Gresham College lecture considers how Henry III used art, architecture and apparel to exalt his authority and to communicate his divinely-ordained status on a scale never previously seen in England.

Dress: Fancy – a new podcast

At the beginning of September, Lucy Clayton and I launched Dress: Fancy, a podcast that explores the popularity, prevalence and power of fancy dress. By looking at the social significance and psychology of people in costume, the series explores why fancy dress has been a constant theme throughout history, sometimes as an act of celebration or escapism, and on other occasions as a form of protest. The first four episodes are available on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your podcasts. A summary of the topics considered so far is below. 

Have a listen, and if you like, please leave a review or comment.


Episode 1: Who’s Laughing Now? – Fancy Dress in Protest. 

In the first of a new series that looks at the social significance and psychology of dressing up, Lucy Clayton and cultural historian Dr Benjamin Wild discuss the global prevalence of fancy dress protests. From slogan covered T-shirts to city-wide marches, pussy hats to power aprons, an increasing number of people are getting creative with costume to give voice to opinions they feel are not being heard. Why are concerned, angry, passionate people from around the world taking to their sewing machines and their cities’ streets in ever larger numbers? How and why do protesters use fancy dress to articulate their views? Why is so much time invested to make garments that are worn for just a few hours, and possibly just once? Decide for yourself if costumed protests are more psychological salve or a potent means of preserving our democratic freedoms. Listen.


Episode 2: Barbaric Splendour – The Devonshire House Ball, 1897. 

In the second episode of a new series that explores the prevalence, potency and politics of fancy dress costume, Lucy Clayton and cultural historian Dr Benjamin Wild discuss the Devonshire House Ball. Held on 2 July 1897 to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, and during an époque when dressing up was more than just an entertaining occasion, the night-long festivity was extravagant and spectacular. From goddesses to mythic monarchs, the social elite caroused in creative and costly costumes, several of which survive today. Were guests’ clothing choices based on a need for power and authority to demonstrate riches, or a desire to gain social acceptance? How impractical were these works of art, and how much would they cost to make today? Was the lavish display distasteful and vulgar, or exotic and luxurious? You can decide if the Devonshire Ball has earned its place as one of history’s fanciest balls and consider whether anything in the twenty first century comes close to rivalling it. Listen.



Episode 3: Nazis, Pirates, Tarts – Fancy Dress in Bad Taste. 

Fancy dress costume is inherently unfashionable and frequently in questionable taste. Photographs of authority figures and supposed role models in dubious dress-up regularly appear in newspapers to be excoriated by pundits and public alike. A memorable scene in Bridget Jones’ Diary, which featured Renée Zellweger wearing a Playboy bunny suit to an otherwise dowdy family get-together, will forever identify the British as past masters at donning awkward, astonishing, and inexplicable costume. What is it about fancy dress that encourages people to push the boundaries of humour and tact? Why do people in authority seem to get caught in compromising costume so frequently? Does a fancy dress ‘fail’ in fact reveal a person’s authentic character? And are some subjects simply too sensitive to ever become fancy dress. Contribute to the debate, or simply learn what costumes are best avoided altogether. Listen.


Episode 4: Warriors and Wigs – Fancy Dress in Wartime. 

People’s social, political and gendered roles are disrupted by war. Fancy dress costume, which offers escapism and self-reflection by enabling its wearer to become somebody or something else, can mediate these tensions. From women who dressed as men to fight in America’s Civil War, to allied sailors who survived a mid-Atlantic torpedo attack dressed as Nazi officials in WWII, Lucy and Ben consider the harrowing and heartening place of costume in conflicts throughout history. What makes fancy dress prevalent during times of military conflict? How are costumed warriors perceived by their contemporaries? And just what are the costumes warriors wear? Listen.


Would the Real Queen Elizabeth Please Stand Up

Queen Elizabeth I (r.1558-1603) carefully controlled her image and the depictions of it. Many of the portraits that immortalise England’s Good Queen Bess, from Nicholas Hilliard’s ‘Pelican Portrait’ of c.1574 to the ‘Rainbow Portrait’ of c.1602, attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, depict the ruler with an almost androgynous, whitened face that is ageless, and virtually identical. This was the point. Elizabeth sought to defy time and the effects of aging in much the same way that she defied contemporary expectations of her sex to rule without major political opposition for almost forty-five years. Painters seem to have adhered to what amounted to a ‘stock’ representation of the Queen.

The perfect, poised and poisoning mask that proclaimed Elizabeth’s determination and physical capability to rule was enhanced by allegorical symbols that were embroidered on her costly garments or held in her hand, from snakes that symbolised wisdom to sieves that represented innocence. The recent discovery by Philip Mould of a three-quarter length portrait that appears to depict Elizabeth as physically awkward and psychologically hesitant monarch is therefore big news. Here, potentially, is an image of the Queen that did not conform to the now-familar archetype and yet managed to escape detection, and destruction, during her lifetime.

The newly discovered portrait of ?Queen Elizabeth I from c.1559

The newly discovered portrait of ?Elizabeth I, c.1559

The Awkward Elizabeth that confronts us in Mould’s portrait is said to date from 1559, when she was twenty-six years old, and in the first full year of her reign. The evidence that has been used to establish this date has not been shared widely, but my initial response is that this is almost certainly too late, chiefly because of the style of the Queen’s clothing. The Awkward Elizabeth may be arrayed in gold and fur, but her garments would have been unfashionable in the second half of the sixteenth century when she started to rule.

Awkward Elizabeth appears to be wearing a full-length gown of a gold cloth beneath a black fur mantle. The golden gown is decorated with floriate patterns contained within horizontal bands. These bands continue unbroken beneath the Queen’s left hand, which is positioned over her waist, and suggest there is no separate bodice and skirt. The glimpse of a slim black belt, hanging around the waist from left to right, enhances this impression. This is odd. By the middle of the sixteenth century the kirtle (or skirt) tended to be a separate garment; a bodice was worn above it, over the torso. Moreover, from the c.1540s the proportions of this skirt had increased, due to the farthingale worn underneath. These developments in women’s dress are shown in a portrait of a highly fashionable Princess Elizabeth of c.1546 that is attributed to William Scrots (below). Whilst there is some indication of Awkward Elizabeth’s hips, her skirt seems to have no form of stiffening or  shaping structure beneath it. This scenario would be highly unlikely for a lady of status and fashion in the sixteenth century, and not least for Queen Elizabeth whose accounts indicate she was wearing farthingales during the early sixteenth century.


Princess Elizabeth, c.1546, atr. William Scrots (Royal Collection)

If the length of the gown and the silhouette of the skirt raises questions about the date of this portrait, the neckline does, too. By the middle of the sixteenth century it was fashionable for women of status to emphasise their décolletage. The neck of Awkward Elizabeth is entirely hidden. The Queen’s neck that is not covered by the golden gown is concealed beneath a smock with black work. The ruff, which is secured by a chin strap, covers more of the Queen’s face and neck; it is also dissimilar to fashionable styles at the commencement of Elizabeth’s reign.

This all noted, there are some nods to contemporary vogues: the whitened skin and black work on the linen smock – a style of embroidery largely attributed to Henry VIII’s first wife Catherine of Aragon – does suggest the artist was cognisant of at least some sixteenth-century status-defining fashions.

What are the implications of all of this?

First, we have to acknowledge the limitations of our artist. We are presented with a two-dimensional figure – a Tudor cardboard cut-out – whose clothing, though clearly expensive and of high status, appears similarly flat and devoid of texture. The drape of fabric over the shoulders and elbows has clearly caused problems and looks particularly clumsy. The implication of this is that the artist was working several tiers below that of the artists typically commissioned to immortalise England’s royalty at this time. This would suggest the painter was operating under aristocratic patronage, rather than royal. This may account for the painting’s survival: Elizabeth simply did not know of its existence.

Second, the painter appears to have had limited knowledge of the clothes worn by Queen Elizabeth and her court. The extent of the painter’s isolation from court appears to have forced them to dress their monarch in styles of clothing that were passing out of fashion in the sixteenth century. It is possible the painter used the clothing of another (older) portrait for inspiration. This scenario would also go some way to explain the general lifelessness of the entire portrait.

Third, if our painter were physically distant from the royal court (London), it is reasonable to suppose that this was also true of their patron.

Fourth, and finally, (and assuming we’re happy to accept that the sitter in this portrait is Elizabeth) if the painter’s patron were distant from London and only able to employ a painter with limited skills (compared with the artistic luminaries working within the Tudor court), it may be that he/she was in a weak/fragile position and commissioned Awkward Elizabeth to demonstrate their loyalty to the new monarch in a bid to assert regional authority, especially if the work does date from the very beginning of her reign in 1559. This was a tumultuous period when the monarch was working to establish her Protestant-leaning religious settlement – and breaking with Rome afresh – after the Catholic revival and reunion with Rome that had occurred under her half-sister Mary.


If the catwalk collections for Autumn/Winter 2018 truly herald next season’s styles, we are all likely to be wearing face masks or head coverings come Christmas. In a series of shows, from Erdem and Richard Quinn, to Standish KA WA KEY, designers conjured with clothing as a form of disguise and camouflage to a degree that I have not noticed in recent years.[1] Working on a book about the history of fancy dress costume, this theme immediately stood out and made me think: what is it about the mask that makes it seem so relevant and appropriate right now?

Much of the immediate commentary on the catwalk collections for Autumn/Winter 2018 focused on the apparent conservatism of the designers’ creativity. A convenient explanation for the (relative) lack of exuberance and joie de vivre was the pervasive feeling of ennui that we all seem to feel, as reports on conservation, humanitarian, economic and political crisis recur throughout global news cycles. In some cases, designers acknowledged the malaise and angst as a creative spur for their sartorial outlook. In his last show for Burberry, Christopher Bailey focused on ‘Time’ and heterogeneity, endeavouring to celebrate ‘a patchwork of characters and identities’. Hussein Chalayan’s menswear collection was titled ‘Périphérique’, after the highway that surrounds Paris, and focused on ‘the tensions that ensue from unintegrated immigration’.[2]

Acknowledged or not, a sense of menace and unease seemed to darken the message of many of next season’s collections, and I think this goes a long way to explain models’ covered, or at least partly concealed, heads and faces.

The mask probably has as many meanings as it does permutations. In some cultures, masks can be transformative and change the essence of its wearer, temporarily rendering them divine. In other cultures, the mask provides its wearer with a ‘breathing space’ as they seek some form of privacy in a crowded urban environment. For many people, the mask is better known as a facilitator of fun and mischief, as it (partially) conceives its wearer and consequently permits them to break or bend accepted norms of behaviour.

The literature on the form and role of face masks and head coverings is necessarily extensive because most of the world’s cultures incorporate elements of facial concealment in their rituals and festivities, and have done from an early stage in their development. Red deer skulls, for example, carved into a human face mask, have been found in England and date from the Mesolithic period, between c.10000 and 5000 BCE (below, from Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology).[3] Today, the most visually striking examples of face masks (for a western audience, at least) probably come from West Africa, and here the scholarly literature is particularly rich.[4] But as Alison Kinney has shown in hood, the wearing of masks and appearance-altering headwear by groups as diverse as the Ku Klux Klan and teenagers, who conceal their identity beneath hoodies, is no less arresting in the west.[5]


The wearing of masks – however diverse the design and context – has (at least) one common element. Across cultures, chronology and geography, masks and head coverings are typically worn during a period of that anthropologist Victor Turner would call liminal, a ‘betwixt and between’ stage when conventional patterns of human behaviour and interaction are partially suspended and possibly inversed.[6] The donning of mask or head covering – whether worn as part of a public ceremony, or worn to scare people who are not welcome within a community, or worn to escape the pressures of one’s life for the duration of a party – commences a period of time that allows the wearer a physical and psychological space to (re)affirm or repudiate their place and role within the community.


The idea of social and political dislocation that came to be associated with the mask made it a problematic item of dress for governments and law enforcement agencies around the world. Not surprisingly, therefore, law codes from the Middle Ages to modernity frequently prohibit the wearing of ‘visors’ or ‘disguises’.[7] In researching my book, I learned that it is against the law to wear face masks in New Orleans beyond Mardi Gras today. Consequently, I am inclined to suggest that we have become socialised to associate the wearing of a mask with times of unease and uncertainty. This, I think, explains why it appeared, talisman-like, in a number of catwalk collections earlier this year.

The connection between societal angst and aberrant and innovative fashion is, of course, not straightforward. For example, the conventionally-held view that Christian Dior’s A-line skirt of 1947 did constitute a ‘New Look’ after the Second World War is now downplayed. The silhouette   of the couturier’s designs may have been more accomplished and strident than that of his peers, but he was nonetheless indebted to them for inspiration; in this sense, Dior was more ‘in step’ with contemporary designs than an outright trendsetter. Nevertheless, a number of scholars, including Francesca Granata, Adam Geczy and Viki Karaminas and Therèsa M. Winge, are increasingly inclined to view the conception, creation and consumption of (contemporary) clothing and dress accessories as a form of (critical) commentary on society and politics.[8] Cognisant of the period in which designers, buyers, makers and models are living, these authors are more inclined to acknowledge the likelihood that incongruent forms of dress and appearance reflect social traumas or crises; Whinge, for example, argues that the ‘grotesque imagery and bodies-out-of-bounds’ aesthetic that was evident in the fashions of the 1980s was ‘influenced by feminism’s desire to open up and question gender and bodily norms … It was also tied to the AIDS epidemic.’ She suggests that ‘Experimental fashion often mediated the fears of contagion and the obsessive moral policing of bodily borders that characterised the 1980s and part of the 1990s and cannot be read separately from the powerful discourses of contagion, bodies and health surrounding the AIDS crisis’.[9]


In a similar vein, I think the prevalence of facial masks and headwear in the Autumn/Winter 2018 catwalk collections is a response to an ill-defined but ever-present feeling of unease. The incorporation of elements of disguise in contemporary fashions is not new, so what we are witnessing is perhaps more a difference of degree than kind. I am also not inferring that all designers to feature head coverings are, or were, fully cognisant of the mask’s myriad meanings. As Anne Hollander, among others, has indicated before, this is most likely an example of the ‘zeitgeisty’ nature of fashion; its ability to convey and articulate ideas that a majority perceive, deeply but dimly. The face mask, because of it polyvalence, is perhaps an ideal fit for designers when society’s messages become muddled.


[1] I wrote about this theme in relation to Vivienne Westwood’s A/W 2013 collection. See, Benjamin Wild, ‘Draped in the Past’, History Today, 63:9 (September 2013), 4-5.


[3] Dušan Borić et al., ‘The limits of the body’, The Body In History: Europe from the Palaeolithic to the Future (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 37 (fig. 11).

[4] For example, I Am Not Myself: The Art of African Masquerade, ed. Herbert M. Cole (Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History, University of California, 1985); John W. Nunley, Moving With The Face of The Devil (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987); Phyllis Galembo, Maske (New York: Aperture, 2016).

[5] Alison, Kinney, hood (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).

[6] For an introduction to Turner’s work, see The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (New Brunswick and London: Aldine Transaction [1969], 2008); idem, The Anthropology of Performance (New York: PAJ Publications, 1987).

[7] For example, Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 11-12, 26

[8] Francesca Granata, Experimental Fashion: Performance Art, Carnival and the Grotesque Body (London: I.B. Tauris, 2017); Adam Geczy and Viki Karaminas, Critical Fashion Practice: From Westwood to Beirendonck (London: Bloomsbury, 2017); Therèsa M. Winge, Body Style (London: Berg, 2012).

[9] Whinge, Body Style, 2.

A Traditional (Trump) Christmas? 

FLOTUS’ White House Christmas make-over has been much criticised. Photographs have certainly made it seem more frightful than festive. (Critics may have a point: I mean, who uplights a Christmas tree?) My vexation is not caused by the glitter, fake snow and willow arcade (relatively speaking), but by a Nativity scene snapped recently by a friend.

Nativity scenes are typically tacky and anachronistic because (Western) people have difficulty accepting that the King of Kings was born in a barn. Jesus’ birth is thus conventionally laden with misplaced grandeur.

The White House’s Nativity takes this to a level I’ve not previously seen. And for the record, this is not Trump bashing – Melania found this objet d’art in the Obama’s decoration box – although their approach to festive fanfare heightens the point.

It occasions little surprise that Jesus is born in the Judean equivalent of a penthouse suite, high above the hoi poli and with an external façade decorated with Corinthian columns, the most elaborate of the classical design order. That’s not all. The Gospel of St Matthew mentions the Three Kings but it is only from later sources that we learn they arrived on different animals (Melchior, from Europe, on a horse; Caspar, from Arabia, on a camel; Balthazar, from Africa, on an Elephant). Here, the trio sit on European horses. Curiously, the rider of the horse on the right has the aid of stirrups, several centuries before their likely usage.

The pets may be similarly misplaced: dogs were more likely feral than friendly, and the cat on the left is, I think, pure whimsy; cats were largely unknown in Israel and they are not, to my knowledge, mentioned in the Bible (ready to be corrected on this!).

The clothing is also anachronistic and reflective of western silhouettes of the early modern period; most men wear trousers or ‘shorts’. This may reference braccae (‘breeches’), but I think these garments were usually worn by soldiers; certainly, on encountering them in northern Europe, Romans considered them effeminate.

The life of Jesus may well be The Greatest Story Ever Told, but if it is to be told, there is surely a responsibility, perhaps more now than ever, to tell it sensitively, if not accurately. Whatever this Nativity represents, ‘traditional’ it most definitely is not.

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.


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.

A History of the Christmas Jumper

The following is a longer version of a piece that I was commissioned to write for George at ASDA. An abridged version appeared in the Sunday Express

Few Christmas traditions generate as much amusement and attention as the Christmas jumper, with the possible exception of the Brussels sprout. And like the sprout, the jumper’s ability to provoke is at the heart of its growing appeal. Last year, George at ASDA sold over one million festive themed jumpers. This year, they are anticipating to sell even more with an expanded range of over fifty designs for men and women, children and pets, which include favourite seasonal figures, winter landscapes and popular characters from Peppa Pig, Where’s Wally to Darth Vader. Such preparations are necessary: for many people in Britain the Christmas jumper has become jolly serious, with some of its most discerning wearers starting their online knitwear search three months before the Big Day.

The festive knitwear we enjoy today, which features 3d-designs, bright colours and bold patterns, has been popular for the last twenty years. The reindeer rollneck worn by Colin Firth in Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001) suggests the winter woolly has even reached cult status. How the Christmas jumper became this potent symbol of Christmas cheer is a global tale – at times surprising – of sport, High Society, science and rebellious style.

The Christmas jumper can be traced to the heavy, warm sweaters that were hand-knitted in Scandinavia and Iceland before the twentieth century. Characterised by contrasting bands of geometric patterns, which are popular in today’s Fair Isle knits, the jumpers distinguished men from different communities, one suggestion – now largely debunked -is that this was to identify their bodies if they drowned at sea. Had these jumpers been worn by fisherman alone, it’s doubtful the style would have spread fast or far. The jumpers became widely known because they were associated with another popular – and more upbeat – subject: The Scandinavian sport of skiing.

Skiers needed warm clothing as much as fisherman and as their sport developed during the first half of the twentieth century, initially in northern Europe and then in Austria, knitwear with bands of geometric patterns, their colours influenced by forest landscapes, became common skiwear. The influenza epidemic that ravaged the world between 1918 and 1919, claiming the lives of more people than the First World War, boosted the sport of skiing – and its style – by encouraging a greater focus on health and wellbeing. As affluent travellers returned from the ski slopes of Europe with their colourful knits, the humble jumper was elevated to a symbol of luxury and glamour. Hollywood stars, including Clark Gable, Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman, popularised the look and lifestyle of skiing for a majority of people who lived the dream by knitting jumpers for themselves.

The combination of practicality and panache did much to promote wool and knitwear sales after the Second World War. Cheap, colourful and customisable, knitted jumpers were an attractive and commonplace wardrobe staple in the lean post-war years. Scientific advances and the development of synthetic fibres also made it possible to create jumpers that were warm, lightweight and flexible, which only enhanced their appeal. With a little
more assistance from Hollywood, the scene was now set for the festive jumper to make its debut during the 1960s.

The shawl collar cardigan, which was popular throughout the Sixties, and a must-have item in any Prepster’s wardrobe since, featured in a variety of Silver Screen contexts, worn by Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady (1964), Robert Vaughn in The Man from U.N.C.L.E (1965) and Alain Delon in Les Aventuriers (1967). At the same time, the fashionable cardigan – and knitwear in general – became increasingly common in Christmas advertising campaigns as models replaced suits and dresses with up-to-the-minute style to entice consumers to buy a wide range of festive goods. The winter woolly was now associated with Christmas.

Whilst jumpers were increasingly worn during the festive season, they were still a long way from the multi-sensory sweaters we know and love today. As Kurt Griswold confronted angry neighbours, disinterested family and a mean-spirited boss to create the perfect holiday in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), he wore jumpers decorated with geometric patterns rather than reindeer heads, snowmen and Santa. Macaulay Culkin’s jumpers were no more festive when he defended his family residence from the “Wet Bandits” in Home Alone (1990), although he did have an impressive range of bobble hats, one of which included a repeat reindeer design. Christmas jumpers were similarly plain in the television-movie Christmas in Connecticut (1992), directed by Arnold Schwarzenegger and starring Tony Curtis. And yet, just ten years later, Colin Firth wore his striking black rollneck featuring a red-nosed Rudolph in the first of the Bridget Jones movies.

The pop-culture and catwalk of 1980s-Britain explains why festive knitwear developed attitude, and provides the final link in the story of the Christmas jumper. Throughout the Eighties there was renewed interest in vintage vogues. Boy George and the New Romantics, who wore dramatic and historically-referenced clothing, characterised this trend. In part, they offered a challenge to the period’s consumerism, which latched onto big-name brands, and the severity of Punk. Knitwear, which was authentic, affordable and flexible, provided an ideal means to create looks that were diverse, playful and individual. Fashion designers recognised this. Of course, the connection between knitwear and fashion was longstanding. In the 1950s, Coco Chanel had presented her knitted suit. Before her, Jean Patou had produced brightly coloured sportswear and Elsa Schiaparelli designed jumpers with abstract patterns. Fashion designers of the 1980s continued this tradition, but injected the angst and energy of the decade into their creations. The result was bright, heavily patterned jumpers like Joseph Ettedgui’s ‘Tiger’ turtleneck sweater and Patricia Robert’s multi-coloured patchwork Romany cardigan. The appearance of edgier knitwear on the catwalk made it widely desirable. Similar styles were soon adopted by stars of the Small Screen, including Bill Cosby in The Cosby Show, and by a variety of British television hosts, from Gyles Brandreth to Noel Edmunds.

The Christmas jumper has always had a particular appeal among Britons because of their enjoyment of quirky and playful humour, although it has become a source of merriment in America, where ‘Ugly Christmas Sweater’ contests are held. Across Europe, traditional styles of jumper, which resemble those worn by twentieth-century skiers, have remained popular throughout the festive season. In recent years, the geometric pattern that characterised these early winter woollies has become more common in Britain.

It would be interesting to ask Charles Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come about the future of festive knitwear. Three-dimensional printing and wearable technology would definitely make the winter woolly a greater sensory experience and the demand for novelty statement pieces, particularly among men, increases year-on-year. The influence of Christmas jumpers on other clothing areas, including jersey T-Shirts, sweatshirts and dresses, even accessories for pets, is likely to be another growth areas in years to come and ASDA, one the largest suppliers of festive knitwear, has begun to anticipate the trend this year as part of its expanded collection.

But to return to the present, the first two weeks of December are among the busiest for Christmas jumper buying in the UK and Christmas Sweater Day, which is an opportunity to support the work of Save the Children by fundraising in festive knitwear on 16 December, is fast approaching. So, some serious decision-making is called for if you’re planning to join the 19 per cent of Britons – 12.3 million people – who will be wearing a Christmas jumper on Christmas Day.

A Rakish Progress: The Image and Influence of David Hockney’s Style

The text of this post is based on a talk I gave at the Royal Academy on Saturday for RA Lates’ ‘A Hockney Happening’.

Before reading further, pause for a few seconds.

Close your eyes and conjure an image David Hockney in your mind.

So, what did your Hockney look like? Probably something like the photograph below. I’m certain you would have got the wave of blonde peroxide hair, perhaps slightly dishevelled, and the thick-rimmed, owl-like glasses. If your mental imagining captured more than Hockney’s face, you may have dressed him in a polka-dot bow tie or a knitted sweater. Bright, contrasting colours would have featured somewhere. If your Hockney had legs and feet, perhaps he was wearing bright socks, white sneakers, or, as below, something more lively.

It is possible that your Hockney was wearing something more formal, perhaps a suit, as in this photograph, below, from 1979, where Hockey is pictured opposite Cecil Beaton. The pair are relaxing in Beaton’s ‘Winter Garden’ (aka conservatory) in Reddish House, Wiltshire. Hockney was staying with Beaton at the time, to draw his portrait for an upcoming feature in British Vogue. The sittings did not start well, for Hockney’s bold style of drawing apparently highlighted Beaton’s wrinkles.[i]

The Hockney of this image looks ‘complete’. He possesses all of what have become leitmotifs of a style of dress that many commentators, including Mr Porter’s Jeremy Langmead, have described as ‘uncontrived’.[ii] But I don’t think this is right, for the Hockney ‘look’ did not have an immaculate birth. It evolved as Hockney’s personal and professional confidence increased, in much the same way that Cecil Beaton’s appearance had done decades before. The clue, I think, is Hockney’s socks. Today, you can choose to buy odd pairs of socks – it’s actually a ‘thing’ – but in the 1970s, this was not an option. If you wanted to wear odd socks, you had to separate the pair yourself. Hockney did this, and he was apparently inspired by poetry to so. As an adult, he recalled the following lines from a poem by Robert Herrick, which reveals much about his interest in juxtaposition and imbalance, a characteristic of his art as much as his appearance:

A sweet disorder in dress

Rekindles in clothes a wantonness.[iii]

Hockney’s brightly coloured raiment looks welcoming, friendly and jolly, but it is no less contrived for this, and I think the socks are the tell. Hockney has succeeded in creating a look of studied indifference that has helped him to become a one-man brand. His resolve to do this is similar to other artists, perhaps notably Jean-Etienne Liotard, whose incongruous appearance in eighteenth-century London – long beard and Turkish-style
clothing – apparently enabled him to charge more for his portraits than rivals, much to their annoyance.[iv]

In 1954, the Hockney look was incipient, as this self-portrait collage shows. Hockney was sixteen and still living in Bradford. Rationing after the Second World War was just coming to an end. Hockney’s early years were therefore probably very grey in both a literal, creative and intellectual sense. The colour of his clothing perhaps reflected a desire for stimulation and dynamism. It may have also been influenced by the second-hand clothes that Hockney’s father purchased from bankrupt estates through the clothing store, Sykes Vintage. Colour aside, the dark hair and large, NHS prescription spectacles do not make Hockney distinctive.

Hockney’s ‘look’ emerged with the dyeing of his hair. Apparently, Hockney and friends from the Royal College of Art saw a Clariol commercial on television that proclaimed ‘Blondes have more fun’.[v] The young artists needed no further encouragement and spent the afternoon dyeing their locks. Next came the glasses. In 1964, whilst driving
through Iowa City, Hockney apparently saw a pair of heavy horn-rimmed glasses in an opticians. He stopped to buy them, ditching his NHS prescription, because he wanted to look more professional.[vi] Hereafter, Hockney began to experiment with his clothing, but it is noteworthy that no matter how bright his outfits became, they were rarely overpowering.[vii] In all that he wore, and wears, there is balance and evidence of curation.

I think this explains why you would have been able to conjure such a clear image of David Hockney in your mind, and, why so many fashion brands and designers have taken inspiration from his wardrobe. For example, Hockney’s Californian colour palette was said to have influenced Osman Yousefzada’s Spring/Summer 2012 collection. In the same season, Bill Gayten, the interim creative director at John Galliano, drew inspiration from Hockney’s ‘Bigger Splash’ (1967). Burberry’s homage to Hockney in 2005 is perhaps the best known catwalk collection to have conjured with his bold use of colour and contrasting textures.[viii] Advice on how to dress like David Hockney has also appeared online, via Mr Porter.

So, the burning question: how can you achieve the Hockney look for yourself? After dyeing his hair, Hockney is said to have imagined London’s Bond Street where everyone had peroxide-blonde locks. Hockney was not so taken with the aesthetic appeal of neon blonde, but he was excited by the fun of dyeing hair and the dramatic results it produced.[ix] It is rare to be able to experience what an individual looks and feels like in his clothes, but for Hockney, this may just be possible, that is, if you are prepared to accept that blondes have more fun…

[i] B.L. Wild, A Life in Fashion: The Wardrobe of Cecil Beaton (London, 2016), 83-86.

[ii] S. Chilvers, ‘Why David Hockney is my all-time style hero’, The Guardian (23 January 2012), (accessed: September 2016).

[iii] C. Simon Sykes, Hockney: The Biography, Volume 2 1975-2012 (London, 2014), 146.

[iv] C. Baker, ‘An Artist in the Age of the Enlightenment’, Jean-Etienne Liotard 1702-1789, eds. C. Baker et al. (London, 2016), 18

[v] C. Simon Sykes, Hockney: The Biography, Volume 1 1937-1975 (London, 2011), 97.

[vi] Ibid., 153.

[vii] Ibid., 134, 180; Hockney Vol. 2, 33.

[viii] Chilvers, ‘David Hockney’.

[ix] Hockney Vol. 1, 110.

Plain Kate: Vogue’s Centenary Shoot

Photographing the Duchess of Cambridge for the centenary cover of British Vogue was surely an obvious choice. Few people at present seem to inspire as much popular sympathy, pique as much interest and reflect the magazine’s focus on high style and high society, than the wife of Britain’s future king.

Deciding whom to photograph was evidently easier than deciding on how this was to be accomplished. The media commentary that has accompanied the shoot has generally been neutral or gently positive, but there was (perhaps inevitably) criticism. Daily Mail journalist Liz Jones was the most forthright dissident: she likened Vogue’s photographic spread to a Boden catalogue.[i] The comment is not without some foundation, but it is interesting – to me at least – for what it reveals about the importance of dress in Kate’s elevation to the ruling house of Windsor.

Prior to her marriage to Prince William in 2011 – as a would-be royal – Kate Middleton delighted the world’s media with her high street sartorial thrift, but now that the Queen of England is her mother-in-law, there is a sense that people expect more of the Duchess’ wardrobe choices. Whilst her preference for high street brands seemed to go down well with the press during her tour of India,[ii] the collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery – of whom she is a patron – and Vogue evidently called for panache over price: Liz Jones complains that, ‘[the photographs in Vogue are] too rural, too hunting, shooting and fishing, when we were waiting for something red carpet. A princess.’

British Vogue’s editor, Alexandra Shulman, clearly realised the difficultly of her task. The editorial that she writes to accompany the photographs in Vogue’s June issue repeatedly stresses how the photographic shoot with Josh Olins was low key. Shulman describes the January shoot, somewhat awkwardly, as ‘a day of unexpected informality’. Her intention to emphasise the Duchess’ humility and approachability – she ‘scarcely … checked herself in the mirror’, never looked at her phone, ‘not once’; and arrived wearing rollers in her hair – reads like special pleading.

The ordinariness of the Duchess is inadvertently called into question by Shulman herself, when she explains how fashion director Lucinda Chambers arrived with ‘10 suitcases of clothes’ and a ‘van-load of props’. At the end of the day, the Duchess’ ‘Land Rover sped away down the track’. The pleasant fiction that the photographs portray the Duchess as ‘the same as the rest of us’ is ultimately exposed by their accompanying captions which reveal Her Royal Highness is dressed in a good deal of Burberry, although a hat from Beyond Retro and boots from Dune are more accessible purchases, for those who wish to emulate the royal look.

According to Shulman, the tone of the shoot was dictated by the Duchess, ‘who was not keen to be shot in gala gowns and tiaras’ and preferred the countryside, ‘to reflect an element of her private existence’. A vintage bicycle and ‘the family dog, Lupo’ do provide a semblance of normality, but this shoot is no more real or authentic than the portraits produced in the sixteenth century for the Tudor dynasty. For sure, vogues and values have changed since Hans Holbein junior immortalised his royal patrons in oils (now over five hundred years ago), but the difference with Olins’ shoot is one of degree rather than kind.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Hans Holbein jr. and Anthony Van Dyck were required to project a view of royalty that was palatable to the British public and, as a consequence, become a vehicle to sustain the popularity of the institution of monarchy. Josh Olins’ shoot is no different (although relevancy might now be a more pressing concern than popularity). In short, if Vogue’s centenary photographic shoot was ‘informal’, it was intentional and not ‘unexpected’.

The Duchess would have been wary of appearing too much like the former Princess of Wales, with whom she is obviously and frequently compared (and much of the media coverage surrounding this recent Vogue shoot has been contrasted with Diana’s Vogue cover of 1981, snapped by Patrick Demarchelier). The Duchess would surely have also been mindful of her political status: she will become queen consort and, in turn, her son will become king. So, decorum, sobriety and motherhood might have been key concepts to convey for posterity.

More generally, the nod towards financial prudence within the Duchess’ shoot – the combination of designer and high street brands – chimes with attempts by British royals to empathise with their subjects during a period of economic stringency. During Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee, for example, BBC commentators suggested the decision to drive from Buckingham Palace to St Paul’s Cathedral for a service of thanksgiving – and thereby dispense with a carriage procession – was to cut back on pomp and so avoid the charge of insensitivity (the Queen was still chauffeured in a Bentley, but when it comes to royalty, the choice of a limousine does mark some economy over a gilded horse-drawn carriage).

In this sense, the Duchess’ demure shoot reveals much about how the institution of monarchy is evolving and, with this, how the clothes royals wear have to impart more ambiguous and polyvalent messages than those worn by their predecessors. In an age when the parliamentary state was still in its infancy, royalty could dress for distinction, but this is much less acceptable in a constitutional monarchy and during a time when globalisation and technology have levelled traditional social and political hierarchies. And yet, as much as royalty is increasingly cast as being inclusive and ‘the same as the rest of us’ – to borrow Alexandra Shulman’s phrase and to reference the recent spate of social media and television performances Britain’s royals have participated in – there is still a desire, even expectation, for members of the royal family to dress in a way that reflects the fact that the head of their family, and our country, rules by God’s grace.

For my part, I think I would have been more open about these interesting paradoxes, which are probably a major reason why the allure of monarchy endures, and presented ‘Kate’ and the ‘Duchess’ – trench coat and tiara – in adjacent images to show how the different sides of royalty can be ‘worn’ by one person, as they always have been. This approach would have been more convincing than the sequence of polyglot images that awkwardly combine suede and sapphire and blur the distinction between conduct and character, which the Duchess of Cambridge – and British royals more generally – have been so adept at delineating through their considered clothing choices.

[i] L. Jones, ‘Is Kate auditioning to be the catalogue queen?’  Accessed: 23 May 2016.

[ii] H. Minn, ‘Kate Middleton wears Topshop and Zara on royal tour of India with Prince William’, Accessed: 26 May 2016.