Saturday, September 26, 2015

Does fancy dress have to be sexy?

It's such a cliché that there are regular fancy dress costumes, and then there are 'sexy' ones for women, which focus on revealing cleavage, midriff, silhouette and legs at the complete expense of fidelity to the idea of the costume.

In Out of Shape, I argue that the vocabulary of sexiness we draw on when we dress up for costume parties comes from what I call 'exploitation culture':
So-called because it exploits viewers’ crudest impulses, this genre discards such piffling irrelevancies as plot and character; instead, it visually represents ‘sexiness’ to excite its (male, heterosexual) audiences. 
Flimsy, form-fitting, and tantalisingly unbuttoned and unzipped, women’s exploitation costumes represent the ordinary world viewed through a fog of lust. ‘Sexy teachers’ and ‘sexy librarians’ doff their glasses, unbutton their prim cardigans and shake out their severe updos. ‘Sexy policewomen’ wear skin-tight military-style shirts, tiny hotpants, and stiletto heels that would be very impractical for chasing criminals. ‘Sexy waitresses’ and ‘sexy flight attendants’ promise personalised ‘service’, while ‘French maids’ know what ‘dirty’ means. (Out of Shape, p. 166)
I have been thinking about fancy dress because my friend Andy's birthday is coming up tonight, and for his party we have to dress as something beginning with the letter A.

My first instinct was like Cady's in Mean Girls: to come as something nerdy and enthusiastic, not something sexy. Asparagus would be funny – I'd wear a green T-shirt and tights and make myself a pointy bonnet. Or an armadillo: I would wear a brown T-shirt and tights and wear a laundry basket as a backpack. I discounted an apple because it would be too demanding, structurally.

But Anthony, my co-author on our romantic comedy novel-in-progress The Hot Guy, just shook his head when I told him these ideas. He said that the entire purpose of costume parties was to dress in sexy costumes in order to get laid.

As a compromise, I decided I would dress as the Greek goddess Athena. Of all the Greek goddesses whose names begin with A, I identify with her most: she represents wisdom, courage, inspiration, learning, the arts, and war strategy (one of her epithets is Promachos, 'she who leads from the front'). As Athena Parthenos ('Virgin Athena'), she also isn't married and doesn't have sex, so… there's that too.

She's often depicted wearing a war helmet, and holding a spear and a shield in the centre of which is Medusa's head (which Athena was gifted by Perseus). She is also often seen with a pet snake, Erichthonius, and a pet owl (those animals are sacred to her).

I only settled on this costume on Thursday night, and didn't have time to find or make myself a Spartan-style helmet, or to make myself some weaponry out of materials to hand (garbage bin lids, broomsticks, cardboard, gold paint). However, I have researched ancient Greek clothing and have made myself a Doric chiton out of a curtain I got in an op-shop for $5, plus a flannel himation, which I already had as part of a previous Virgin Mary costume (see below). I also bought some gold sandals, and five metres of gold ribbon to wear as a girdle, and I'm going to pin a gold necklace in my hair as a diadem. And I was pleased to remember that I own a pair of gold earrings in the shape of wings.

 Here's what Athena looks like, in a marble Greek copy signed “Antiokhos”, a first-century BC variant of the famous sculptor Phidias’s fifth-century Athena Promachos that stood on the Acropolis. (Her empty left hand is meant to hold a spear.) She's wearing a peplos, under an armoured breastplate bearing Medusa's head.

But then here's some of what came up when I Googled "Greek goddess costume":

Yawn. This tendentious sexualisation of fancy dress isn't new, however. Fashion historian Amber Butchart argues that fancy dress began with the Venetian carnival masquerade tradition. Carnival, a medieval festival immediately before Lent, was a time when dominant social and moral standards were subverted and mocked, and people could mingle freely and behave eccentrically without being punished.

In my research for Out of Shape, I learned about the elaborate historical fancy-dress society balls in late-19th-century Canada:
Wearing old-fashioned clothes temporarily freed the members of high society from prevailing social mores – women could wear their hair down and don revealing dresses, while men flaunted their legs in tights. After an 1898 ‘historical ball’ that had featured many eighteenth-century-esque outfits, the Montreal Star wistfully reported that ‘those beautiful old-fashioned pink and white gowns, and great skirts of rich brocaded silk that fell in such heavy clear folds, made one wonder if the nineteenth century had not lost the art of dressing.’ (Out of Shape, p. 259)
There's so much to say about the history of costume parties and their use in either avant-garde or reactionary aesthetics and politics. There are 'exotica' trends that veer from Egyptian and Middle Eastern motifs to straight-up blackface. There's the whole 'bad taste' trend, which links back to carnival's burlesque of social conventions. And there are attempts to use costume to playfully transcend the usual shapes and functions of the human body – dressing up as abstract objects or ideas – which we can see in the Surrealist and Bauhaus costume parties.

Salvador Dali dressed up as the kidnapped Lindbergh baby at 1934 New York society party, and was forced to apologise publicly, only for his Surrealist mates to give him a dressing-down for the apology. (I once dressed as JonBenet Ramsey for Halloween.)

The Pre-Raphaelites and their intellectual circle popularised vaguely medievalist 'artistic dress', which then morphed into 'aesthetic dress', and became a mainstay of Liberty of London, which from 1884 maintained its own Artistic and Historic Costume Studio, where you could buy dresses that combined late-19th-century silhouettes with design elements from medieval, Renaissance, Jacobean, 18th-century and Regency fashions. (In 1909 it was renamed "Picturesque and Fancy Dress".) Interestingly for me, I read that from 1887 Liberty made a Grecian gown called 'Athene', in "Arabian cotton with silk Himation".

In the 1960s and 1970s, these historical dress-up fantasies found their retail equivalents in Biba's visions of Golden Age Hollywood and Laura Ashley's pastoral nostalgia.

Because fancy dress parties are often private events rather than public displays, they can also be insular, reinforcing membership in elite in-groups. For instance, the 'Bright Young Things' of 1920s and 1930s England famously favoured elaborate costume parties.

Dressing as Athena Parthenos basically reveals that I have given up on the idea of being sexually attractive. But I do remember in the past putting a lot of effort into looking as 'sexy' as I could at costume parties, and yet not attracting any flirtatious attention whatsoever. So now I think, "why bother?"

Here are a few pics of me in fancy dress, which I ripped off Facebook. 

I always wanted to go to a toga party, so I made my 30th birthday a toga party. You can see that the Doric chiton always slips off the shoulders if you don't watch yourself. I was trying to be sexy at this event by not wearing a bra. In hindsight, I should probably have worn a bra.

I can't even remember what the theme of this party was (it could have just been 'party' – but I (left) went as Corey Worthington.

Best party ever; that's what everyone's been sayin'. To be honest though, while I was pretty happy with the humour value of my costume, I felt so gross and unfeminine all night with my jeans pulled down below my underwear. For me, dressing butch is not sexy. For someone who is butch or is into butch women, it might be.

Here I am (left) dressed as Cyndi Lauper earlier this year. In the pic (taken at the Filmme Fatales launch I went to before the party), I am looking really pissed off but I was actually deliberately doing this to try to approximate Lauper's squint.

The theme was New Wave, and basically Lauper was the only person I could think of where I could use my hair, and had all the components of my outfit already. I was inspired by her look at the start of the 'Girls Just Wanna Have Fun' video. At the bus stop on the way to the Filmme Fatales event, two teen girls asked if they could take a selfie with me. I agreed, unsure if they thought I looked cool or if they wanted to mock me. I choose to believe it's the latter.

This is me (centre) in 2006 doing the 'Thriller' dance at an Is Not Magazine Halloween party, dressed as Carrie from the film Carrie. The paint I drenched myself in looked red in the bottle, but as you can see, it was really hot pink. I am covered in fabulous hot-pink pig's blood.

Here I am in 2005, dressed as the minor TV Batman villain Marsha, Queen of Diamonds for a superhero-themed ball. I wanted to wear something 'hot' to impress a guy I was crushing on at the time; but he didn't even go to the ball, and nobody else was interested in me.

Here I am going to a Yacht Rock-themed party in a hipster bar. Again, I was trying to impress a guy I was into at the time, but basically nobody else dressed up, so I looked like a total idiot.

Bless you, my child: here I am at my 33rd birthday (my 'Jesus year') dressed as the Virgin Mary. I had an LED torch hidden in my bra that made my Sacred Heart glow. This is not sexy at all, but it is my favourite fancy-dress costume of all time. I think I look amazing. Mother of Christ? That'd be nice.