If someone had said to me a few years ago that I’d have grown to love getting myself decked out in fancy dress then I’d have laughed in their face. The thought horrified me. I’d only once been to a fancy dress party and that was age 12 where I made an unsuccessful attempt to dress as a hippy and actually looked a bit like a young Barbra Streisand. It was 1984 and I felt horribly underdressed amongst a room full of teenage Boy George’s and as teenagers are wont to do, died a little inside.
My downfall began in early 2009 when I was invited to a friend’s 40th birthday party and me and my best friend came to the decision that we’d willingly go but wouldn’t be donning any sort of ridiculous costume as we couldn’t face it. We’d be the ones dressed in moderately flattering clothes, sitting in the corner, smiling politely and marvelling at all the effort everyone had made, whilst retaining dignity. Days before the party we heard that the hostess was making a huge effort (an Edward Scissorhands outfit) and that a couple we knew had even hired elaborate suits (an Orville and Cat in the Hat costume) and the guilt kicked in. We vowed we’d make the effort for once and my friend got herself an Amy Winehouse wig and a set of fake tattoos. She looked great but sadly had upped the ante.
On an aside, since her tragic, but not unexpected death, I wonder how many warehouses full of Winehouse costumes are now gathering dust. If I was a trader in Amy wigs I’d be re-marketing them for Halloween as the Winehouse zombie get-up, but then maybe I’m just a little bit twisted. I suppose you’d have needed some guts to brave the bereaved fans as a vomit splattered Winehouse corpse just yet, but then fans who leave empty vodka bottles and cigarettes as a tribute to a woman killed by excess maybe deserve all they get? Just a thought; maybe next Halloween I’ll be tottering around with a beehive hairstyle and a few nicotine stains.
I set about hunting for my outfit and decided I needed to drag up. I know this is normally the domain of the straight man but as at the age of 38 I’d never donned heels and a skirt, I felt it was my duty to do so. I knew straight away that glamour was out. I’m too tall and my features are too coarse to make a good drag queen. Also, my budget was low. Why spend a fortune on an outfit for one party? I came up with my plan; the 70s and 80s icon Barbara Woodhouse. Incidentally, Paul has met her at various dog shows when his parents bred Afghan Hounds; he never fails to startle me with his breadth of life experience.
If you don’t recall her, are not from these parts or are sickeningly young then I’ll explain. Barbara was a rather tweedy lady who taught us all how to train dogs on national TV. Her main methods were to almost garrotte them with a sharp and fierce lead tug and to speak in an authoritative tone which would have stopped Hitler in his tracks and made him reconsider invading Poland. Google her, she was hilarious.
Barbara was a natural choice. Charity shops are full of elasticated tweed skirts. I wouldn’t need heels (she wore a man’s brogue) or a good wig and for added comedy value I could have a stuffed dog toy on a lead and chuck it about whenever conversation lulled. The secret of good fancy dress is a comedy feature to endlessly bore everyone with.
I set off on a tour of charity shops and found gold: a twin-set and a sturdy tweed skirt in my waist size. Being sensible, I decided I needed to try the skirt on. I patiently explained to the elderly lady behind the counter that I wasn’t a pervert and was attending a party as Ms Woodhouse and could I try the skirt on. She smiled and chuckled and bellowed down the shop to her colleague:
“Maureen! This man needs to try this on. He’s going to a party as a transvestite. Will you fetch me the fitting room key?” I blushed a little but was undeterred.
I changed my plan in the end and went as someone a little less glamorous: Susan Boyle. A nasty old dress, baggy cardigan, cheap court shoes, a badly styled wig and a pair of huge stick on bushy eyebrows and it was complete. I was a dead ringer for that annoying woman with the learning difficulties that they reluctantly wheel out on stage like a performing monkey after she won “Britain’s Got Talent” It worked well. It was topical and amused people and I recreated the name badges they wore on the execrable show to banish doubt as to who I was. The court shoes were under £5 and amazingly, I danced all night in them without a single fall.
The lady whose party it was had a number of gay friends and in a drunken state we decided it would be fun to nip to the nearest gay bar two minutes round the corner. It was indeed fun as we skidded along on the January ice, our number including a big furry Wookie and Adam Ant. We caused much amusement. It would have been distinctly less fun had I timed it a little less well. After the party, I changed back to normal clothes and decided to pop for a quick snifter on the way home and ran into my recent ex, the lying policeman. I was still feeling very hurt, it being 3 weeks since he’d ended the relationship. You naturally fantasise about the first time you run into the man who abandoned you with his new boyfriend. In your head you’ll look care-free and stunning and have a fixed expression of unbridled joy. In none of these scenarios are you ever dressed as Susan Boyle. Phew. It was a close one.
My next attempt was over a year later when I dressed as a zombie for a (failed) record breaking attempt for the number of people simultaneously dancing to “Thriller” by creepy dead odd ball and drug fiend Michael Jackson. I loved that one. My dancing was a bit ropey in places, albeit funny but the costume was more fun. I dressed as a rotting nurse complete with gunshot wounds and won a prize for Best Dressed Zombie and felt inordinately (and probably inappropriately) proud. I’d spent days dragging those scrubs through mud, applying bullet holes and fake blood and the greenish makeup which I was head to toe in took a lot of Flash to wash off the light switches but it was great. It’s quite liberating to have a go at being un-dead. I recommend it. I also posed for a few photos of myself round the house completing domestic chores, such as drinking tea and dusting. It amused me, anyway.
The next attempt, I got braver. December 2010 I was invited to a 70s or 80’s themed charity party. I thought to myself that as I knew most of the people there (my colleagues mostly) I could really go for it and drag up properly. I decided to go as my idol, Debbie Harry from Blondie. My motivation was meanness. I spotted a suitable peroxide wig with black roots, found a pair of cheap dangerously high heels and bought a couple of pounds worth of cheap makeup to apply heavily. The dress was easy. For those who recall, Debbie wore a bin bag as a dress as an ultimate punk statement for her video appearance in “Atomic” (an all time favourite of mine). I donned my torn fishnets, plastered on the smeary make-up and eased on my bin bag. The shoes were a chore to walk in, having a good 3 inch heels but I valiantly tried and I must admit that my legs were a sight to behold. My calves had never looked as fine as in those plastic snakeskin travesties. The dress was a bit unexpectedly short. I’d forgotten that bin bags aren’t too long and with a requisite belt, barely covered my pants.
It was snowing heavily and the steep path to my friend’s house was like a luge track. It was touch and go whether we emulated the film “Cool Running” and my friends who were with me were keen to climb aboard and use me as a sled to slide down on, but we managed without. We must have looked a little alarming. More alarming was the party. In my planning I’d thought “Well, we’re all friends. People will think it’s just C having a laugh.” I’d forgotten that there were a lot of husbands and friends who didn’t know me and were there also. I’d also forgotten that as a novice dragger-upper I had no concept that I needed to keep my knees together. My Calvin Klein pants got a lot of viewing that night and I made a lot of small talk with some slightly edgy straight men. The quartet of Smurfs who attended distracted us all though. Apparently it’s still politically correct to “blue-up”.
Since then I’ve been Marcel Marceau, a gypsy wedding guest and a decomposed vicar, all fantastic fun. Seeing my best friend and her family (my second family as I see them) done up in the tackiest wedding finery imaginable for her 40th was great fun and Paul and I made great bruisers. I became quite attached to my quite convincing temporary neck tattoos. My rotted vicar made me realise I’d have made a scarily good vicar: I have the bone structure. Marcel was a joy too; no better way to amuse and annoy than to spend an evening doing very bad mime.
I must add one final warning though. It can be risky. It’s not just the risk of running into the ex, scaring straight men with your legs or falling off the heels. Fancy dress does have one more peril, the serious conversation. Dressed as Su-Bo wasn’t perhaps the best outfit to have on to be engaged in a lengthy discussion a friend wanted about a relative’s terminal illness. Maybe the drafty bin bag makes listening for an hour while a friend talks through her family issues was less than conducive and it is hard to make the right facial expressions in mime artist make-up whilst a friend spills out her recent battles with alcoholism. Oh what the hell, go for it anyway. If they want to talk to a zombie about their sexual dysfunction then it’s definitely their prerogative. Maybe they find it easier, like talking to a stranger on a bus or ringing a late night phone in and who am I to deny some comfort. I can do listening when needed whatever I’m wearing.