This week’s column: fancy dress

There are two kinds of people in life. Those who receive a fancy dress invitation and think ‘Yippee, I’ll just nip upstairs and have a rummage in my fancy dress box,’ and those who think ‘Oh bloody hell, fancy dress again, what’s wrong with going to a party wearing jeans and a nice shirt?’

Given the recently surfaced photo of Paul Hollywood dressed as a Nazi, grinning from behind a loaded Fosters ashtray in a Kent pub, I think we can put him down as a fancy dress man. As we can Prince Harry, who also once dressed as a Nazi for a ‘colonials and natives’ party in Gloucestershire in 2005. Lord Worsley, the son of the Earl of Yarborough, is another exuberant dresser up. He covered his face in boot polish for a fancy dress party in Lincolnshire a couple of years ago, which we only found out about because he drove his car into a lamppost on the way home and startled the police officers when they arrived on the scene. The aristocracy love a fancy dress party because it means they can dress up as an ancestor – a king or a military leader – and pretend they still rule over things. The Duke of Rutland’s nephew held a fancy dress wedding at Belvoir Castle the other weekend. What larks.

Anyway, since Halloween is approaching and as this country now seems to take this ‘holiday’ more reverently than Christmas, I thought it worth issuing a few fancy dress rules for those who get confused when asked to dress up.  

The first rule isn’t a complicated one but it is extremely important. If a fancy dress invitation arrives in your inbox and you open it and the perfect outfit instantly comes to mind, take a moment to consider the following: ‘Could this costume in any way be considered racist?’ If you’re still not sure of the answer, try this question: ‘Has this outfit ever been worn by anyone who’s perpetrated mass crimes against humanity?’ Google it if you get stuck. I’m telling you, it’s really worth making sure on this one. If the answer is ‘yes’ or even ‘maybe’, you need to come up with something else.

The second rule is no ‘slutty’ fancy dress. It has become fashionable, in recent years, to sex up fancy dress, to come to parties dressed as a ‘slutty’ nun or a ‘slutty’ pirate or a ‘slutty’ pumpkin. The weirdest variation of this was a ‘slutty’ Cecil the Lion costume I saw online a couple of years ago, which consisted of a golden, skin-tight body suit with a furry hood and a long tail. But fancy dress isn’t about trying to be sexy. It’s about being silly and creative and transforming yourself into something else entirely (but, just to be clear, not a Nazi), so you go to the party and make people laugh. It’s not about trying to be a sexy root vegetable.

I know that fancy dress is about the absurd because I dressed up as Michelangelo’s David for a Tatler party a few years ago. My costume was an apron printed with David’s muscly torso, grey underwear and several pots of grey body paint. I plastered myself in the body paint, head to toe, ran it through my hair for good measure and went off to the party where the penis on the apron cause general hilarity (as already touched upon, fancy dress parties are not cerebral occasions). But this brings us to rule number three. If your costume involves any sort of body paint or face paint, make sure you shower when you get home so you don’t ruin the sheets and wake in the morning and shriek melodramatically that you’re dying from lead poisoning like an Elizabethan lady.

Finally, rule number four, don’t feel like you’ve got to spend a fortune on a complicated outfit with multiple layers and accessories. My apron was £7.99 from eBay. Look to the words of Cecil Beaton, who wrote an essay on the topic of fancy dress for Vogue in 1937. ‘Nowadays an effective grandeur can only be legitimately achieved with everyday utensils,’ he wrote. ‘Steel wool pot-cleaners, egg-beaters, egg-separators, dish-cloths, tin moulds and patent hangers all make excellent costume trimming.’

So there you go, have a whip-round your kitchen. Let your imagination run wild with a spatula. And, also, just to make absolutely sure we’ve all got this, Nazis are out. Nazi costumes are always out.