Stranger danger takes on a whole new meaning at a masked ball, where the freedom to look and be looked at without constraint lies in a flimsy construction of papier-mâché. Dressing up in the 21st century is usually seen as something for children. Type fancy dress into a search engine and you will be inundated with sites selling fairy wings, novelty wigs and plastic fangs. Halloween, that ancient Celtic festival, a time when the veil between this world and the next is at its thinnest and the spirits closest, has been transmuted into a sweetie fuelled frenzy of consumerism in costume – cute but not quite up to the original task of placating or frightening malevolent spirits.
Halloween is the most popular party occasion after Christmas and New Year so clearly adults are keen to join in the fun – but what draws grown-ups to fancy dress? The briefest glance at the skimpy mermaid, nurse or Snow White outfits reveals that they are definitely not doing it for the kids. Child psychologists advocate dressing up as a way to encourage creativity: “play about kings, clowns, fairies or witches encourages children to express their feelings, interact and engage each other in rich feelings Walt Disney would frown on, she is also trying out roles denied her in everyday life.
Freedom is an intrinsic part of fancy dress but the distance from liberty to libertine is a short one. Carnival has religious roots and the elaborate costumed pageants or masques of European Royalty during the Renaissance reinforced sovereign authority, impressed visiting dignitaries and served the political agenda of the day. At the same time masks, costumes and disguises have always unnerved authorities who understood their links to scandal and unrest. In Venice masks were legislated against as early as 1268 and continued to be subject to sanctions for the next four hundred years. In England puritan preacher George Swinnock warned that “sin goes in a disguise” but the idea that fancy dress was tinged with moral danger simply increased its deliciousness…
To read this article by Beth Smith in full, order your copy of Selvedge issue 25 here.