Saturday, July 24, 2010

Bad taste

Anyone - even given the constraints of budget, occasion, body type and so on - can make themselves look good. It's just a matter of wanting to. But it takes a special kind of courage to deliberately don an outfit that you and everyone else knows is all wrong. As far as I'm concerned, doing so challenges a life-time's habit, not to mention my pride, my taste, the very roots of self. Still, it's M's 50th birthday party and, at her request, I'll give it a go.

It's not that I despise fancy dress. Sometime in the 70s, D and I were invited to a fancy dress party by someone we didn't know well, and a few days beforehand we began entering into the spirit of the thing. I ransacked her wardrobe and mine for items that might turn me into a Principal Boy. And she resorted to her favourite place - the garden - to collect what was needed to transform herself into a Photosynthesising Person.

D, it will be immediately apparent, was an eccentric. Twenty years older than me, she was quite without personal vanity, and unwordly to what could sometimes be an alarming degree. She lived to garden. An incident which neatly illustrates all three endearing characteristics was the time we dressed up and drove into the city for a performance of The Messiah. In those days, we wore long quasi-hippyish dresses everywhere, and it wasn't until we were walking from the car to the townhall that D peered down at her feet and remarked mildly, "Oh dear, I'm still wearing my gardening jandals."

She wasn't all that keen on human beings, but adored her cats. So, since covering herself in fur was out of the question, becoming a photosynthesising person was a good second best. It was barely fancy dress at all, really - more, the outward expression of an unfulfillable ambition.

You might say the same of my own outfit, except that it was markedly less original. But it too was less a whim of the moment than an expression of an inner desire. 

Every year of my early childhood my mother insisted we attend, en famille, whatever pantomime was being staged at the Palace Theatre, Watford. We took a box so Nana and Grandad could come too. And every year I was captivated by the Principal Boy, whether s/he was Dick Whittington, Jack, or Buttons the Pageboy. Their ringletted and be-frilled love interest, and all that simpering, left me cold. I thrilled to the way the Boys strode about the stage unencumbered by silly clothing, being brave and decisive, and declaiming in confident, ringing tones.

Here's a trio of PBs - one is Vanessa Redgrave (you can decide which); the other two are anonymous. 

This was the look I aspired to that evening. Eventually I pulled together an embroidered, hooded, black velevet, hip-length tunic and broad leather belt, which I wore over thick black tights (not as easy to come by then as they are now) and boots. I contrived some kind of hat and furnished it with a peacock feather. I thought I looked rather dashing.

D, on the other hand, looked quite mad. She wore a green skirt and top, into which she wove various bits of foliage. But the piece de resistance was her headgear - a circlet of ivy whose  tendrils curled long and wild around her head and shoulders.

No sooner had we arrived at the party than I realised that we'd badly misculculated. We were wittily surrounded by nuns, queens, several Father Christmases, and a Jesus Christ toting a cross. No-one else was wandering about in home-made gear looking like escapees from a kindergarten do. They had all hired their gear. They also had the advantage that their alter egos were instantly recognisable, whereas we were forced to explain ourselves to the few guests who actually expressed any interest in our identities. The general feeling seemed to be that we were rather sad and probably best ignored. By the time D had explained to the sixth startled person that she was a Photosynthesising Person, we felt it was time to go home.

Many years later, the X and I took the sensible course of hiring outfits. It was my idea that we go as school kids, and I was perfectly happy in my pigtails, hitched-up black gymslip, torn stockings and panama. But he was overcome with self-consciousness and spent the evening looking utterly miserable in his shorts and cap. At that same do, one of our male friends, looking adorable in his partner's frock, was the victim of an unpleasant incident in the Gents.

On yet another occasion I happily dressed up in my brother's trousers, tweed jacket and cloth cap.

Stylish androgyny, as per Julie Andrews in Victor Victoria, still appeals to me - an older, more sophisticated and sexualised, and definitely more dangerous, Principal Boy.

Just this evening I admired a smashing pair of black wool trousers with braces in a second-hand shop in Cuba Street.

None of this, however, is bad taste. Earlier today, though, wondering what the hell I was going to wear this evening, it occured to me that what I wear for tango would, only six months ago, have seemed to me like bad taste. So it will be a very short red velvet skirt, worn with a horribly different red velvet jacket, black fishnets, and excessive jewellery.

Problem solved! Unless I'm the only guest who's made an effort, and everyone else feels sorry for me. 

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