Ian McMillan: The plain facts about people in fancy dress

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THE other day, I was at a motorway service station trying to decide whether or not to pay 60p for an apple that looked a bit like one of those shrunken heads you used to see in museums when a crowd of Native Americans rushed in, whooping.

Actually they weren’t much like real Native Americans, they were like the Apache you see in John Wayne films: they had feathered head-dresses and jackets with buckskin fringes and toy bows and arrows.

For a moment I thought I’d happened onto the scene of a historical re-enactment society who were going to recreate The Battle of the Little Big Horn in a car park but then I worked out that there were no braves, they were all squaws and I noticed the minibus in the car park they’d tumbled out of and I realised they were a hen party on their way to a Last Stand in some unsuspecting town in the North East.

It was odd to see them queuing up for cups of tea and slices of cake but what was odder was that nobody was really taking any notice. Native Americans in the coffee-shop queue? So what? People dress up daft all the time these days.

Look at a Welsh rugby crowd: loads of them are dressed as daffodils. Sensible people with sensible jobs go out and hire a daffodil head and it’s not seen as a remarkable act, it’s just something you do, an integral part of the indefinable alchemy of having a good time, so that without the daffodil costume the good time would be, well, less good. I’m not making any kind of judgment here,

I’m not saying it’s worthless or silly, I’m just interested in the phenomenon. The thing is, though, as soon as you’ve put the daft costume on, you can’t be anything other than daft. You can’t tell the kids off when you’re dressed as Batman because that cape and those too-tight shorts seem to make your moral authority fade like morning mist over Arkengarthdale.

Imagine that you’ve just struggled into a full clown outfit and you stagger down the stairs with a bright red nose and a comedy bowler hat and outsize shoes the size of flatfish and your wife stands in the kitchen with a cup of instant coffee steaming up her glasses and announces she’s leaving you.

You can’t weep and wail because you’re dressed as a clown so you have to pull a hooter out of your pocket and hoot it and then press a button that makes your bow tie whizz round until the battery runs out and the whizzing gets slower and slower until it’s barely a whizz at all.

Fancy dress makes you somebody else for as long as you wear it, and maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe it’s like a version of being in the Amateur Dramatic Society and doing South Pacific just for one night, just for one afternoon at the rugby.

I have to confess that I’m speaking from a position of ignorance here, because I’ve never been to a fancy dress party, mainly because I’ve never been invited. I tell a lie: I was invited to one once when I was at college but it got cancelled so I didn’t have to dress up.

I have to tell you though, that the week before the party was cancelled was one of the worst of my life because, like a deb just before she’s presented to court, I simply didn’t know what to wear.

This was back in the 1970s, when fancy dress shops were pretty thin on the ground, and the internet was just a gleam in some general’s inbox, so I couldn’t just go online and order myself an Eiffel Tower with Eyeholes or a Queen Nefertiti getup in XXL.

My mates kept asking me what I was going to go as and I winked and tapped the side of my nose and said “Ah, wait and see…” At night in my student digs I spent hours shifting between worrying about what I was going to wear, trying not to worry about what I was going to wear and holding a tablecloth around my belly to convince myself I looked like Caligula. Or what Caligula would have looked like if he only had a tablecloth to wear and he came from Darfield.

In the end, on the advice of one of the lecturers, I was going to attach a toy plane to my hand with a rubber band and go as an aircraft carrier, but the party never happened so the world was spared that particular artistic and cultural triumph.

Maybe in the end there are two types of people: those who dress up, and those who don’t. Those who run into the service station firing toy arrows in the air, and those who still can’t decide whether or not to buy that apple. Well, I could always sellotape it to your head and go to a fancy dress party as William Tell’s lad.