Inside the fancy dress sale of the century

ARMY GAME: John Whitworth pictured here in the uniform of a British officer is selling off his extensive fancy dress collection.
ARMY GAME: John Whitworth pictured here in the uniform of a British officer is selling off his extensive fancy dress collection.
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Cossies for pirates and steampunks, vampires and vicars… John Vincent reports on how an unrivalled collection of costumes is going up for auction.

When I was eight years old I was invited to a friend’s birthday party in a remote manor house and my mother, anxious that I should look smart, forced me to wear a suit and tie.

It was only after she had dropped me off in her old purple Singer car that I discovered it was fancy dress and I spent the whole evening being laughed at, particularly when I foolishly agreed to take part in the parade: a lone, self-conscious schoolboy among hordes of kids dressed as Superman, Batman, cowboys, Red Indians, pirates and nurses.

Not surprisingly, it put me off fancy dress parties for life. But if you are a fan and happen to live in the Huddersfield area then you may have picked out your outfit at John Whitworth’s magnificent emporium of vintage clothing and accessories, B Authentic, on the Tanyard industrial estate, Milnsbridge.

Now, having reached the age of 70, he is shutting up shop and the period costumes he has been hiring out for the past decade – for fancy dress and themed parties, masked balls, weddings, stage plays, battle re-enactments and murder mystery weekends as well as to TV and film companies, schools, museums and to photographers as props – are up for grabs.

The extraordinary cornucopia of clothes, through medieval, Elizabethan and Victorian times to the 1980s, plus swords, guns and shields, is to be sold without reserve in 1,500-2,000 lots at auctioneers CW Harrison of Ossett from September 9-12, but neither Mr Whitworth nor saleroom boss Deon Harrison has a clue what it might fetch and there are bound to be many bargains.

All eras are catered for but speciality of the house is 40s wear: women’s dresses, Second World War uniforms and demob suits, catering for a surge in popularity of theme parties from the decade of make-do-and-mend. Popular, too, are get-ups for fans of steampunk (a sub-culture incorporating modern technology with the steam-powered machinery of the 19th century, m’lud) and “Western vampire house” (no? Me neither!).

An interesting chap is John Whitworth, who bought his original stock from a woman in Cleckheaton. In his time he’s been an electrician, salesman, ski instructor in the Tyrol, ran a stationery business employing 50 people and, as a member of Equity, had walk-on parts in TV programmes including Coronation Street, Emmerdale and Crown Court, while also becoming handy at karate, squash and water skiing in his spare time.

Now he is selling up, he plans to resume skiing – despite surgery for replacement knees. But far from retiring he will be devoting even more time to his successful, unusual, shabby-chic bed and breakfast, The Edge Accommodation in Huddersfield, on the site of an old piggery, which I see has rave reviews on TripAdvisor.