dressing up . . . 1970s style

I’ve been suffering with a migraine, and am still feeling very ropey, so thought I’d just follow on from yesterday’s post about masks and performance, with a few images (and words) about my childhood – in which costume and dressing up played a significant role – and which Pilar is now drawing on in the work she is producing for our Cadaver Exquisito. Here’s a much younger me above, as a Castleton Grime Fighter, and below, as a Jubilee Bee.

My sister, Helen, and I as “Jubilee Bees,” celebrating Brenda’s silver jubilee in 1977.

If you’ve read Handywoman, you’ll already know about the context of these costumes. If not, here’s a short extract from that part of the book:


“I’ve got an idea”, Dad said to Mum, in reference to the Christmas fancy-dress competition that was about to take place at my primary school – and paused, as if opening a curtain, before revealing the mysterious word “inflation”.
It was 1977: I was four, and had absolutely no idea of the significance of this word, but it certainly seemed to mean something to Mum. For the word excited in her a strange animation, and made her start talking about “plans”.
She showed Dad one of her old jumpers – a stretchy, 1960s ribbed affair of guipé and polyester. They decided that would do, and Dad found some weird foamy stuff at work. After tea, I had to amuse myself while Mum whirred away on her sewing machine, and Dad sat in the kitchen, whistling a melodic fragment quietly to himself, absorbed in constructing a curious space helmet out of Bacofoil.
“That looks like fun,” I thought, and tried it on.
“Oh good,” said Dad, “it fits.”
I didn’t think to ask what he was doing with the string, or with the large packet of balloons, which Mum notoriously hated (being a jumpy sort of person who was terrified of a pop!).
A few days later, they’d prepared my outfit for the competition.
I didn’t mind wearing the sparkly tights or my old swimming costume, but I hated the gigantic silver orb to which they were attached. It was hot in there, it smelt like plastic and it squeaked. The whole thing was uncomfortable and squashy, and I couldn’t really sit down. Dad appeared with the space helmet, which was now decorated with several errant balloons, and which he attached to my head with an elastic strap that sat underneath my chin.
I stood there miserably. I knew they found me funny, and I knew I didn’t like it.
“Hmm,” Dad said through a barely repressed wild giggle, “I think she’ll be OK in the car in the suit, but we’ll have to sort out the rest of the balloons when we get to St Gabriel’s.”
I suspect “inflation” of being the foam-filled, spherical origin of my childhood dislike of being laughed at.
A great-aunt sat on the judging panel; rumours of favouritism abounded.
But I still won first prize.

The creation of these costumes became an annual tradition, always beginning with one of Dad’s visual/verbal jokes. Helen would be dressed as a “battery hen” with a crazy hand-fashioned chicken head and the Ever-Ready body which Dad had painstakingly up-scaled and painted onto a gigantic cardboard tube, while I’d be “making a spectacle of myself” in an outlandish 1970s outfit and gigantic glasses à la Elton John. An old pair of Mum’s tights always played their part somewhere in every costume: fastening a mask to our faces or an unwieldy edifice around our necks. Dad’s punning creations were much admired and emulated by competitive parents, and, when a classmate won a prize to much acclaim as the “Hammer House of Horrors” in just the sort of costume he might well have designed, Mum began to mutter darkly about plagiarism. For her, Dad’s conceptual creativity was a source of immense pride, and she was fiercely protective of both him and his ideas.

Over time, the costumes became more and more elaborate. Hunched over a drawing board and technical instruments, it took several weeks for Dad to produce the complicated design for the costume Helen later wore as “The Shrinking Pound”. It was the most involved thing he’d ever created, and, when it failed to win a prize, I remember Mum remarking with exasperation that the judges “just didn’t understand”. Or perhaps they just didn’t like it. For, as the 1970s turned into the 1980s, my parents’ critique of Britain’s socio-economic direction and the politics that drove it took on a greater edge. Helen and I wore costumes with a message: costumes that exposed the relentless platitudes of right-wing power, costumes that spoke of social anger and uncertainty or which ventriloquised Mum and Dad’s sadness at community decline. In a spectacular pair of carnival outfits, with huge floral head-dresses made of tissue paper (attached beneath our chins with the requisite pair of tights), we waved placards celebrating the “flower power” of our neighbourhood, articulating popular protest at the closure of a local park. We stopped winning the prizes, but Mum and Dad kept on making the costumes. Representing “The Tory Cabinet” as a giant weather vane alternating between wets and dries, I was an embodied joke – a child in yet another cumbersome outfit whose meaning it couldn’t understand. But through such small, satiric acts, my parents vocalised their growing antipathy to Thatcher’s Britain. For them, the fancy-dress parade was a gesture of defiance.

From Handywoman (2018)