A Look at Fancy Dress Throughout the Ages

May 27th, 2016
women wearing victorian dress in the late 1800s

Unlike film and theatre costume, the history of fancy dress isn’t well documented, as it is a more private pursuit. However, as fancy dress has become more common in Western society, particularly at Halloween and during cosplay festivals, we’re taking a look at fancy dress through the ages. Some people prefer to dress up as characters from a popular game that they enjoy playing and others prefer movie themes or history but the traditional fancy dress parties consisted of just masks to cover their faces and fancy ball gowns.

Taking a step back in time and heading to Venice is probably one of the first times history saw something of a fancy dress party. Masquerade balls and Venetian carnivals in the 15th century and the idea of a disguise intermingled with everyday life at these events. Masquerade balls were elite affairs, often involving royal processions and actors. Catherine de’Medici, an Italian noblewoman who married the future French King Henry II, moved the spirit of the festivities from Italy to France, and with her love of theatre and dressing up, she put on court festivals that included costumes. Guests generally dressed up as shepherds, Greeks, Trojans, Amazons and Turks.

In England, despite Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans closing theaters, many masquerade balls took place to provide entertainment in London. Another fancy dress festival that became popular at the popular English school Eton, which dated back to as early as 1561, was Montem.

Montem was an ancient tradition that involved a military-style parade, where costumes were hired in from some of the most prestigious theaters across the country. These costumes included Turks, Albanians, Courtiers of Charles 11 and George 1, Highlanders and hidalgos. Montem was later banned in the 1840s due to the rowdiness of the event.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that fancy dress became truly popular. Middle class societies in Victorian England popularized it and Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s interest in it helped to grow its popularity, moving the festivities to privately held parties, where costumes were luxurious and well-thought out. Many of the costumes used at the time were often historical, bringing contemporary interests in revivalism. Interestingly, in modern days historical outfits remain popular with many dressing up as Victorians and other civilizations creating more of a vintage look.

At the end of the 19th century, the fancy dress company Smiffy’s started out as a hairdressers and wigmakers, which then grew to a specific fancy dress shop. At Smiffy’s you could buy or hire full costumes and wigs. Smiffy’s is still around today, offering a huge choice in fancy dress costumes from the ancient empires onwards.

In the early 20th century, elaborate parties and festivals were an integral part of life and so costumes characterized by gaiety and excess took over. In the 1930s, New York’s architects had successfully borrowed the Parisian tradition of the Beaux Arts Ball (an annual ball put on by students of the national school of Beaux Arts) and dressed up as their own buildings. In the 1980s, the idea of dressing up and performing identities was taken to a new level by LGBT societies and this continued to grow throughout the years to follow, with drag queens becoming popular.

In modern times, Halloween has brought a huge increase to annual costume festivities, and even after teenagers and adults deem themselves too old for trick and treating, they attend costume parties instead.

Other occasions where many people take to fancy dress is during popular science fiction and fantasy events, movie openings and book releases such as for Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. In addition to this, many cosplay events and conventions take place annually to celebrate books, movies, games, anime and other characters. Cosplay originated in Japan and has recently become hugely popular in America. Carnivals, such as Mardi Gras, are also events giving people the chance to dress up.

Other than the huge range of fancy dress that is now available in Western society, fancy dress has always been an integral part of society, with many annual events giving people the chance to dress up. With sporting events beginning to take to the phase, particularly rugby, fancy dress will only continue to grow.

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