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Saturday, 20 July 2013


Images of fancy dress

“If you asked me now who I am, the only answer I could give with any certainty would be my name. For the rest: my loves, my hates, down even to my deepest desires, I can no longer say whether these emotions are my own, or stolen from those I once so desperately wished to be.” 
Evelyn Waugh: Brideshead Revisited

At a recent conference in Nottingham Verity Wilson from Oxford gave an engaging presentation on fancy dress in photography. A historian of fashion and textiles rather than photography, she admitted the topic was broader than she had first anticipated. Well, yes. Once anyone started talking about fancy dress in photography they would quickly have to set out parameters and enforce definitions before they were swamped. Here are just a few of the types, genres if you like, of photographs where people not only dressed up for the camera but assumed roles for it: theatrical, tableaux de vivant, family snapshots, glamour, fashion, folk costumes for the tourist market, tourists in folk costumes, fancy dress balls and costume parties, national identity, the erasure of identity and with all that we haven’t left the 19th century yet. Someone asked how we could tell the difference between a fancy dress photo and one of an acting troupe. Often we can’t though the distinction matters. We think actors in costume are less interesting than ordinary citizens in fancy dress because they are only doing their job. The photo above was taken in Winnipeg, C1910. I think it is a group of actors because most of them look like actors but I say that not knowing what exactly an actor looks like. And if it is a group of actors, does it matter if they are amateur rather than professional? Fancy dress in photographs is a form of amateur theatre.

For the purposes of the presentation Ms Wilson excluded actors. She was more interested in that basic desire we have to slip into another character and how the camera was the perfect machine to help us achieve that. It gives us a record that verifies the memory but more than that, from the very beginning there was the idea that the camera was a truth machine and the photograph a fact, so what better use was to be made of it than to manufacture evidence? You could assume any identity you wanted; the camera would vouch for it. 

From the Edwardian era into the 1920s, costume parties were incredibly popular at Oxbridge colleges, particularly among the arts students. A whole mythology has been built around the parties Stephen Tennant and his circle of bright young things threw and cameras were essential. The various images we have of their parties don’t suggest the behaviour was particularly wild but then, people tended to stop what they were doing as soon as the camera came out and hold that pose (Cecil Beaton was often the photographer). Evelyn Waugh’s descriptions of them usually amount to scenes of giggling groups in retarded adolescence recklessly driving around dressed as playing cards, or something to that effect. Fancy dress was part of being liberated. Some social historians relate it to the passing of the Victorian era, others to the end of the First World War, though both seem to be missing something. Just as important was a conscious effort among younger generations to engage in adult games like masked balls that had once been reserved for the very wealthy. The people in this photograph look too rough around the edges part of the Bright Young Thing set; notice how the two men are wearing carpets for togas. 

Tableaux vivant were also a popular Victorian then Edwardian pastime, but unlike costume parties the photograph was the whole point. A scene like this could take hours to put together, given that first it had to be imagined, people had to dress for it and then it had to be arranged. I can’t explain the thinking behind this though it may have had its origins in some fairly trashy artwork. It is possible the children were in a school play but we know Charles Dodgson took a lot of these staged scenes with children and there’s no reason to think he wasn’t following a fashion. During the era when tableaux vivant were popular, people didn’t shy from the morbid or grotesque. For a series of tableaux vivant look at Luminous Lint here.   

This image appears to combine elements of the costume party and the tableau vivant. If it is a costume party I doubt it was very decadent since there appear to be young children in this scene – and no sign of alcohol. They are dressed as Japanese. No idea why they are all pretending to be asleep unless the photographer wanted the impression this was a dream. Despite the costumes, something about this photo tells you immediately it was taken in England.

When it came to fancy dress, other cultures were high on the list, and the more exotic the better. The gut reaction to call it colonialist, or worse, needs to be tempered with the huge number of images we have of Chinese dressing as westerners, Turks as Arabs, Arabs as Chinese and so on. If the motive for dressing as another culture is a joke in bad taste it is also universal. This was obvuiously taken in a photo studio. Was dressing up as Arabs one of the services the studio offered? It isn’t so strange when you think how popular studio cowboys were (see here) or even sitting in a papier maché boat. It is possible too that they are soldiers on the North African front in the Second World War. When he was in Constantinople after the Crimean War, Roger Fenton wanted to photograph some of the locals in their native dress but was too shy to ask. When he returned to England he got his friends to dress up instead.

This is by Theodore Servanis, a Greek photographer working in Constantinople from the 1900s to the 1920s, and it is obviously from a school play. If the play is a French classic by Moliére, Hugo or one of their cohorts, the school was most likely Armenian as French was often the language of instruction and these were the schools that taught European classics. French wasn’t just the language of commerce; it distinguished high from low culture. If the intention was to present the façade of sophistication you could argue that was another form of fancy dress. The wristwatch the girl on the far right wears is a nice touch.

Compare the Servanis photo to this one. The man’s costume indicates he is Meskhetian Turkish, from Georgia, which when this was taken was part of the USSR. Technically this is traditional rather than fancy dress but he wouldn’t have worn this costume in his daily life. The date this was taken is important. In 1944 Stalin began a purge of Georgia and the Meskhetians who weren’t killed fled to the Black Sea region of Turkey, Trabzon in particular. If this was taken at that time he is probably a refugee making an obvious political point.

Speaking of national identity, this woman was photographed at an Elizabethan fair in England on July 30, 1924. Some quick research suggests that the Elizabethan theme was popular for fetes and fairs at the time; several examples of advertisements pop up on the internet. Historians who like symmetry might find it revealing that at one end we have the beginning of the British Empire, at the other its end, but it isn’t really clear that in 1924 most English people accepted the Empire was over. More likely; Elizabethan suggested not only elaborate costumes but also Merrie England, that hard to locate halcyon era that apparently existed sometime after the Black Death and before industrialization. These days we associate Elizabethan with ruthless machinations at the court, religious persecution and the prelude to revolution. History can take the fun out of the past.

What is it with the Far East? As often as not, fancy dress has meant the Orient, for women especially. Around 1880 Japanese style started to become fashionable. One reason was that the country had only recently opened its ports to the West and designers discovered the concept of style with minimum appearance. Teapots, bureaus and vases turned Japanese and kimonos and bamboo umbrellas became fashion items. Ancient Egypt had been popular at the same time but interest waned until Tutankhamen’s tomb was discovered in the 1920s. Japan however never went away. If its allure remained mysterious it might be because the country was never colonized by Europeans. Its stuff never belonged to the West so it never lost its glamour. And if you think about it, there are a lot of things we Europeans can’t do these days; it is crude to wear black face or dress as Native Americans, Arabs, Sikhs, Turks, Zulu or Inuit but even now, when a group get together for fancy dress you can be guaranteed that at least one male will be a cowboy, one female will come Japanese.

Anyone who collects vernacular photographs will have a sizeable proportion devoted to fancy dress, whether they set out with that in mind or not. Some collectors specialize in it. As subjects go these photos are hard to pass over. They are about people having fun for the camera and more than one scholar has pointed out that’s what we think the Kodak was invented for. But there is more, because if all vernacular photos are inherently mysterious, fancy dress adds another layer to the riddle. Philosophically speaking, it is about identity, the construction of truth and reality and so on, with the implicit understanding we are not going to get a single categorical answer. It’s that paradox that the more a photo tells us the less interesting it becomes.


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