fancy dress and costumes

In the Weekend magazine in Saturday's Guardian, the following letter to the editor appeared:
Please reword your Q&A for Americans. Clearly, to them, "fancy dress" means "dressing for a fancy party". Why I need to know if Joyce Carol Oates would dress as a bee or a pirate I'm not sure, but I do.
Jane Jones Manchester
She's referring to a feature in each week's magazine, in which a standard set of questions is put to some famous person.  Here's the relevant question, and Joyce Carol Oates' response:
What would be your fancy dress costume of choice?
A beautiful Fortuny gown.
I would have thought that some Americans would understand this question, just because the word costume is in it, and we go to (BrE) fancy dress parties in costume.  In fact, we rarely use the word costume for anything except fanciful disguises, unlike in BrE, where (swimming/bathing) costume is is often used to mean (AmE) swimsuit or bathing suit.   Our disguise-themed parties are thus called (AmE) costume partiesBut perhaps Ms Jones is right...have other American Guardian Q&A victims misunderstood the question?  Here's a survey:

Jared Leto:  Authentic period Genghis Khan body armour or the original Ziggy Stardust outfit.

Hugh Hefner:  My pyjamas.  [note BrE spelling; AmE is pajamas]

John Waters:  I'd never go to a costume party - I have to dress as John Waters every day.

Cybill Shepherd: Belinda The Good Witch.

Camille Paglia:  David Hemmings' Hussars uniform in The Charge Of The Light Brigade.

Eli Roth:  A turn-of-the-19-century millionaire, in a top hat and tails.

David Schwimmer:  Tuxedo, but with a cream jacket.

Mickey Rooney:  Tuxedo with tails, but I really prefer to wear shorts all year long. I'm a California-casual kind of guy.

Juliette Lewis:  A peacock.

Jorja Fox: My birthday suit.

Nathalie Merchant:  Traditional Dutch girl.

Damon Dash:  James Bond, a real cool English dude.

Now, of course, this was just a lame excuse for me to read the celebrity pages instead of doing something useful with my Friday night.  We can see that a couple of them have misunderstood and a few others are ambiguous.  We can suspect that some have spend a lot of time in the UK, or have had the question explained to them.  But, excuse me, Interviewer Person; it seems a bit cruel (or thick) to allow 'tuxedo' as an answer.  More questions are asked than published, so, for instance, we'll never know what Viggo Mortensen would be for Halloween.   So, the only possible reasons to publish that David Schwimmer would wear a tuxedo to a fancy (dress) party are (a) he was unspeakably boring in all his answers--at least this one had some detail, or (b) to make him look boring.  Possibly both.

Besides being an excuse to read about celebrities, this post is an excuse to provide a link to an article that Strawman sent me, on why it is that the British have so many fancy dress parties.  (And when in Rome...)  It starts with this story:
There is a popular urban legend about a British couple in New York who attended a black tie gala dressed as a pair of pumpkins. Turns out they had misinterpreted the host’s instruction to ‘dress fancy,’ as an invitation for fancy dress — something Americans only do once a year on Halloween. Did they burst into tears and run home? Not a chance. Being Brits, they put on brave faces, pulled their orange foam bellies up to the bar, and proceeded to get shamelessly drunk as the Manhattan glitterati swirled around them.
The Canadian author goes on to recount her inverse experience--showing up in a cocktail dress for a costume party--and has some nice observations on the phenomenon.

It's been a while since I've been invited to a fancy dress party...perhaps my friends are getting too old.  (And perhaps that'll spark some party-organi{s/z}ing!)  So tell us:  What is your fancy dress costume of choice?


  1. Masquerade Balls, or simple masquerade parties are well known in North America, and happen much more than once a year. When I was in college the first time, someone had one every other weekend.

  2. I'm a Californian, and when I was in college (I mean, um, university!) about ten years ago, themed parties were all the rage. My friends and I personally put on a Pimps n' Hos party, Candyland party (dress like a preschooler and drink candy-flavored cocktails), 80s party and more. We didn't really think of them as costume parties, but, in a sense, that's what they were. I don't exactly have my finger on the pulse of today's youth, but I think party themes are still somewhat popular.

  3. I don't think you can deduce anything from the appearance of "pyjamas" except a British sub-editor.

    Many years ago, I went to a Halloween party in the role of Baby Huey, wearing an appropriately-sized diaper/nappy and carrying an all-day sucker (a lollipop about a foot across). To avoid problems getting there, I wore a raincoat, since it was raining anyway.

    I won first prize for Best Costume.

  4. I'm curious about 'tuxedo but with a cream jacket'. Isn't the tuxedo the jacket? Or can it refer to the whole outfit? I would have expected him to say 'cream tuxedo'.

  5. As President Josiah "Jed" Bartlet in The West Wing, only libertarian. 40 years ago I expect a typical BrE-speaker wouldn't have known what a tuxedo was, probably assuming it was a town in Kansas or a type of petrol-/gas-station. Like ros, I still don't know if it's just the (BrE dinner) jacket or the whole suit. When I worked for BP (also a type of petrol-/gas-station), a mischievous employee convinced his boss that the office-party was fancy-dress. Everyone else was in evening-wear but the boss came as a tiger, complete with tassly tail which all the ladies wanted to the play with and the guys to step on.

    In a vaguely recollected story, a worse-for-wear gentleman at a ceremonial ball asked for a dance with a fellow-partygoer who was dressed in gorgeous scarlet silk from neck to toe. The reply came: "No, I will not dance with you - firstly because you are drunk and secondly because I am the cardinal-archbishop of Vienna." Costume in French is just a suit, which must have led to at least one invitation-related misunderstanding. As undergraduates at Leeds we went to a drama-lecture about something which the frightfully posh lecturer kept calling /'kɔstʃm/ and it took us a few minutes to work out that his subject was costume. Departing even further from the theme, an American in a British pharmacist/chemist/drug-store had problems asking for some medicine for her /'nɑ:ʒə/ which turned out to be nausea.

    I once had to go to a funeral in Middlesex (near London) and found the parish-church surrounded by all the paraphernalia of a television-crew filming a murder-mystery. Needing directions to the Methodist chapel, I asked a policeman who turned out to be one of the cast. Walking away hugely embarrassed, I cautiously approached a similarly-attired but less thespian-looking man who, when I asked if he was real, didn't see the funny side. I always wear a stripy tie which, unfortunately, looks like part of the staff-uniform of at least two of Britain's train-operating companies. I often get asked on the way back from the loo if we're running on time and, if I were dishonest, could collect a lot of tickets and, even, penalty-fares. Some posh places in London still have a dress-code for male diners, only serving men in ties. Some friends of mine were actually ejected from a club in Soho because they had suits and ties on. Apparently, it spoiled the place's coolness.

    If I go somewhere hip with my daughter in Brighton, the average age always doubles as I arrive. When doing a postgrad at Kent, my first cousin kept getting mistaken for staff and found some of the other students started using her as a sort of mum. The same daughter, though 25, is still very flattered to be asked in shops for proof of age. A friend's brother who is an Aer Lingus pilot was exasperated to find that, having flown a giant plane across the sea to a foreign capital, he was still, at 24, too young to hire/rent a car there. Elderly people at bus-stops are sometimes called twirlies because, at around 09:25 when their free bus-passes aren't quite valid yet, they pleadingly ask the bus-drivers: "Am I twirly?"

  6. The problem can arise in purely BrE, too.

    While in Bath some girls were having a night out, and they'd decided to "dress up". Luckily the girl who was in doubt asked beforehand.

  7. My friend's daughter (C) is a first year undergraduate in London, and was off to a fancy dress party. An American student, who didn't know it was fancy dress, asked C what she was going to wear. "My dressing gown," replied C. The other student then asked, "Oh, is it formal?" She thought that a 'dressing gown' must be a posh frock.

  8. I have occasionally contrived fancy-dress costumes for skating parties, but the last time I did so, the prize went to someone who had bought or hired (BrE)/(AmE) rented theirs, which I thought was very off, when other people (not just me) had taken time and trouble to make a costume.

    Not sure that I would go to a fancy-dress party these days; think I'd make some excuse!

  9. Laura in Cambridge23 January, 2010 22:10

    Wow. I have lived here for three years now, have heard that expression on numerous occasions, and have never, ever made that connection. Like the Canadian author, I would have assumed it meant dressing semi-formally!
    Thank you so much for this. haha

  10. The film "In America" is about Irish illegal immigrants in New York in the 1980s. In one scene the daughters go to the school's Halloween party to find everyone else in "bought" costumes so their homemade ones stick out.

    I've never been to a US costume party so I don't know whether costumes really are always rented; TV suggests so, but then TV also suggests everyone at all parties is a professional dancer.

    While costume shops became common in the Celtic Tiger era, I would still feel wrong renting one rather than cobbling something together because (a) I'm a tightwad and (b) it would feel like cheating and (c) if I'm going to look a fool I would rather not pay for the privilege.

  11. This leads me to a related question: Does the word "fancy" mean the same thing on both sides of the Atlantic? From this discussion, I suspect not.

  12. Half the fun is making your own costume.
    One time at a Halloween party, I won first prize dressed as 'Velveeta, the Vampire housewife.' I'm not sure whether it was my cute gingham apron over a black leotard and (US type) tights or my lunch bag sandwich with food-dye "blood" which tipped the balance.

  13. @ros

    When I hear "cream tuxedo" I think of both pants/trousers and jacket being cream. I have seen photos of some very uncomfortable bridegrooms in baby blue tuxedos.

    So for Mr. Schwimmer, I would expect he meant black pants/trousers and a cream jacket.

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  15. Maybe it's just because I'm involved in performing a lot, but to me a costume is something you wear on stage, or while otherwise performing. A sports uniform could be called a costume.

    I would understand the AmE costume party, but it would not be my first thought.

  16. I'm posting this on behalf of Anthea in Australia, who was having problems with the comments system:

    " Here in Australia, if people ask you to a fancy dress or theme party you either make something or hire a costume. My grandchildren have been to a few - either as fairies or monsters, in home-made garments.

    But we older people struck a hurdle the other day in our nephew's wedding invitation. At the bottom it said Dress: Formal. To our generation that means Black Tie - dinner jacket and long dress etc. My husband's dinner jacket disintegrated years ago, so he e-mailed nephew and said "It will have to be an ordinary suit, the one I wear to funerals." Nephew's reply was, "Fine, all we meant by Formal was No T-shirts, and no thongs (sandals)." So I bought a short silk dress (first in ten years!) and he wore his suit. So did most others."

    That reminded me of this post about 'smart casual'--in case you're interested. (Please leave comments about 'smart casualty' there!)

  17. I'm very familiar with this transatlantic confusion, as I've belonged for many years to an Internet mailing list discussing historical costume (I'm a reenactor). We reenactors make a distinction between our costumes, which are proper garments that can stand up to hard wear, and fancy dress costumes which may have been made to give a visual impression and to last only one evening.

    Kate (Derby, UK)

  18. I'm pretty crap at fancy dress parties, due to a) my cheapness, and b) my inability to make a decent outfit myself. The last one I was even halfway proud of was for a London Underground themed party, for which I covered myself in beer bottle labels. Maida Vale, made of ale, you see. Unfortunately I only had a few ale bottles lying around, so most of them were actually lager labels, which ruined the gag.

  19. Ginger Yellow - you should have gone as Angel - but perhaps there were dozens already!

    Fancy-dress parties were a regular feature of life in the Forces 50 years ago - my mother made some wonderful costumes and hats, which were combined with wigs and professional greasepaint.

    Also 40 or 50 years ago, 'costume' in BrE was used by middle-aged ladies to refer to a dressy day outfit, such as a two-piece suit worn with a hat.

    'Fancy' usually means 'elaborate' in BrE - fancy cakes spring to mind. Of course, 'fancy man' is something completely different!

    Sili - I loved your distinction between dressing UP, and dressing-up. There is a wonderful true story about a grand house whose grandchildren found a 'dressing-up box' in the attic - it turned out to be a trunk full of vintage Fortuny gowns.

  20. I was recently invited to a costume party/fancy dress party by some American friends. The theme was 'white trash', a term I'd never heard of. I suppose I really ought to have done some more research as I turned up in a bin liner with white cardboard, milk bottles and paper carefully attached. But then, according to the article you linked to, that's not a bad idea anyway.

    Brighton is also a fantastic place to live in if you're a fan of fancy dress parties (as I am) but arrive by public transport, because no one takes a blind bit of notice. I have got on buses dressed as Sgt Angua from the Terry Pratchett Discworld series (in hotpants, fishnets, faux chainmail, a cloak and dog-collar with Watch badge - I was going for the Josh Kirby look), AIDS (covered in plasters, for an STD-themed party) and even a Tetris block (the long, thin one, for a video games party) and not had a single comment from the driver or other passengers.

  21. "Ginger Yellow - you should have gone as Angel - but perhaps there were dozens already!"

    Many. And I wanted to be original. I was tempted to buy a crate of ale just for the labels (the booze would of course be an added bonus), but I couldn't be bothered.

  22. @Ginger Yellow: Hm, I know someone else who was invited to an underground-themed party. Are they very popular, or might this have been the same party?

  23. Just recently became aware of this difference when trying to explain to a group of American relatives that I'd recently been at a 'fancy dress wedding'...they were looking at each other, no doubt thinking, what's so unusual about that? To answer the question, I went as Shrek. :)
    To go back to Julie's question about 'fancy', it is different in specific contexts, yes. One thing I keep noticing over here is in the sporting domain: whereas a TV presenter in the UK might ask his studio panel of 'experts' who they 'fancy' to win the upcoming match, the oft-repeated question here is 'who do you like?'

  24. @biochemist: Yes, I'd completely forgotten that. My grandmother, who was a middle-aged woman in the 1950s (actually, she was very little older than I am now, which is really rather shattering!) always referred to a coat-and-skirt combination, which I would call a suit, as a "costume".

  25. I don't think my first attempt went through, but I haven't seen it, so I'll post again.
    So now, after reading this, I have to wonder what AC/DC mean in "Some balls are held for charity and some for fancy dress"? Since I'm American, I've always interpreted this to mean formal events, but from the lone Australian post, it would seem that they have the UK sense, but I have difficulty with a costume party being described as a ball. (on the other hand Dilsnik does not, so I suppose it could be the case) So which is it?

  26. Back in the early 1960s, my wife received an invitation (in writing) to an "Apache Party". This was intended to be an apache-dance party, but my wife (who has notably high cheekbones) appeared dressed as an Apache! Ultra-humiliation.

    Paul Danon: Tuxedo may mean either the black (or midnight blue) jacket or the whole ensemble, which is also known as black tie, the formal-but-not-ultraformal wear of American males.

    Mollymooly: At costume parties hosted by reasonable adults, as opposed to teenagers, either homemade or rented costumes are perfectly acceptable. The costume I described in my comment above was, I suppose, bought; at any rate there was certainly no question of returning it!

    (In AmE, as I guess everyone knows, we hire only persons; things are rented, or sometimes leased.)

  27. @Spanish Cow:
    I didn't quite mean that. I think most Americans know the verb fancy, although we'd never use it.

    I meant the adjective fancy...the one that leads us to envision very different things from the phrase "fancy dress." For me, at least the work "fancy" often (depending on context) carries connotations of expense or some kind of pretense to wealth. (Did you see her fancy new car? Must've cost a bundle.)

    Oh, and "costume," lacking specific context, does not include anything you'd normally wear. (Performers excepted -- everything they wear on stage is costume.) So "costume party" is a very clear description. People I know don't normally rent costumes.

  28. "I know someone else who was invited to an underground-themed party. Are they very popular, or might this have been the same party?"

    Yeah, they're pretty popular. I've been to a couple, and I don't go to all that many fancy dress parties since I left university.

  29. @Julie: Apologies, thought you meant the verb, for some reason. Monday madness, no doubt.

  30. to bring the discussion back to why a tuxedo, I once went to a 'Bad Taste' fancy-dress party in evening dress---I mean that WAS bad taste for me.
    So perhaps...

  31. A quick burst of etymology. This is all out of my memory, which is why it doesn't include any dates.

    "Fancy" was originally a noun and meant the human imagination.

    "Fancy dress", which I believe dates from about the 19th century, is therefore clothing that you've thought up using your imagination, depicting some imaginary character.

    "Fancy" decoration on cakes, etc. is similarly decoration that you've invented out of your own imagination. Extra squiggles, lace, curlicues, flowers, etc. Which led to the idea of "the opposite of plain" and generally better or at least more expensive.

    To say "I fancy X" is the same as saying "I can imagine myself doing/having X". In other words, "I want X".

  32. Our family of four went to a friend's fancy dress party as the Simpsons once. We coated our faces with yellow paint and sprayed our hair yellow or blue (as appropriate). We painted the face of one of my daughter's dolls, too, so she would stand in for the baby, Maggie. It wasn't until we got to the party that we realised we'd left the baby behind (which, on reflection, was exactly the sort of thing that would happen to Maggie).

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  34. I went to an erotic themed fancy dress party a while ago. The best costume was a woman in a towel, plastic cap and gold tinsel wig...

  35. I've also finally got OpenID to work! Huzzah.

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  37. I don't know whether you normally do more weeding out, but I'm curious to see that this post has garnered several spam comments about fancy dress.

  38. I do a lot of weeding out, but in the cases where I've left them, it looked more like they'd actually read the post, so I was tempted to delete, then thought it might not be fair. Though, I suppose, they're getting advertising without paying for it, so that's not 100% fair either.

    What think you?

  39. Delete all postings that contain advertising.

  40. Not many opinions expressed on the topic, but I have removed the ones with links to fancy dress costume companies.

  41. I think the original statement by JCO was ambiguous as to whether she understood or intended the BrE sense. A Fortuny dress by now is an antique, something (as a poster mentioned) to be found in the dressing-up box or elsewhere in the attic. Elaborate garments of a prior age are standbys at costume parties. So it'd be both fancy dress AND a fancy dress.

  42. Of course, transatlantic confusions on this topic can go the other way too... Shortly after my [BrE] wife met my [AmE] brother in Florida, and we were all going for a swim, she mentioned that she'd need her costume. This of course led to jokes about going swimming in an AmE-style "costume", the favorite of which seemed to be a gorilla suit.

    To this day, we can hardly mention going to the beach without some reference arising to doing so dressed as a gorilla.

  43. "costume" would be a clue, but to my AmE ears, the words "fancy dress" would just about cancel that out. Without the prompting of this entry, I'd think of one of those formal masked balls you occasionally see in historical movies. Dressing up as Marie Antoinette or a Roman centurion, that sort of thing. I definitely wouldn't think of going as a pumpkin!

    In the US, a costume party would only happen around Halloween. A theme party can happen any time of year, though, and I'd expect some costumes, along with food and music, that line up with the theme.

  44. Would it appear David Schwimmer didn't understand the question and was in fact thinking about dressing fancy?
    Oh yeah, also
    Damon Dash is an idiot.

  45. @Stig: Yes and Mickey Rooney too, and possibly others who remarked on an outfit (p{a/y}jamas, birthday suit) rather than a costume that required taking on a different persona. (That was what led to my conclusion that Americans don't always understand the term.)

  46. I've had to close comments for this entry because of persistent spammers. Sorry!


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