What Happened to the Costume Party?

My readers are rather good at calling me out on being consistent.

Late last evening I mentioned on social media that perhaps it was time for me to hang up the Superman suit/persona which I joke around with online.  Let’s face it, whether it’s golden era George Reeves, or modern Christopher Reeve, or post-modern Henry Cavill, the outfit is pretty silly-looking, whoever wears it.  However the subsequent outpouring of both public and private negative reaction to the idea of my not using this foil for your attentions caught me somewhat off-guard.

A subscriber to this blog who shall remain nameless pointed out that only recently they had enjoyed a piece about suiting up which I wrote back in September.  Truthfully I had forgotten about it entirely, as unfortunately often happens after I write a post.  Perhaps I needed to be reminded of what I had written, because a man’s word is still his bond, after all.  And as fate would have it, this did get me thinking about the idea of costume itself.

It must be observed that our grandparents seemed to throw more costume parties than we do.  One of the things I love about Halloween is that otherwise serious adults get the chance to be silly and creative, and that often involves dressing up in costume.  It is unfortunate however that the costume party has almost entirely gone out of fashion in this country – with the possible exception of New Orleans, of course – but for this one time of the year.  Why is this the case?

Historically, costume parties have long been a part of Western culture, sometimes celebrating particular events on the calendar such as Carnival, i.e. the last days of celebration before the fasting and penance of Lent.  Sometimes these events were held for no particular reason whatsoever.  The practice was once so common that we can see numerous depictions of costume-as-leitmotif in a huge variety of artistic and literary works, from painters like Antoine Watteau and Francisco de Goya, to novelists like Edgar Allan Poe and Daphne du Maurier.

Look at the classic Alfred Hitchcock film “To Catch a Thief” for example, where the climactic scenes take place against the backdrop of a masquerade ball which the characters are attending.  Grace Kelly is fitted out like an 18th century princess, while Cary Grant is disguised as a mysterious Moorish figure.  The humor and surprise from mistaken identity, and the adoption of a persona as would an actor on the stage, are integral to the plot of Hitchcock’s movie.  This is turn gives a nod back to similar plot devices in sources such as English Restoration comedies and fin de siècle Viennese operettas.

Sometimes these affairs could become extremely lavish. Writer and socialite Nancy Mitford for example, one of those “Bright Young Things” whom Evelyn Waugh hung about with in London back in the Roaring Twenties, recalled in her memoirs how often costume parties used to be thrown, which required all sorts of inventiveness on the part of both host and guest. One night there might be a Mozart-themed party, another night would be circus-themed dance, and still another evening there might be a cowboy-themed cocktail hour.  We see these types of events in film or in works of art, and we read about them in literature, but we do not commonly see them around us today.

Surely this is not because we have grown more dour and serious as a culture.  In fact I would argue that the reverse is patently the case.  Yet given how obsessed society is with celebrity and the marketing of consumer goods related to entertainment of all sorts, one would think that costume parties would actually be more frequent, rather than so infrequent.  In an increasingly vapid and shallow age, the worship of this month’s celebrity tartlet or steroid-enhanced athlete would seem to naturally lead to a copycat phenomena in party-going that has not, to date, occurred.

However I suspect therein lies the answer.  It is not that costume parties are no longer relevant.  Rather it is that far too many are now incapable of being creative enough to be challenged into holding one.  When the grandparents decided to dress up as Antony and Cleopatra for a costume party, they had to make the costumes themselves, unless they rented them from a theatrical costumer.  Today, thanks to lazy consumerism and an ongoing obsession with cheap imports, you can have the full kit sent from China for less than it cost you to fill up your car this morning.  The creative aspect has largely vanished.

So if I am to stay up here in this rather pointless cape for awhile longer, then I want to challenge you, gentle reader, to think beyond Halloween when it comes to the idea of the costume party.  Try to use the excuse of a social gathering – whether for an anniversary, New Year’s Eve, Tuesday night, or what have you – as an opportunity to bring back this lost form of creativity.  With elections coming up  for example, what about having a political theory theme if you are hosting people to watch your local election returns? After all, it might be rather fun to see John Stuart Mill sitting next to Plato on the couch in the den, eating nachos.

Despite what many of the Me Generation tried to teach us, their children and pupils, the truth is that human beings generally perform far better when we are given certain boundaries and parameters to work within. That holds true for morality and civility, and it also holds true in creative and social life as well.  I suspect that what our grandparents understood was that a costume party is a terrific way to actually praise, rather than insult, the intelligence of your guests.

By challenging a guest to attend an event with a costume theme, just broad enough to work within but not so broad as to be an anything goes situation, you are actually paying your guest a compliment.  You are assuming that they will be able to use their brain power to come up with something unique or well-executed.  And a good guest will seek to rise to that occasion, not only because they want to be polite, but because it is both fun AND intellectually stimulating.  That, in itself, would constitute a great reason to revive this tradition.

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Grace Kelly and Cary Grant in the masquerade ball scene of “To Catch a Thief” (1955)

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5 thoughts on “What Happened to the Costume Party?

  1. William, I would imagine that the costume ball or party was an outlet for a more disciplined society. When required to behave with more restricted manners for work and in public, as well as being more civic, people looked for the occasional outlet of their pent-up libidos. Certainly, anonymous flirting was something of a major element to these parties. People can argue the morality of flirting and the boundaries of tasteful interaction, but sex is a major component of human development and behavior. People, even very moral people are still human beings. I think it is probably a little easier to be good most of the time, after we recognize in ourselves the occasional sin (i.e., flirty with a stranger) than to be perpetually good, even if it is only a delusional righteousness one is living.

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  2. I haven’t dressed up for Halloween since… hmm… seminary, I think. We used to do an All-Saints themed halloween, where you could dress up like a saint. The one year a Franciscan lent me a habit for the day, so I went as Fr. Francis. That was cool. (It didn’t alter my vocational call to the diocesan priesthood, however!)

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  3. Well said, dear Courtier!

    One thing I thought of in response to your assertion that “it is both fun AND intellectually stimulating,” is that it is fun in large part BECAUSE it is intellectually stimulating.

    Here’s an anecdote that you, being interested in art, may particularly enjoy. On Saturday last, my wife’s sorority chapter had a Halloween party. One couple arrived, him in a white smock and long, curly wig, carrying a homemade artist’s palette, and her with a copy of the Mona Lisa strapped around her shoulders, head through a hole where the face would be. Everyone agreed it was the most creative costume–or set of costumes–that night!

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