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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Don’t Be Afraid of Halloween

Yesterday in an online discussion with a friend in Ireland, I commented how fascinating it is to see Halloween gaining in popularity in Ireland and the United Kingsom recent years, to somewhat resemble our practices here.  He (correctly) pointed out that on the contrary, from his perspective it was fascinating to see how Americans had taken some of his country’s customs and made them more popular, since many of our traditions surrounding this holiday originally came from Ireland.  However regardless of the origins of the holiday, there is certainly a split of opinion in this country as to whether we even ought to celebrate it at all.

Of course as is the case with many such celebrations formerly associated with Europeans and Christianity, Americans tend to secularize such observances so as to diminish any serious lessons which might be drawn from them.  Witches, zombies, vampires, and the like are people who are cursed, rather than blessed, and we are supposed to fear them, and turn away from practices and habits that lead us down the path of sin.  Yet on this side of the pond, we are just as likely to dress up as one of those creatures for love of a good prank, as we are something not frightening in the least: a famous person, a member of a profession, a character from fiction, a visual pun, and so on, that makes others laugh at us and compliment how clever we are.

This Halloween, I have not made any significant effort to replicate the experience of last year, which ended up having a much wider impact for me on social media than simply dressing up for a party.  Perhaps my mood is a bit more introspective this year, and I need a break from some of the silliness associated with the secular marking of this date on the Church’s calendar.  For Halloween in the Christian context of course, is simply the vigil for the Feast of All Saints’ Day, November 1st.  It has nothing to do with promoting the latest toys, cartoons, or comic book action heroes, and everything to do with recognizing how much we need to strive to be like the saints, and how dangerous not making that effort can be.

For those of you in Washington who are up for it, and are willing to forego tonight’s revels in lieu of something sacred rather than secular, I would urge you to attend the beautiful, candlelit Vigil of All Saints held each year at the Dominican Priory of the Immaculate Conception across the street from Catholic University.  It is always very well-attended, and a beautiful commemoration of the lives of the great men and women who have gone before us in the life of the Church to their heavenly reward, led by the student friars at the Dominican House of Studies.  Other church communities in your area will no doubt be holding events this evening as well, if you look for them.

If however you decide to be out and about this evening, whether on your own or with little ones or awaiting trick-or-treaters, remember that just because something looks infernal does not mean it has no value to you.  After all, looking at a Goya painting or a Medieval misericord does not make you insane or demonic: it is when you cease to find such things abnormal or disturbing that you run into problems. Halloween reminds us that we are imperfect and can suffer grave consequences as a result, if we do not examine ourselves and try to do better.  Thus in point of fact, this reminder of the eternal consequences of our actions can be particularly beneficial for those of us who actually do need reminding that we are flawed, fallen creatures.

It is only by being aware of what is trying to bring us down, and our trying our best to battle through such things, that we can hope to be like the saints, whom we remember on the morrow.  Therefore Halloween, as I see it, can be both fun and serious, at the same time.  Fun, because let’s face it: it is simply fun to dress up and pretend to be someone else once in awhile.  Yet serious, in that we ought to look at the images around us and reflect on whether we are doing all we can to try and do better, all the time, rather than giving up and falling permanently into shadow.  So long as we take it in that light, Halloween is nothing to be afraid of.

Predella of the Saints and Martyrs from the St. Dominic (Fiesole) Altarpiece
by Fra Angelico ( c. 1423-1424)
National Gallery, London

Even Superman Has His Limits

Today even as those of us in the U.S. celebrate Halloween, my revels have already ended, since I threw a Halloween costume party on Saturday evening. The process of preparing for Halloween was a bit more involved for me this year than usual, since I gained about 18 pounds of muscle to do it. However in the end said process allowed me to reflect a bit on how those of us in our 20’s and 30’s look at ourselves, and what the effect of some rather disturbing changes in marketing tales of heroes and adventure may be having on the young.

I suspect that, like many of my readers, Halloween is something one makes serious plans for in some years, and then other years one takes an easy-costume route or just ignores the holiday altogether. Last year I went as King Philip II of Spain, and had to cobble my costume together from various sources to try to get as accurate as possible. I even grew a beard for the occasion, which only took a few days to come in – good to know if I ever decide to become a hermit.

For this year I had gone back and forth about whether to be Batman or Superman, since I had not dressed up as a superhero for at least a decade or more, but ultimately settled on the latter because I would not have to wear some sort of rubber cowl-mask combination, a headcovering which could have proven increasingly irritating as the evening progressed. Having said that, it was so cold this weekend, with an unsual mixture of sleet and snow in Washington on Saturday, that it probably would have been a pleasant thing to be able to pull on one’s cowl when stepping outside for some air. Fortunately, making cremat helped with that issue.

These days, if you want to purchase a superhero outfit for Halloween, Mardi Gras, or just a costume party, you have the option of buying either a standard costume, in various grades of stitching and thicknesses of fabric, or a costume lined with some type of padding or even inflatable air pockets, so that the wearer can appear to be more muscular. This is the case not only on costumes for adults, but for children, as well – something which I found rather disturbing.

About a decade ago, I recall reading in GQ about a major study on the increasing incidence of body dysmorphic disorder in men. At the time, men were primping and preening like they had not done since the 1930’s, though the physical ideal had shifted from being something tall and svelte, like an Art Deco skyscraper, to looking something more like a heavily upholstered armchair. The Harvard study, whose abstract can be read here and includes some helpful graphics, looked specifically at how action figures of characters such as Batman, G.I. Joe, and Luke Skywalker had changed from the early 1970’s to the late 1990’s.

The results showed that action figure heroes had been dramatically altered over a period of about 20 years by toy designers. In the 1970’s, the figures represented an idealized physique that was still a realistically achievable one for boys who stayed fit by exercising and eating well as they grew up. By the 1990’s however, the same characters were made to look so grossly swollen and exaggerated that, in many cases, it would be either physically impossible for someone with such proportions to be able to move at all, or the degree of musculature represented was only achievable by professional bodybuilders, often through the use of chemicals such as steroids and human growth hormone.

This same shift being pushed by marketers continues today in what we see being shown in films, television, and other merchandise involving hero characters for boys. Take a look at Christopher Reeve as Superman back in the late 70’s. Reeve looks fit and healthy, with nothing exaggerated; he is tall and trim, rather than bulky. Meanwhile the latest actor to play Superman, the usually slim Henry Cavill from “The Tudors”, has bulked up so much to film this new role, that one feels sorry for what it must feel like to have to have to maintain what, for him, is completely unnatural.

Not being a professional actor paid to work out with a trainer for hours a day, there was no way I was going to be able to pack on a huge amount of weight over several weeks, just in order to be Superman for Halloween. I made an effort to work out and eat properly, rather than resort to some sort of padded or inflatable costume, which to me seemed like cheating, as well as buying into the attitude that in order to be a superhero, one must be strangely proportioned. The end result was not a tremendous change, but I gained back some of the muscle I had lost over the years, due to multiple accidents/illnesses and bad eating. Though admittedly, the first thing I did the day after the Halloween party was to eat a big plate of cold cuts and cheese, something I love and had denied myself for weeks as I concentrated on healthy but somewhat boring foods like grilled chicken breasts and whey protein.

Yet it is hard not to think about how this evening, there will be boys going around trick-or-treating dressed as Superman, Batman, Captain America, and so on, who are wearing padding or blow-up suits in order to look as though they are juiced up on steroids – for no normal 9-year-old boy has prominent abdominal muscles and biceps the size of grapefruit. One wonders what they think about the way they look as they enter their teen years, when so many of us form a permanent impression in our heads of how we think we appear to the outside world. One also wonders whether their parents are doing them a significant disservice by dressing them up in these types of unrealistic, pumped-up costumes to look like miniature Olympic weightlifters, if their child was designed by God to be of slim or average build.

The point of Halloween of course, naysayers to the holiday aside, is to have fun and play dress up, something that never completely goes away for most of us as we get older. Nor is this tradition some sort of American historical anomaly.  Count Castiglione, the patron of this blog, loved attending the kind of elaborate masques and costume balls which were common among the European upper classes throughout the year, with guests dressing up as heroes and villains, figures from history and legends, and so on.

However, that sense of fun has to be tempered with a realization that it is one thing to play dress up once in awhile. It is quite another to foist upon one’s children the idea that dress up is, or ought to be, an everyday reality.  While we often focus on the effect that the popular media, toy marketers, and so on have on our daughters, let us also spare a thought for our sons, and teach them that stories about superheroes, Jedi knights, and Greek warriors are about teaching values to young minds so that they can live rightly, not commercial manipulations to make them feel dissatisfied with who they are.