The politics of fancy dress

Carnaval in Portugal, marking the beginning of Lent, has come around again. For children (and some adults), it’s an opportunity to dress up imaginatively, parade in the streets in said outfits and celebrate. As an English parent, the fancy dress element has always been a source of anxiety, as it’s taken very seriously indeed. Since my children were of nursery-school age, I’ve been caught on the hop every February and have often ended up tearing around at the last minute in a bid to construct a suitable outfit. As I’ve often explained to students, this time of year as “a thing” still hasn’t permeated my cultural consciousness, because, embarrassingly, the closest Brits get to marking the occasion is making pancakes on Shrove Tuesday.

This year was no different. Having said that he wouldn’t bother dressing up, my son decided at the last minute to participate. I suspect this decision was informed by his school’s ruling that only those in costume could take part in the school procession around the local vicinity, the alternative being an hour or so spent in the school library. Clearly, dressing up was a small price to pay for the get-out-of-jail free card on offer. He settled on Indiana Jones as his inspiration. We cobbled something together aspiring to the essence of Indie, although the jury’s still out on whether the final ensemble was more ‘Temple of Doom’ or ‘Brokeback Mountain’’.

It was decreed that the theme for this year’s Carnaval at my daughter’s primary school would be toys. She immediately lit upon the idea of channeling Barbie, which was quite convenient in terms of not having to buy very much to achieve the look. Between various clothing and fancy-dress items already in her possession, we put together a passable Barbie outfit. The final result was not bad, but without question, a symphony of pink.

I was relieved to have facilitated another Carnaval for my children, in spite of my annual anxiety, but I couldn’t help questioning my daughter’s choice of alter-ego. It seemed to go against all that I’m trying to impart to her about modern femininity. As a rule, I try to choose practical clothes for her which allow her to play in an unrestricted way, just as I do for her brother. I’m drumming into her that what you do is more important than how you look. We’ve read ‘Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls‘ together for heaven’s sake! I quipped on social media that my daughter’s incarnation as Barbie was a complete and utter feminist fail – on my part.

At times it seems to me that raising a girl in the 21st century is extremely complicated. Previously-defined social and gender roles are on their way out, but it’s obvious that there’s still some way to travel. And then there’s the sheer amount of imagery in the media bombarding our girls with notions of idealised feminine beauty. It could be argued that it’s not that different from when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, but these days a lot of the youthful contingent seem to be more sexualised than ever. As a young child, I was transfixed by Olivia Newton-John’s edgier Sandy in the closing scenes of ‘Grease’. Only as an adult did I learn that, despite her narrow hips, she still had to be sewn into those slinky black trousers. Equally, I hadn’t considered how questionable it was that she eroticised her outer self to win her man. The understanding that many images nowadays are photo-shopped doesn’t make it any easier to swallow the fact that reality doesn’t measure up to “ideal”. It’s acknowledged that even Barbie’s vital statistics would be completely unfeasible if she were upscaled to human dimensions. So while I’m endeavouring to bring up a daughter who’s emotionally equipped to distinguish between societal fantasy and reality, just as I’m attempting to raise a boy immune to toxic masculinity, we have to contend with the world as it exists. As a parent, my heart aches with the knowledge that I can’t, nor should, protect them from every cultural phenomenon, personal difficulty or setback. If I did, they’d never learn to do it for themselves.

In recent living memory, I was described as “assertive” in such a way that it was clear it wasn’t a compliment. As infuriating as my daughter can be in her own forthrightness and self-confidence, I admire her, as it took me at least thirty years to attain anything resembling the sense of self that she is cultivating. A particularly challenging stand-off during the school run one morning left me very irritated. I saw her to the school entrance from which, decidedly uppity, she flounced off. In doing so, she tripped over and landed on her hands and knees. The vulnerability she displayed in this moment was poignant, but even more so was the way in which she picked herself up and dusted herself down, fighting back the tears as she did so. I sensed that her pride was more wounded than anything else and any remaining annoyance I felt evaporated. She’s my girl, she’s strong and perhaps her fondness for all things pink and frou-frou isn’t such a big issue.

During my teens, I felt life would be complete if only I could replicate Carol Decker’s perfectly-permed tresses in the T’Pau era. I revered the wispy, waifish beauty of the first generation of Supermodels and pored over Cosmopolitan’s unrealistic version of modern womanhood. I eventually grew out of being influenced to such a high degree (at the expense of my self-esteem) and have to assume that, given she’s still only 8, so will my daughter.

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