I’ve always enjoyed a fancy dress party. It’s such great fun dressing up as someone else and escaping into a time or scene you have read about or seen on the big or small screen.
You can choose your heroes to play out your virtues, many people choose villains to display their rebelliousness or a more complex darker side. Whatever you select there’s always a laugh to be had at your own expense and maybe at how your friends look, especially if the costume is not quite convincing.
My first effort was when I went to some charitable fundraising event with a nautical theme and I constructed a large cardboard book that I wore with an improvised submariner’s uniform. It was huge, rather like these football club mascots. It was a couple of years after the Falklands War and the book was painted up as Captain’s Log of HMS Conqueror – the submarine that had sunk the Argentinean cruiser, Belgrano.
Naturally this was rather controversial but it won a prize, if I remember correctly. It’s not a costume that might find such easy favour these days, but back in 1984 we were still relieved that the Falklands had been liberated and the authoritarian Argentinean regime beaten and brought down as a result.
Another time I went as Fidel Castro, no less a villain in many people’s eyes. I had the khaki boiler suit, the pill box cap, the heavy rimmed glasses, a false beard and of course a cigar – which I was able to smoke at the brewery hosting the party. In Miami, this combination would have been seen as bad taste.
At art college I went to a student ball in a lion costume with my girlfriend dressed as a Christian slave. We looked a right pair of fools on the dance floor but had great fun as I would on occasion proceed to pretend to maul her. I can think of many reasons why this might be frowned upon now. The girlfriend later married me and we raised a family without anyone becoming a violent person, a religious bigot or practising animal (or Christian) cruelty.
Another time I dressed up as Elton John. I got a pair of white flares and made up a lilac sequinned waistcoat to show off for my bare chest (before the beer belly arrived) by cutting a women’s top open at the front. The larger-than-life specs were made of white card and went over my own glasses. Even my hair was thinning (naturally). Being small too, I was not a bad resemblance.
That’s of course where it ended. I cannot sing, play the piano and am not gay (although I can be camp if I’m in the mood). Would Elton John have been offended? Possibly at my lack of musical talent, but I think he would have admired my chutzpah.
At a tennis club disco my flatmate and I went as American footballers, I had my Washington Redskins outfit on that I had bought in the United States despite the fact that they play in maroon. Now anyone that knows about the Redskins will be aware that their name and American Brave insignia has become controversial to some people and would probably not be allowed on some campuses in the federal capital.
Still, I can’t recall ever having anything other than admiration for native Americans. For some reason I may never fathom I used to prefer being one in the school playground when we played Cowboys and Indians. I have met many over the years without wishing to fight them or discriminate in some way against them.
At none of these events was I seeking to do anything other than have a laugh and, as a boy brought up in the days of Monty Python, being outrageous and poking fun at stereotypes by becoming them seemed perfectly acceptable.
Nor did I ever become these people or become prejudiced for or against them. I have my own views (which can change over time) but these are to the most part developed through reason and experience – never by wearing costumes.
So when I read of Edinburgh University Students Association introducing a ban on students gaining entry to their premises if they are wearing fancy dress costumes of which they disapprove, I despair. If there is one place it should be possible to behave outrageously and then try to justify it to your peers it is a university – and especially the university that gave us the great philosopher of reason, David Hume.
Men dressed camply? Really? What about the Rocky Horror Show? Mexican bandits, what about See you Jimmy garb?
I can think of excuses why any of my costumes might be found offensive at Edinburgh University Students Association, just as I can think of many reasons why their denial of freedom of expression of students is offensive to me. I suspect that were I to meet their officers I might find their button badges, their wristbands or their tattoos offensive.
Would I ban them?
No, I would debate, discuss and argue with them about why their opinions are wrong.
But I would defend their right to wear their offensive adverts for their offensive views.