‘What’s your fancy? When costume parties were all the rage’

Nov 25, 2021
Gay writes about the fancy dress parties she attended in her youth. Source: Getty Images

Wandering through a stores I see so many pretty dress-up clothes for children. Some based on movie and book characters, but there is also the occasional medical professional, tradie or dinosaur.

As a young mum, I would have given my teeth to be able to walk into a store and buy something like this off the shelf. It was always a challenge trying to dress my four into something that was both recognisable and didn’t fall apart before the party started (or ended).

There also wasn’t much like this around when I was little, in the 1940s. I was living in a small country town and these costume parties were a pretty big deal. My poor mum didn’t sew, but she spent hours gathering crepe or organza into frills just so I could be a rainbow.

It was a time of lockdown, but for different reasons; polio had reared it’s ugly head and things were being cancelled. There were no more parties or play dates, only school. Although, a lot of children were kept home. Despite this, I stomped my feet demanding I be a rainbow and my mother let me wear the get-up until it fell apart.

When I was 11, we were living in Richmond, Victoria. The local council had set a costume party for the Richmond Town Hall. My mother wasn’t going down the rainbow route again, but she did cut her beautiful slipper satin wedding dress and made a matching veil so I could parade around the enormous dancefloor with the hundred-or-so other children, as proud as a cat with two tails.

I had children of my own, and when they went to school I was in the best job. I worked on reception at a rather large dance school. There was a dancewear shop and when costume parties for adults took off, I was in my absolute element there. I could sew and enjoyed making costumes. I made many a Cleopatra and crinoline dresses. It was sometimes easier to make the costume ‘on’ the person who would be wearing it. I’ll never forget the time the dressing room curtain opened and a gentleman with a full beard stepped out wearing a hooped skirt dress — it was somewhat unusual back then.

One night the whole family attended a costume party. My daughter wore an elegant red velvet dress that was quite poufy. My son went as Snoopy, he had a black and white suit complete with tail and head. Driving to the party, my daughter told her brother to take the head off in the car, but he declined. It was only when we were pulled over by a policeman not far from the party that he complied, with the officer saying that Snoopy might be a distraction to other drivers.

It’s been some time since I’ve been to a costume party. I still see the occasional small fairy or superhero shopping with their parents though.

Stories that matter
Emails delivered daily
Sign up