For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a dressing-up box. As a child with a penchant for playing dress-up, it was a pretty standard affair: a white wooden box filled with striped T-shirts for piratical purposes, and twinkly black nylon and pointed hats for witchy occasions. More princess-style garb came courtesy of the occasional dress my Alaska-dwelling grandmother brought over to the U.K. each year when she came to visit. These were often red, featuring devoré roses or frilly sleeves.
When pretending to be orphans (a perennial favorite for anyone who grows up reading, well, any children’s literature, but especially Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden or Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to The River Sea), there were haphazardly dyed tops and rag skirts from my parents’ hippyish pre-children days. In fact, my mother, an ex drama teacher, kept the dressing-up box very well stocked — costumes and masks from school productions and scarves in pink, blue, and yellow from local market stalls joining the hats and eye-patches.
As a teenager, this box morphed into a drawer — though at that age I probably could have counted my whole wardrobe as one big dressing-up project, given my taste for splashy ‘60s cocktail frocks and faux fur. Slowly though, this drawer filled up with an especially gaudy collection of flotsam: sparkly dresses, capes, plastic beads, fake flowers, hideous wigs, and netting underskirts with sagging elastic at the waistline. It was the kind of place where ripped ‘30s gowns, fabric faded like pressed flowers, were squished in on top of metallic American Apparel leggings that made one look like a scaly, slightly rainbow-tinted lizard. Value and age mattered much less than potential. All I cared about was the effect, merrily veering between garments befitting teenage ravers and slightly down at heel stars of the silent screen.
Come the festive season I put this drawer to especially good use. In our Czech-English household where we celebrated on both Christmas Eve and Day, there was always a sense of occasion to dress for. One year I wore a bright red-and-white polka dot jumpsuit with hems so long they required towering heels. In another, I emulated the tree in a dress covered in big, gold paillettes the size of coins, the style making a shushing sound like waves raking over pebbles whenever I moved (and leaving imprints on the backs of my legs if I tried to sit down). Other forms of festivity got the same treatment. Aged 17, I turned up at a friend’s party clad head-to-toe in silver, from my lurex vest and my beaded shoes to my false eyelashes and the gleaming metal braces wired over my gappy front teeth.
Holidays aside and up until the point of going to university, my main dressing up domain though was my bedroom. In my later teens, the sequins had occasional showings at parties or festivals (I dread to think of the photos of me in a bottle green tutu with slashes of glitter across my cheeks lurking somewhere out there), but much of what I owned didn’t stray very far. Sure, I dressed up with mates and wore those horribly sticky silver eyelashes to dance in my friend’s kitchen, but these sporadic experiences were outweighed by the more private motions of trialing outfits and appraising the sartorial outcome in my dressing table mirror.
I often found dressing up safest at home anyway. More than safe. Exhilarating. With my bedroom door closed, I was free to experiment, flinging on turquoise feather hats and opera gloves, daubing eye shadow up to my brows, trying on dress after dress until the floor around me was a sea of turquoise rayon, white lace, and watery washed silk. I pulled things on and off, tied my belts in knots, staggered across my carpet in platform heels, and generally made a fuss (and a mess) until I felt like I’d satisfied this particular, itching urge.
Even now I’m not sure how to characterize that desire to dress up for me. I know it partly came from a general sense of outsiderishness that was perhaps satisfied when the reflection looking back confirmed this feeling of difference. I also know I took a simple, magpie-like pleasure in the acquisition of beautiful garments. There was a very child-like, imaginative streak to it, too — the expansive sense of play that came in flinging on a cape and some lipstick, or deliberating over what colors and proportions complemented each other when it came to the careful layering of silk slips or mint mini-dresses. I like the sense of changeability, perhaps seeing it as a promise that one’s sense of self — visual or otherwise — was never fixed.
I have thought a lot about these teenage dress-up sessions recently. The pandemic has turned us into backward-facing people, raking over past experiences or watching them rise to the surface in lieu of the usual stack of the new sensations and people and places that make up a normal year’s worth of new memories. I suppose, too, that I’ve found myself contemplating this rather solitary activity for more immediate reasons. Right now it feels not just memorable but proximate.
As an adult, my dressing-up box was no longer confined to what was reflected in the oval frame of my bedroom mirror. Instead, its contents got regular outings. Friends came over for dinner and pulled on ballgowns afterward. I delved into it for last-minute garb for club nights and parties (tip: a necklace made out of plastic bugs is incredibly handy for any Surrealism-themed ‘do, especially when pinned into one’s hair with a black veil over the top). I relished the sociable dimensions of dressing and dressing up: the methodical rituals of getting ready, the final outfit checks, the fun of being on public transport in something that made other people’s heads swivel. I enjoyed seeing and being seen, my clothes forming part of a wider conversation and back-and-forth traffic of glances with those around me.
This year there has been very little of that. No complimenting of stranger’s inventive outfits. Not much reason to buy new, extravagant items, or spend hours weighing up the best silhouette for an event. Have I still enjoyed dressing? Absolutely. But have my attentions also been largely focused on which shirt and knitted tank top combination goes best with my relentlessly worn jeans? Yes. In a way, this has been liberating. Day-to-day, I’ve been able to accept clothes as something providing function and comfort, not just pleasure. Perhaps, in caring less, I’ve felt more at ease.
Still, as the year has worn on, this has been undercut by another feeling. A restless one. After a summer of linen smocks and loose cotton shirts, I’ve spent much of autumn and winter yearning for glamour. Not just glamour. Irreverence. Silliness. Lavish fabrics. I’ve found myself saving endless pictures to my phone of Bianca Jagger at Studio 54, Liza Minnelli in scarlet spangled jumpsuits, Kate Bush wearing quilted gold dresses, Diana Ross in feathers, the dancer Michael Clark in a beret and glam rock platform boots, and Tom Ford-era Gucci velvet tuxedos with natty little neck scarves.
With the festive season approaching, and no holiday parties to go to, I’ve also begun drifting back toward my own dressing-up box, too, pulling things out for the sake of it. I have rehabilitated my hideous Jean Paul-Gaultier jeans found in a thrift shop that look like someone threw up a kaleidoscope on them, and rediscovered an orange, rhinestone speckled dress that would be perfect for Dolly Parton impersonations. I have bought semi-ridiculous things on eBay like a lime green suede Donna Karan belt with a huge gold buckle (though sadly the red satin Miu Miu trousers got away). I feel like I am back in my teenage bedroom, twirling for the mirror as I take photos on my phone.
This is the spirit I want to maintain this Christmas and New Year. Regardless of social opportunity, I’ve realized that there is something both reassuring and profoundly uplifting in being able to look like a human disco ball or a green velvet-clad tree, even if the only people to appreciate the effect IRL are my girlfriend and cats. This is meant to be the season of kitsch sparkle and uncomfortable footwear. Regardless of the fact that there are very few places to wear my finery to this year, I want to maintain that same sense of relish for both the fun and unruliness of dress that I had before. Parties and bars and the conviviality of a packed, noisy room might be off-limits, but I’ve realized that the tactile pleasure is all still there, now folded away in a clear, Perspex box full of sequins, satin coats, ruffled shirts, and seventies gowns with sweeping sleeves, always ready to be spun around a bedroom or paraded through the kitchen once more.