Q&A: “Fancy dress” vs “costume parties”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, fancy that…

Q: Hi AWC, I went to a Halloween fancy dress party last week.

A: Ah nice, what did you go dressed as?

Q: I just covered myself with a white sheet.

A: So, you went as a ghost?

Q: Oh! That actually would have made more sense. I went as an item of furniture in storage. 

A: Um, okay.

Q: It wasn’t really about me though. You see, my American friend arrived in a ball gown – she had really taken the time to get dressed up all fancy.

A: Ah, right. We see where this is going.

Q: She assumed a “fancy dress party” was one in which you get dressed up all fancy. Apparently they call them “costume parties” in America. 

A: That’s right – those are the two main terms (although others like “dress up” or “themed” party are sometimes also thrown about). And yeah, people outside North America can easily conflate the two, however it’s a little more ambiguous for Americans.

Q: Why did we end up with two terms for the same party?

A: It’s a valid question. But if you’re looking for an answer that says in 1799, a trans-Atlantic council agreed to disagree on the subject of party attire, then much like buying a catwoman costume online, you’ll end up disappointed.

Q: English, disappointing humans for more than 1000 years.

A: Indeed. 

Q: So can you shed light on some of the origins at least?

A: Of course. After all, people have been dressing up for a long time.

Q: Well yes – the ancient Romans enjoyed plenty of toga parties!

A: The tradition of dressing up can be seen back in the days the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sah-win). During this time, people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts and spirits. This festival would later go on to become modern day Halloween – and the dressing up tradition stuck to it like a Britney-inspired red PVC bodysuit.

Q: Okay, that’s Halloween. But what about other times of the year?

A: The more recent concept of a “fancy dress party” appears to have gained popularity as an evolution to the 18th century masquerade balls. By the mid-1800s, this had spread beyond just masks to the entire costume, with female guests often dressing as Marie Antoinette or Elizabeth I, while the men would don regalia resembling Robin Hood or Napoleon.

Q: Not a Jack Sparrow or Top Gun costume among them.

A: And it wasn’t just historical figures. They also often would dress as objects or even abstract concepts like winter or a starry night.

Q: Oh, that reminds me of my friend who went as Van Gogh – paintbrush behind his right ear, bandage over the left one!

A: Very clever. Anyway, these “fancy dress” parties were a feature of Victorian-era England, the costume aspect often being what distinguished these high class affairs from other social occasions. They eventually made their way to America in the late 1800s, where rich socialites would again often dress up as European historical figures – in this case to add weight to their family’s fancy heritage.

Q: So I guess it WAS “fancy” dress in America after all!

A: That’s true, although as we’ll see, it’s not really that meaning of the word “fancy”. Anyway, fast forward to the latter part of the 20th century and such parties were now for the masses – and with the advent of costume hire or accessory stores in the 1980s and ‘90s, an explosion of impressive costumes became the norm. 

Q: So why didn’t the Americans just stick with the term “fancy dress”?

A: They’ve always been about doing things their own way – including words. Although to be fair to the Americans, “costume party” probably does make the most sense. The word “costume” came to English in 1715 from Italian for “fashion, habit” – and had a similar meaning to “custom”, used in art to describe customary attire for the scene. By the 1820s, it became more linked to dress style – with “costumiers” producing such wares and “costume parties” later showcasing such creations.

Q: So “costume” doesn’t specifically mean something you might wear to a costume party?

A: Well no. As Macquarie Dictionary will confirm, the noun “costume” is first and foremost a style of dress. Different countries might have a national costume, you might buy “costume jewellery” and for bathing, some call it a “swimming costume”. It’s not all tarts and vicars and mutant turtles – that’s just one of the meanings. 

Q: I suppose in a film, a costume designer does apply a style of dress to a character, so yeah.

A: Exactly. It’s quite broad. If you say “costume party” it’s widely understood what that means – even by those outside America – but it’s still an idiomatic phrase. It’s just that in the UK, Australia and other countries, we settled on a different phrase for this type of costume – “fancy dress”. 

Q: And yet my Wiggles outfit suggests that it has nothing to do with being fancy!

A: Well, it CAN, if you want to dress as Marie Antoinette. 

Q: Okay okay, no need to bite my head off. 

A: Guillotine actually.

Q: Sorry?

A: Never mind. If we look closer at the word “fancy”, it’s from the 1500s and was originally spelt “fantsy” – which makes sense because it came from the word “fantasy”. It was the idea of something being “fanciful” or a product of the imagination. 

Q: So not all fancy as in elegant?

A: No. It didn’t actually get the elegant adjective meaning until the 1750s.

Q: Well, fancy that!

A: Haha, yes indeed. That phrase, by the way, dates back to 1813 – the Bridgerton and Pride and Prejudice era. And the verb “to fancy” someone or something had been around since the mid-1500s, also originating from “fantasy” – or more specifically, to “fantasise” about something.

Q: So are you saying that a “fancy dress” party is not actually from the elegant adjective at all – rather it’s a “fantasy dress” party?

A: That’s right. After all, the rich people of the 19th century could already be described as fancy – these parties were about fantasy and escapism!

Q: Ooooh, like Harry Houdini?

A: No, not that kind of escapism.

Q: Well, with this “fancy/fantasy” revelation, I guess the confusion is understandable.

A: It is. Just another geographical quirk of English. 

Q: So how old is the term “cosplay”?

A: Good question! “Cosplay” is simply short for “costume play” – likely first emerging during the 1980s, with people dressing up as characters from Japanese anime and manga. It first appeared in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary in 1993 and became known widespread through the 2000s at events like Comic-Con, where people would dress as things like their favourite Marvel superheroes.

Q: And speaking of Thor, any final thor-ts?

A: Probably just that even in the UK, there is a distinct difference between “fancy dress” and “a fancy dress” – the latter using the elegant “fancy” adjective. The term “fancy dress” can also be an adjective – usually before the word costume or outfit.

Q: A “fancy dress costume” – seems to cover all the bases.

A: It does. Of course, “fancy dress” can also be a noun. For example, someone might say that they wore “fancy dress” to a party. But generally it’s synonymous with “a costume”. The two terms don’t align perfectly, but just like your mother used to say about your off-brand superhero costume, it’s close enough.


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