Their royal majesties Queen Victoria and Prince Albert graciously hosted a dinner party in the neighboring town of Bar Harbor and we were fortunate enough to be on the guest list. Since commoners are perhaps not appropriate dinner companions for royalty, we were elevated for the evening, and attended as Sir Samuel and Lady Florence Baker.
I had never heard of Lady Florence, but a few minutes research brought her to life. She lost most of her family in the Hungarian revolution and escaped to a refugee camp with her father when she was four or five. She was taken from the camp by a slave trader and raised to be a harem slave. Sir Samuel Baker, after the death of his first wife, travelled with Maharaja Duleep Singh and saw Florence in a Bulgarian slave market. He was unable to out-bid the Ottoman Pasha, who wanted her, and so he bribed Florence’s attendants to release her, and they fled the country. She traveled with him, at times dressed as a man, at times on a camel, throughout Africa and Asia for the next twenty years. Fluent in five languages, she was his assistant, interpreter, and eventually wife.
What a great role to play, and of course dress for. Dress up, fun when six or eight years old, has never lost its appeal. Dress up is very different from dressing up, which is also well worth doing, but dress up usually involves costumes, props, and a bit of acting.
Playing Lady Baker I had a feathered straw hat, crocheted gloves, an ivory fan, soft leather pumps and a mutton-sleeved, high-waisted gown. I also had a Zsa Zsa Gabor accent. While not all at the dinner had put on the dog–an archaic phrase for making a ostentatious display–there were glitzy necklaces, a few tuxedos, shawls and bonnets, lace and velvet. Roles were played, fake British dialects assumed, and we all stepped out of ourselves for a bit. That is the appeal of dress up.
In our mundane lives we have, well, lives. Responsibilities, jobs, homes and family are always present. Lady Baker, dead almost one hundred years, on this occasion had nothing to worry about except dinner and her manners. Other guests shed their everyday lives, too. Lady Idina Sackville, a.k.a. a gallery owner, amused the company with her outrageous remarks, Lord Nelson flashed his sword, and the Queen and Prince were amply toasted.
Dress up is not to everyone’s taste, but those who enjoy it invariably end up with an attic full of gowns and accessories, and can pull something together at fairly short notice. A polka dot scarf is a cap for a serving wench, or a sash for a pirate. There are some dressers who specialize in an era or character, but I am happy as a gypsy, a witch, or a lady-in-waiting. There is always a bit of research, and finding appropriate props, language and accessories is educational, or at least I claim that in an attempt to justify my passion for costume. When I am a pirate I practice my talk-like-a-pirate phrases, and when I was a gypsy fortune teller at the local fair ground, I learned a bit of Romany, and walked with a sinuous gait and a jingling belt. Running the trebuchet at a Medieval Fair, I curtsied and Mi-ladied convincingly for hours, and learned the physics of the this large weapon and a fair amount about warfare. Halloween, needless to say, is a favorite day. One year I played an alien, with a throat box that turned my voice into a creepy synthesized inhuman sound. Walking in jerks, each movement robotic, not fluid, I approached young trick-or-treaters asking for help getting back to my planet. Curiosity and suggestions vied with wide-eyed stares and calls to mommy for help.
There are random chances for dress up: I have been asked to tell fortunes at fund-raising seance, have dressed as classic French maid for a friend’s dinner party, and been a mummy at Halloween haunted house. Then there are organized events: SCA, the Society for Creative Anachronism, hosts many dances, classes, revels and wars, and since their era ranges from 600 to 1600 and is global, there is plenty of opportunity to dress. As a member I have worn a Renaissance swordsman’s outfit, and of course learned to fence. New Year’s Eve and Mardis Gras frequently have masked ball opportunities, and I have gladly donned tux and top hat a la Marlene Dietrich when hostess for a fundraiser.
Is there a dress up gene, or is it acquired? I will beg out of this argument, but present as evidence a photo of myself and my two sisters, dressed as the angels we surely we not. My mother also made me into a miniature Zorro, and one sister into a talking giraffe, with a two-foot tall neck and head, eyes peeking out of holes in the throat. Both my sisters and I wore our father’s navy uniform and his drum corps outfit. With a friend in grade school, we won the clown contest as a two-headed three-legged clown at the 4H fair. We spent a day wandering the fairgrounds perfecting our three-legged stride in a costume my mother made for us.
While we rarely saw our parents do fancy dress my dad would don a wig for his high school reunions and mom was always eager to help bring our costume fantasies to life. It was with great delight that I finally saw my parents dress up to attend my SCA events. They donned the clothes and much to my astonishment played the game. Mom exchanged medieval and ageless household tips, dad chucked axes and showed us all up.
In favor of genes, my sister had a high school job as Mr. Peanut, for Planter’s peanuts, and stood at a traffic circle offering samples and encouraging people to stop in and buy. Following in her footsteps, my niece’s first summer job was dressed as a coffee cup, advertising the coffee shop she worked for. Dress up runs in the family.
Being someone else for a night gives a freedom the everyday does not offer. It was exciting to be Florence Baker, a rescued slave, abolitionist and explorer, and to share tales of my travels to the source of the Nile. The evening eventually draws to an end, but once home I procrastinate taking off the gloves and gown, and washing out the ringlets. The return to reality is hard. After dress up I never want to stop playing my role and go to sleep, because I know when I wake up the world will have moved through space and time and be normal once again.
The fan, feathers and dress go back in the attic, I stop frightening those at the post office as I practice my Hungarian accent, and meekly return to work. But a secret pleasure adds flavor to the day, because no one knows that yesterday I spoke five languages and rode camels.
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