Even before she took to the stage, Rose English always enjoyed playing with her appearance. Here, the actress and outrageous performance artist describes her development, from princess outfits to PVC suits and fishnet tights
From a very young age I thought that dressing up was an important activity. When I was two, I went to a jumble sale and my granny bought me a little high-heeled ceramic slipper. I tried to stuff my pudgy foot into it and, of course, it wouldn't go. That was a seminal moment when I realised there were limits to what you could do.

My dad was in the army, so we moved around a lot. From the age of four until I was eight we lived in Gibraltar, where people were very poor but proud and usually beautifully dressed. We'd go to local events, my sister and I, in flamenco dresses which were a dream come true: floor length and flouncy, with a shawl, and a comb and flower in your hair. This was a culture that recognised the need to parade about.

My mother and aunt had wonderful dressing-up boxes. There was a Twenties net dress, a swirly skirt of my mum's, and a black velvet coat. I remember, too, tormenting my mother to make a princess outfit for me. It had to be pink and have those long medieval sleeves and a pointed hat. Sometimes you see little girls walking down the street and they're in that zone, they're on Planet Princess.

At the age of five I had to wear glasses. They had pink wire frames and I completely rejected them - I used to drop them on the classroom floor. I thought it would be very grown-up to wear a brace, though, and I made one out of half a plastic bangle, before I got the real thing. At school I would always try to be in the plays. My friends and I would turn up for auditions, but we'd just get the walk-on parts. Still, we'd throw ourselves into them. We'd get great outfits together, and try out what we thought was expressionistic make-up, with watercolours. But school drama was always sort of fusty and hessian and shouting; it was never quite what you hoped. At the same time we had a very good needlework teacher, and in the needlework room we used to put on fashion shows which were a complete groove and gave me my first real taste of performing. Later, when I was at art school, I made a range of porcelain jewellery you had to wear naked. I wore it and took lots of photos of dancers wearing it. There were some very erotic garments, porcelain breasts, porcelain shoes - I still couldn't stuff my foot into those.

For a while I went through a sort of teddy-boy phase when I wore my hair slicked back. Then came the Sixties and very short skirts. I went to Carnaby Street and bought a red PVC suit. It felt great in the shop, but when I stepped out into the cold it went all stiff and crackly. I made myself dollyrockers - cutesy princess-line gingham dresses with leg-of-mutton sleeves. There are some photos of me, from that time, wearing quite heavy make-up, looking about 105. Now I don't bother with it much - just a bit of kohl. In fact I'm quite muted. I like being very plain. I'll glam up if I'm going out, but nothing like so extravagantly as I will for the stage.

There are moments when I feel gangly and gigantic, but usually I'm comfortable with my body. I never had any real problem with being tall, and in the Seventies I had lots of fun wearing platforms. I used to have a boyish figure - then my hips suddenly appeared. They're quite substantial, and my bum is a big one. Once, I played a character who's a showgirl and I had to wear a thong. I asked my sister: "Do you think I can get away with this?" She said: "You've got to share that bottom with the world." The trick with a thong is to wear those elasticated fishnets.

You take on a different persona with different costumes. I have a dress, designed by Simon Vincenzi, made entirely of silver sequins. It's an incredibly vain dress and it has a persona of its own, it just wants to show itself off. To play Prospero I wore a scholarly garment with a skullcap, and a beard made of black cockerel feathers. There are some beards I really like. One is the sort that Marcel Duchamp painted on the Mona Lisa; another is the ceremonial type of "beard" the Egyptian queens wore, which was like an emblem of office. When I played a dandyish magician, I had a beautiful goatee, a waxed moustache and a dark wig with a silver streak. I think wigs are fantastic, but there's a danger you'll let them do all the work for you in a show. My own hair is very thin and doesn't grow that long. I have it cut about every eight weeks, I've never had a mane of flowing locks.

I don't spend a lot on clothes. Four times a year I go to the designer warehouse sales at King's Cross. They have some beautiful things and they're very reasonable. Of course, I have bad hair days when I wear what I call my "launderette" outfits. You know how, before you had a washing machine, you'd take all your clothes to the launderette. You'd be wearing bobbly old tracksuit pants, carrying your bag of laundry, and you'd meet someone you really wanted to impress. Those days make you feel depressed, but there is a kind of comforting melancholy about them as well.

`Standing Room Only', an operatic work-in-progress by Rose English and composer Ian Hills, is at Hoxton Hall, London N1 (0171-739 5431), on 19 and 20 November.

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