It just ain't fitting: The summer fancy dress season opened with the Gone With the Wind ball. But playing Mammy turned out to be rather more of a punishment than a pleasure.

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Adriene from Angels costumiers is helping me into my breasts. The padded bra is a tight fit, but not as tight as the crinoline, which is taking my blood pressure. 'It's the biggest we have, John,' says Adriene, fussing with hooks and laces and things. 'What with this Gone with the Wind ball, everything else is out.'

My new breasts have given me that all-girls-together feeling: I hear myself telling Adriene that I too am going to the Gone with the Wind ball.

'As Scarlett?' she asks.

Did Vivien Leigh have tits this big? I don't think so. Tiny things they were, with a habit of swinging to the side. Producer David O Selznick had to order them to be taped and lifted so that the movies' most famous heroine could flaunt a little cleavage.

Adriene is looking at me expectantly. The changing room suddenly feels stifling.

'No.' 'Ah. You're going as . . ?'

The question hangs in the air like a bad smell.

'Actually, I'm going as Mammy.'

There. I've said it.

Andriene looks me up and down. 'Better look for an apron and ban-dana then.'

The outfit eventually costs a cool pounds 75 plus a pounds 100 deposit, but who could resist the invitation to dress up and attend a Gone with the Wind ball? It's the perfect choice to quasi-officially open London's fancy dress summer season, not to mention garner reams of publicity for the film's release onto retail video in October. After all, we are talking about the most-seen movie in cinema history, not to mention the most glamorous and sexy.

GWTW exerts a fierce grip on the collective fantasy life, and not merely in the celluloid-saturated West. It leaps cultural barriers in one bound. The Wind blows strong in Japan and India and places further east, where its multiple-choice mix of war story, Gothic romance, melodrama and historical epic plays to all tastes. GWTW may have been distributed by MGM but it's actually universal.

This is partially thanks to hypnotic characters: no last names needed. Men want to be Rhett and men who want to be Rhett want women like Scarlett, which is why women want to be the first steel mangolia and never mind the collapsing cleveage.

Me, I've always wanted to be Mammy. Ever since my mother took me to see Gone with the Wind when I was a child. I wasn't to tell my brothers and sisters that we were off to the cinema - it was to be our secret, I promised. No sooner did we get home than I was raving in a Southern accent about the damn yankees.

'John wants to be Rhett, don't you John?' my mother blustered, hoping to cover her embarrassment.

'No I don't,' I almost screamed. I'd succumbed to the picture's romantic spell, but frankly my dear, Rhett had scared me and Scarlett seemed a selfish bitch. Then there was Ashley and Melanie, the bland leading the bland. I'd hadn't liked the white folks at all. I wanted to be black and fat and fabulous and the person Rhett Butler wanted approval from. I also wanted to walk with a waddle.

So I said 'I want to be Mammy.'

My father gave my mother a look. 'Couldn't you have taken him to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?'

The Great Conservatory at Syon Park, Brentford, could never be mistaken for an ante-bellum mansion. Too much glass and classical atmosphere. But it does have a great flight of steps leading down to a vast back garden, steps that almost demand that a lady sweep dramatically. I'm committed to my waddle but a mass (a brace? a gaggle? a pride?) of Scarletts are sweeping harder than street cleaners. They approach the steps and lift their hoop skirts and smile like they're just the cutest little honey chiles ever to have trod the land of cotton. The narf London and Chelsea and Cockney accents aren't strictly historically accurate, but the descent down the steps is. Or, at least, they do it the way it's done in the movie, the way Katie Scarlett O'Hara does it at the Seven Oaks barbecue.

That's how fantasy works. It seeps into your bones without you noticing. By the time I'm past the Confederate soldiers with walkie-talkies and on the lawn the South has risen again.

Has it ever. Everyone else's Gone With the Wind fantasy is magnolia-white; there are Scarletts and Rhetts and Belle Watlings and Johnny Rebs as far as the eye can see. The only Mammy around here is me. No Prissys, either, and not so much as a whisper of a single Big Sam.

Big mistake. Obviously slaves are hard to identify with. Why this thought should occur at this precise moment, I don't know. It certainly didn't an hour earlier when Catherine the make-up queen was applying an ebony finish to my complexion with a sponge. Hell, it didn't even occur when the black cab arrived to whisk Mary and me away and the taxi driver turned out to be (I just knew this would happen) black.

Picture this: me as Mammy shuffling down the garden path, resplendent in borrowed breasts and coal-black face. It's not only the summer heat that's making me sweat. The driver does a double-take. 'You okay with this?' I say. 'Sure, man,' he replies.

But he drives sadistically slowly through multi-ethnic Notting Hill while startled pedestrians of all colours peer in through the passenger window. I have visions of being dragged from the taxi. When we're dropped off at Syon Park, I lavishly over tip and run as fast as my petticoats allow.

'Hey, over here,' one joker calls as I pass by his table. 'We need serving.' Big laugh. I'm tempted to stop and snarl, 'Piss off, white boy.' I resist. I wanted to be Mammy. Another belated thought strikes. Maybe this is what being Mammy is about.

I also remember that I'm meant to be having fun. Am I? I should be. This is fantasy land, isn't it? Confederate flags fly. Cannons shine in the now sinking sun. There's a marching band as well as a dancing band. In the conservatory itself, blackjack tables and roulette wheels stand, dance hall hostesses at the ready. There's even a determined dance teacher in sugar-plum pink who could give that number one old biddy, Mrs Mead, lessons in intimidation. 'It's not really dancing,' she hisses as sprightly music strikes up. 'It's more like fast walking. Dance everybody, dance.' And they do: in the flick of a fan there's a circle issuing Rebel yells and changing their partners, one, two, three.

So, I should be having fun. Only people are treating me like Mammy in ways I hadn't suspected. When I hit the temporary casino there are remarks about blacks gambling and there go the taxes on Tara and go get my shawl and fried chicken. Which is amusing at first, then grinding. Then worse than grinding. There's a point in the evening when a bearded man in round spectacles and exquisitely detailed Confederate officer uniform gives me a look that could stop the advance on Atlanta and I have to go with the wind outside and try to look inconspicuous (yeah, easy).

'Oh him,' one of the boys from the marching band exclaims. 'I think he's from some Southern outfit that restage the Civil War. They live, eat and breathe the thing. He's been pestering us about our outfits not being right. He's serious.' My paranoia blooms. The words 'lynch' and 'mob' beat a tattoo in my head.

Then I recall: I'm not actually black. It's make-up, remember? This is taking fantasy way too far. Because I've spent the evening suffering acute social embarrassment doesn't mean that I'm really Mammy.

Someone else has realised this too and she's no happier than the guy with the beard. She's black-black, not pretend black and her Mammy outfit is worn with a reluctance bordering on the truculent. 'I've come to collect the plates,' she announces, living the servant mode I'm apeing.

She isn't though. Spotting me across the table she scoots round. 'I've come to collect the plates,' she announces again. 'Are you finished?' she says. The question sounds like a statement. 'Are you finished?' she insists. I adjust my bandana and hug my misery. 'Yes,' I mumble, 'I'm finished.'

'Gone with the Wind' is released on retail video on October 3. 'Scarlett', the mini-series sequel, transmits on BSkyB circa January 1995.

Ten Costume Hire Shops

Aardvark 4 Ravey St, EC2 (071 739 3026)

Mon-Fri 10am-5.30pm.

Typical three-day costume prices. Men: Napoleon plus hat, pounds 45. Tarzan plus squeaky cudgel pounds 12. Women: Classy Bo-Peep with shepherd's crook, pounds 40. 1920s

flapper girl pounds 30.

Angels 119 Shaftesbury Ave, WC2 (071 836 5678)

Mon-Fri 9am-5.30pm.

Men: Napoleons to dashing pirates are pounds 60 plus VAT. Women: Cinderellas same price. All require pounds 100 deposit.

The Cavern 154 Commercial St, E1 (071 247 1889)

Tues-Sat noon-6pm, Fri noon-7pm.

Specialists in '60s and '70s gear. Psychedelic hippies, male and female; beads and shiny plastic boots included, pounds 25-pounds 50. Full payment in advance.

City Dress Arcade 437 Bethnal Green, E2 (071 739 2645) Mon-Sat (except Thurs) 11am-4pm.

Men: Gangster with spray-foam violin pounds 25, pounds 50 deposit. Women: Gangster's moll pounds 20, pounds 40 deposit.

Costume Call 158 Munster Rd, SW6 (071 371 7211) Mon-Fri 11am-7pm, Sat 10am-4pm.

three-day hire during the week, four-day over weekends. Strong on pantomime and fancy dress. Pinocchio, Robin Hood, Merlin, Bo-Peep etc, all at pounds 35. Period costumes, medieval to Victorian, also available between pounds 40-80. Credit card number required as deposit.

The Costume Studio 6 Penton Grove, off White Lion St, N1 (071 388 4481): Mon-Fri 9.30am-6pm,

Sat 10am-5pm.

Men: Charles II plus wig pounds 75; farmhand pounds 25. Women: Nell Gwynne as courtesan pounds 75, as orange-seller pounds 30. Credit card number required as deposit.

Culture Vultures 200 High Rd, N2 (081 883 5525)

Mon-Fri 10am-7pm, Sat 10am-5.30pm.

Men: American Civil War pounds 20. Women: Scarlett O'Hara pounds 20, fan included.

Escapade 150 Camden High St, NW1 (071 485 7384) Mon-Fri 10am-7pm, Sat 10am-6pm, Sun noon-5pm.

Men: Batman pounds 25, Prince Charming pounds 28. Women: Maid Marion pounds 25, Morticia Addams pounds 23. pounds 30 deposit.

Royal National Theatre Costume Hire Department

Unit 15, 1/3 Brixton Rd, SW9 (071 587 0404)

Mon-Fri 9am-1pm/2pm-5pm.

Men: 18th-century court dress around pounds 50 plus VAT. Women: same for around pounds 60 plus VAT.

The Theatre Zoo 21 Earlham St, WC2 (071 836 3150) Mon-Fri 9.30am-5.30pm. Animals from monkeys to rabbits. pounds 35 plus VAT. pounds 40 deposit.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments