Style police; Fancy dressing at the court of the sun king

Guests at Elton John's 50th birthday party surpassed themselves this week for banality and vulgarity. It didn't used to be like this in Dame Barbara's day, reports James Sherwood

Like psychiatry, costume parties bring out the very best and the very worst in people. Theorists would have us believe that fancy-dress costumes are chosen in accordance with the way we like to perceive ourselves. So Elton John, celebrating his 50th year with a costume ball at the Hammersmith Palais this week, must see himself as a cross between Marie Antoinette, Miss Haversham and a meringue.

His Louis XlV ensemble, from the silver court shoes to the stately galleon on top of a three-foot high jewel-encrusted wig, was reputed to have cost Elton pounds 50,000. Frankly, if he'd turned up as a scale model of Imelda Marcos's entire wardrobe, we wouldn't have been the least surprised. Elton is, after all, the Nineties answer to Liberace. After modelling Versace couture this year, in a campaign that made him look like Pat Butcher's long lost sister, Elton can't possibly shock us now. It is the other guests who raised eyebrows.

"It's a disgrace," says Dame Barbara Cartland. "If you'd read my book We Danced All Night, you'd know that the bright young things threw marvellous costume parties in the Twenties and Thirties. Costumes were witty and intelligent, not banal and tasteless." Lord and Lady Lloyd Webber amply demonstrated Dame Barbara's point, with Andrew modelling a banal Middlesborough football strip and Madeleine a tasteless bunny-girl basque. The 600-strong guest list included Shirley Bassey as Cleopatra, Dawn French and Lenny Henry as Michael Jackson and Bubbles, Jean-Paul Gaultier as a knickerless French maid and Janet Street-Porter as Wonder Woman (make of that what you will).

Perish the thought that the Style Police are killjoys. But it takes more than Lulu dressed in a floaty green chiffon frock and a blonde wig to give a costume party glamour. When Truman Capote threw his Black & White Ball in the Sixties, newspaper tycoon Katherine Graham was the guest of honour, while Audrey Hepburn, Cecil Beaton, Princess Margaret, Princess Grace and Tallulah Bankhead attended. The Surrealist Ball, Proust Ball and Baron Alexis du Rede balls were attended by the crowned heads of Europe, Hollywood royalty and couturiers Elsa Schiaparelli, Coco Chanel and Christian Dior. I don't think Tara "Don't call me ubiquitous" Palmer-Tomkinson, Gary Barlow of Take That and Gaultier quite compare. The only saving grace was the absence of the Spice Girls.

"Most of the costumes were very DIY," sniffed a member of the Welsh Come Dancing troupe who entertained Elton's guests - and certainly didn't sew on all her own sequins. In fact, the only royalty to attend was Elton's mum dressed as the Queen. The only ingenious costume was worn by Elton's manager John Reid, who came as one of the male swans from Adventures in Motion Pictures's celebrated production of Swan Lake. It combined wit, sex and contemporary reference. That couldn't be said for 99 per cent of the other guests. Maybe the most telling comment was from pop idol of yesteryear Paul Young, who said the party was "The most brilliant thing I have ever seen." Now that's damning with faint praise if ever I heard it.

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