Brian Viner: Country Life

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The Independent Online

On the rare occasions that I go to fancy-dress parties I like to improvise a costume from the wardrobe. This is less to do with saving the cost of hiring an outfit, more to do with appearing resourceful. I did hire an outfit once, for a 1970s disco at our children's primary school in London. I went to Angels and Bermans, the theatrical costumiers, and shelled out 80 quid on a Gary Glitter outfit, before Gary Glitter was impersonata non grata. My friend Neale, meanwhile, made himself a top hat out of cardboard, stuck two pieces of carpet to his cheeks, and went as Slade's Noddy Holder. He got far more laughs and nods of approval than I did, as I stumbled around the place in my silver platform boots.

Not many people have fancy-dress parties any more, which is a blessing, because it's not something most of us want to do too often, if at all. As my dear wife Jane so elegantly put it: "I go to few enough parties as it is, without going looking like a knob."

But once in a while, we agreed, a fancy-dress party can be great fun. We've been to two since we moved to Herefordshire in 2002. One was another 1970s do, to which I went as the grammar schoolboy that I was from 1973 to 1980. Jane and I were amazed at the effort that was made by practically everyone that night. It's a feature of life in the sticks, we have noticed. If you have to drive 15 miles along country lanes to get to a party, or pay £40 for a cab ride, you're damn well going to throw yourself into the spirit of the thing. Some of the costumes there were the products of inspired lateral thinking. One guy went, with his face blackened and a yellow-cardboard bolt of electricity through his head, as a power cut.

Anyway, last week we went to another fancy-dress party. It was our friend Fred's 40th, in a tent in their field, and the theme was the year of his birth. Unfortunately, Jane and I had clean forgotten until the day before the party that it was fancy dress, which I suppose is better than remembering a day later, but it didn't give us much time to consider what we were going to wear. We looked through our wardrobes but found precious little inspiration. I didn't have anything resembling a 1966 England football kit, nor even a Gannex raincoat and a pipe that would enable me to go as Harold Wilson. So we admitted defeat and went shopping instead.

Jane found a genuine and rather pretty, most unknoblike 1960s dress in an antique clothing shop in Leominster. The shop owner assured her that the label, Horrockses, was quite the thing back in the 1960s. Whether everywhere, or just round here, I'm not sure. I, meanwhile, did what I hadn't done since the Angels and Bermans fiasco, and threw in my lot with a fancy-dress hire shop, Masquerade in Hereford. The woman who was working there knew all about the party, even though it was taking place some 20 miles away. Herefordshire's not the sort of county where two 1960s parties tend to happen on the same night. Regrettably, she said, she'd already hired out her best stuff. The Beatles outfits had all gone.

I dithered over a Batman costume, since I remember being rather keen on Batman circa 1966. But it couldn't be hired, it had to be bought. "Batman always gets wrecked," she said, by way of an explanation. I tried it on anyway, not least because I'd been caught in a torrential downpour on my way in, and it was nice to put on something dry, even if it was a Batman outfit that was made of clingy grey nylon that left precious little to the imagination in the genital area. "I can not only tell that you dress to the left, but also that you've had a vasectomy," said Jane, who'd decided to come along for the laugh.

In the end I chose a beatnik-style flowery smock which I put together with a huge curly wig from the children's dressing-up box. I doubt whether anyone actually looked like that in 1966, but at the party, which was very good indeed, I was gratified to find that there were lots of people who were looking similarly ludicrous, including a man wearing an identical flowery smock that he had hired from some place in Swindon. It's small as well as surreal, the world of fancy dress.