The origins of fancy dress parties in the United Kingdom can in some respects be traced to masked balls of the 18th century period.Fancy dress outfits used to be simple affairs until the 1970s and were generally either hired or home-made. Retail purchased costumes is a largely modern phenomenon (late 1990s onward).Fancy dress parties are still popular in the UK; my local pub had a Vicars and Tarts party on New Year’s Eve, children’s parties often have a fancy dress theme,fancy dress parties have been held by the Royal Family; Prince William celebrated his 21st birthday with an “Out of Africa” theme, Prince Harry famously wore an Afrika Corps uniform with a Nazi armband to a “Colonials and Natives” themed party in January 2005. There was an international controversy after the News of the World published a photo of him in the costume.
But one has to be very careful these days with fancy dress. This week, supermarket chains Tesco and Asda have withdrawn two Halloween outfits. From Asda, £20 would buy a blood stained strait jacket with ragged edges and a mask and a fake meat cleaver while Tesco’s orange boiler suit came with a plastic jaw restraint and offered to “complete the look” with a machete.Very similar outfits can be bought on eBay and no doubt from many other High Street retailers.The marketing of these outfits though was, to say the least, misguided. Asda labelled its product “mental patient fancy dress costume”, and Tesco a “psycho ward” outfit.The reaction from mental health charities was predictable: Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of Mind said: “This really went way beyond the line of acceptability.” Alastair Campbell, who has battled with depression, branded their sale by these companies as “unacceptable” and added: “We are trying to change attitudes towards mental illness so people do not stigmatise it and something like this comes along and it just reminds you we are basically still in the Dark Ages if some of the biggest companies in this country, Tesco, Asda and Amazon think that it’s acceptable to sell something like this.”
Part of me can fully understand the negative reaction, there certainly does still exist a stereotype in the public’s mind of a mad axe man figure reinforcing a questionable link between mental illness and violence.The mentally ill are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.There is still a taboo about mental illness which causes those who suffer to keep quiet because they fear the reaction.Many suggested that these fancy dress outfits were serving only to reinforce prejudices.But I also think that the withdrawal from sale of these outfits could also be seen a patronising in that the buyers can’t be trusted to differentiate between a horror movie cliché and a real mentally ill person.We all know somebody who suffers from depression and know too that they are not axe-wielding maniacs. In the wake of the news of Harold Shipman’s murders, some considered it bad taste to go out on Halloween as Dr Death but macabre humour has always been around. And perhaps any fancy dress has the potential to offend;Cowboys and Indians could offend native Americans for instance. My nephew’s fourth birthday party tomorrow has a pirate theme; Somalian pirates do exist and capture and kill, should we be treating this lightly? With Halloween fast approaching at least I have the comfort of knowing that thankfully Zombies aren’t real.