In the twenty-first century, the motivations for wearing carnivalesque dress, along with the circumstances in which it is worn, are often very different to those of earlier centuries. Nonetheless, the characteristics of this sartorial form have remained largely consistent across different cultures. The relationship between carnivalesque and contemporary clothing, fashionable or otherwise, is loose. As art historian Babatunde Lawal explains of carnival dress, carnivalesque dress is inherently performative and its creation will often be influenced by a dramatic narrative or the desire to send a specific, often socially disruptive, message. Consequently, what is worn tends to assume greater importance than the person wearing it. In contrast to people’s quotidian dress, carnivalesque clothing, hairstyles, and makeup will typically conceal aspects of its wearer’s identity: their face, silhouette, and even sex. Moreover, because carnivalesque dress is conceived to gain an audience’s attention and is usually worn for a short time, perhaps even on only one occasion, it is made from a bricolage of unconventional materials, ranging from the expensive to the inexpensive and recycled. Fabrics and accessories are chosen for their bold color and texture, rather than their durability or for the comfort they provide. When items of conventional dress are incorporated into a carnivalesque garment, they are often worn in an unusual way: inside out or upside down.
The use of humor is an important feature of carnivalesque dress, especially satire and parody. As performance designer and writer Donatella Barbieri suggests in her book Costume in Performance, humor that “exposes human flaws” through the use of grotesque or ugly clothing is a recurrent theme in this sartorial form. Humor commands people’s attention but, importantly, it tends to blunt their criticality and permits the effective exchange of otherwise challenging and resistible ideas. The disruptive nature of carnivalesque dress means that occasions when it can be worn are often prescribed by social convention, even legislation. In the twenty-first century, the circumstances in which carnivalesque dress is worn and the form it takes are probably most associated with fancy-dress costume or masquerade dress, as described by historians Anthea Jarvis (2010) and Cynthia Cooper (2010), respectively. More broadly, elements of carnivalesque dress are apparent in the costumes of theatrical, musical, and drag performers; more broadly, in any clothing that could be termed “camp.” Fashionable clothing of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, along with the dress and appearance of multiple subcultures, also incorporates aspects of this sartorial form, particularly its use of subversive humor.
Within Europe, some of the earliest descriptions of carnivalesque dress appear in medieval chronicles and law codes. These texts associate the sartorial form with annually recurring seasonal rites and festivities in which communities offered thanks or hopes for harvests and reaffirmed bonds of obligation among themselves. For Christians, the most important period of civic festivity before the sixteenth-century Reformations occurred between Epiphany and Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), which signaled the beginning of Lent. Prior to this forty-day period of abstinence and self-reflection, which ended on Easter Sunday, communities staged dramatic performances that emphasized the important connection between play and productivity. Performative and ludic demonstrations were necessary to communicate galvanizing traditions at a time of widespread illiteracy. Descriptions of medieval carnivalesque dress refer to items of conventional clothing being worn inside out, and the wearing of comic and animalesque costumes and face coverings.
The religious Reformations of the sixteenth century fundamentally changed the role and meaning of carnivalesque dress because the newly formed Protestant Church did not acknowledge Lent, with the exception of England. Ludic rites and seasonal festivities continued, but in an increasingly secular form. The commedia dell’arte and its French derivation, the Comédie-Française, is one example of carnivalesque dress being worn in an avowedly secular context. As artist and writer Adam Geczy (2018) explains, groups of itinerating actors would use clothing and gestures to improvise one of several stock character roles and stage an impromptu live performance. Two of the more important characters within the Comédie-Française were Harlequin and Pierrot. Each character had a fixed, and comic, form of dress that would make them identifiable to audiences, regardless of the actor who played them. The secularization of carnivalesque entertainments is further evidenced by written descriptions of performance dress that was shaped by the political motives of Europe’s rulers. For example, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, royal and princely courts staged dramatic entertainments to extol the virtues of divinely sanctioned dominion. This form of politicized theater reached its apogee in the masque. The masque was an elaborate allegorical drama accompanied by music, in which performers, who could be royalty, performed a highly choreographed narrative that championed hierarchical rule. In England, during the reigns of James I and Charles I, the masque became a sophisticated tool of royal propaganda under the artistic partnership of poet Ben Jonson and architect Inigo Jones. Nevertheless, it was a relatively short-lived entertainment. The masque did not survive the political upheavals of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which saw the ideas and practice of absolutist royal authority decisively challenged in England and Continental Europe.
The masque conveyed messages about royal ambition, but the polyvalence of carnivalesque dress meant the sartorial form was not adversely affected by this association. In fact, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as Europe’s urban centers and populations increased as a result of its territorial and commercial expansion, carnivalesque entertainments and dress became prevalent. The popularity of carnivalesque dress was predicated on the fact that its wearers could experience a refreshing, if temporary, sense of anonymity and escape from their quotidian rules. In many of Europe’s major cities, evening masquerades were organized that permitted members of all social levels to dress up and comingle for several hours, as historian Ann Ilan Alter (2010) explains. Today, the clothing worn at these gatherings might be described as “fancy dress,” and it was during the eighteenth century that the term, initially used to refer to women’s dress that incorporated few decorative elements, became widespread. Fancy-dress entertainments were broadly popular for two reasons. First, they were truly democratic, as a majority of people could participate in them. Supposedly, the festivities were the only destination that women could travel to unchaperoned, with the exception of church. Second, in cities and towns that became increasingly crowded and subject to rules on public comportment, costumed festivities provided people with an opportunity to creatively explore their self- and social identities.
The recognition that carnivalesque dress—or fancy dress—created a physical space between wearer and world, and thus a psychological space, made it at once alluring and alarming. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, faultfinders criticized carnivalesque dress because of a pervasive, if unfounded, belief that a person’s costume, which typically concealed their conventional identity, and certainly liberated them from conventional strictures about dress and appearance, revealed truer, often nefarious, sides of their character. Moralizers criticized the holding of masquerades, and called for their suspension, because they believed people in carnivalesque dress were inclined to act in a manner contrary to social dictates. The darker side of dressing up was explored in contemporary literature and engravings that took advantage of the upsurge in demand for printed reading matter to scandalize the general public. Authors who penned warnings about carnivalesque dress in their novels included Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding. Satiric etchings that mocked costumed revelers were produced by William Hogarth in England and Paul Gavarni in France.
Masquerades declined in popularity during the nineteenth century, but the format they provided for a subscription ball, in which participants purchased an advance entry ticket, had been established and provided a model for subsequent entertainments that pursued a more civic-centered agenda. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, carnivalesque dress became more respectable as newly opened department stores, which Bronwen Edwards describes as large and lavish and pioneers of retail methods, offered paper patterns and costume design services. The effect was to make the sartorial form thoroughly bourgeois and genuinely aspirational. The simultaneous organization of costumed balls to raise awareness and funds for charitable causes, particularly during World War I and World War II, made the occasions when carnivalesque dress was worn only more reputable, and increasingly parochial.
Costumed parties hosted by members of the social elite on both sides of the Atlantic during the twentieth century provide examples of avant-garde carnivalesque dress, especially when made by highly sought-after couturiers, but these exceptions tend to confirm a trend toward a homogenization in the sartorial form. Increasingly during this century, forms of carnivalesque dress were influenced by popular culture, particularly characters and themes from television and films. On the one hand, this meant that carnivalesque dress became ubiquitous as fancy-dress costume parties occurred frequently in people’s personal and professional lives, from children’s parties to stag nights. On the other hand, the production and distribution of relatively inexpensive, mass-produced costumes tarnished the sartorial form, which was increasingly trivialized as a short-lived, skill-less spectacle.
If carnivalesque dress was becoming routinized in Europe and the United States of America during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in other parts of the world it had a different role and meaning. For example, art historian Courtnay Micots explains that while traditions of live performance had existed in Africa before European intervention, carnivalesque entertainments and dress, which are today referred to as “masquerades” and “fancy dress,” developed because of the importation of Western costume habits. The same was broadly true in other continents and countries where European cultural and political structures were established, often forcibly. In these circumstances, certain Indigenous communities incorporated aspects of European culture into their own. One motivation for this strategy was to demonstrate a subtle, but no less striking, independence from, and defiance to, European hegemony, as Tonye Erekosima’s and Joanne Eicher’s (2015) Cultural Authentication Process demonstrates. In Brazil, Pravina Shukla (2010) has discussed the various cultural fusions that shaped carnivalesque performances and dress to convey the people’s complex Afro-Brazilian identity.
In the twenty-first century, elements of carnivalesque dress are globally preponderant. They have become prominent within the catwalk presentations of fashion designers, which have tended to become increasingly provocative as designers recognize how this unique showcase can be used to convey messages about their brands and values. The use of incongruous materials and humor is particularly evident in the work of designers such as Jeremy Scott and Walter Van Beirendonck. The incorporation of carnivalesque dress is sometimes very explicit. For example, in February 2020, Stella McCartney’s catwalk show during Paris Fashion Week included people dressed as wolves and crocodiles to emphasize the brand’s commitment to animal welfare. Carnivalesque dress has also become prevalent in street protests. LGBTQIA+ communities have used carnivalesque dress in their parades since the late twentieth century, as design historian Peter McNeil (2010) has shown. Since the millennium, other protesters, from women’s marches to the Extinction Rebellion, have used this sartorial form to gain the attention of onlookers and the global media. The wearing of carnivalesque dress also gives protest participants a sense of visual and psychological coherence. The apparent increase in the use of carnivalesque dress is due to multiple reasons, but its reliance on provocation and humor, and its ability to provide wearers with a physical and psychological space to contemplate their self-identity and social identity, could be more compelling during a period in human history that contemporary commentators describe as economically, socially, and politically fraught. A trend for “ugly makeup” that revels in a grotesque and unsettling use of cosmetics has appealed to some.
Three factors have stymied coherent and extensive study of carnivalesque dress and pose material and intellectual challenges for its ongoing study. First, carnivalesque dress is physically, perhaps even psychologically, ephemeral. Created for impact rather than durability, items of carnivalesque dress rarely survive intact. Their bricolage construction from incongruous materials typically mitigates against undamaged preservation. The nature and purpose of carnivalesque dress also means that is frequently repurposed, partially or completely, and incorporated into new garments. This makes it difficult to reconstruct an item’s provenance with certainty. Moreover, because carnivalesque dress is typically worn for a short time and as part of a wider festivity, the experience of wearing it and seeing it is often left uncaptured. If memories are logged, they will be recalled in circumstances very different to the ludic and disruptive circumstances in which the carnivalesque dress was worn, which may result in a discontinuous narrative. Second, carnivalesque dress is highly polyvalent. The creative and incongruous appearance of this sartorial form will be understood by people in myriad ways, perhaps especially concerning its use of humor. This can make it difficult to comprehend wearers’ motivations and messages. Third, the incongruous construction of carnivalesque dress, along with the atypical circumstances in which it is generally worn, have discouraged academic investigation because the sartorial form is considered to be a short-lived, superficial spectacle.
The methodological issues pertaining to carnivalesque dress are not insurmountable and scholars in Britain and the United States, particularly, have begun to reappraise this sartorial form, albeit prioritizing its affective qualities—that is, the impact of carnivalesque dress on how the wearer and audience feel and behave—over considerations of its physical properties and construction. These efforts have formed part of scholars’ broader reappraisal of costume, as scenographer Rachel Hann summarizes in her article “Debating Critical Costume: Negotiating Identities of Appearance, Performance and Disciplinarity” (2017).
A characteristic of carnivalesque dress is its use of humor and play. Consequently, many studies of this sartorial form begin with Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World (1965), which considers the inversion of social conventions through the subverting power of “carnival laughter.” Focusing on the physical and psychological frenzy unleashed by carnival, Bakhtin considers the excitement of this festive period, but in emphasizing the subversive nature of carnival misrule through its “grotesque realism,” and by likening it to a “second world” that was separate in time and space to “officialdom,” he minimizes its stabilizing function. As Anu Mänd (2005) has shown in her analysis of carnival in the eastern Baltic, it was frequently the social and political leaders of a community who funded the festivities. To an extent, Bakhtin’s study is also time-bound, which scholars often overlook. In Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, published five years before Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin argues that costumed entertainments from the eighteenth century onward were far removed from those that had “sens[ed] the world as one great communal performance” in the medieval and early modern period. Carnivals staged after this time, he suggests, were “dogmatic and hostile to evolution and change” and reflected a tendency to “absolutize a given condition of existence or a given social order,” such that they conveyed only “vulgar bohemian individualism.” Nevertheless, Bakhtin’s unique recognition of carnival laughter means his writing remains important for any study of the carnivalesque.
Equally important for discussions of carnivalesque dress, although less frequently cited, is philosopher Roger Caillois’s Man, Play and Games (1961). Caillois argues that all play is aberrant but governed by rules that are maintained by social structures. In this way, he suggests human games “educate” and “enrich.” Caillois’s book is a useful supplement to Bakhtin’s, because it helps to explain the enduring appeal of carnivalesque dress in complex societies where the connection between leisure and labor is less apparent and where the individual assumes more importance than the group. In Caillois’s formulation, the pairing of two types of play, ilinix (vertigo) and mimicry (simulation), define the experience and impact of carnivalesque dress, or more specifically fancy-dress costume. He argues that people are temporarily removed from authority and can more readily understand their place within existing social structures. Essentially useful, the idea of suspending temporal rules is often perceived negatively. Consequently, carnivalesque dress tends to exist at the margins of public life. The ephemeral nature of fancy dress continues to be the source of its ability to shock, awe, shame, and delight. To varying degrees, the work of Bakhtin and Caillois has informed more recent work on the role and meaning of carnivalesque dress: in particular, the concepts of “critical fashion” and “experimental fashion.”
In defining critical fashions, Adam Geczy and Vicki Karaminas (2018) argue that certain fashions from the twentieth century onward have come to possess an evaluative and interrogative role that can express “skepticism” and “accurate judgment” about any aspect of contemporary culture. Clothes that have this quality are examples of critical fashion. In their book, Critical Fashion Practice: From Westwood to Van Beirendonck, they explain, first, the development of this term and, second, the function of fashionable clothing that has an analytical quality. The authors argue that art—understood in its broadest sense—and art criticism became increasingly populist during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Consequently, art relinquished the interrogative role that it had possessed to contemporary fashions. Critical faculties are not present in all garments and Geczy and Karaminas describe items of clothing characterized by “usefulness” and “unobtrusiveness” as “hermetic fashion.” This broadly defined group includes the T-shirt, suit, and black dress. Critical fashion describes items of dress where signification is “stretched and exaggerated,” where it is “obtrusive and [by] extension, unconventional.”
Francesca Granata’s concept of experimental fashion is explained in her book Experimental Fashion: Performance Art, Carnival and the Grotesque Body (2018). The book was published a few months apart from Geczy and Karaminas’s work and therefore makes no reference to critical fashion. Nevertheless, the two terms are similar. Granata considers a short chronological period, from the 1980s to the start of the millennium, and explains the appearance of “undisciplined” bodies on fashion catwalks that “upset gender bodily norms and rules of propriety and beauty.” Parting from Geczy and Karaminas’s argument, Granata does not suggest that experimental fashion developed because of limitations within the arts. Instead, she suggests that: “Fashion should be interpreted on a par with other aspects of visual and material culture as a constitutive and influential part of culture.” In proposing “Globalization and the condition of otherness and estrangement developed by living cross-culturally is central to the development of grotesque imagery within fashion,” however, it is implied that the role of the arts and design changed in the twentieth century and enabled fashion to assume a more important position. Granata suggests that experimental fashions became prevalent during the 1980s because they were adept at challenging “normative discourses,” particularly about “feminism’s desire to open up and question gender and bodily roles.” At the same time, these incongruous designs could mediate “fears of contagion and the obsessive moral policing of bodily borders” in response to the AIDS epidemic.
The concepts of critical fashion and experimental fashion offer a means by which nonnormative forms of dress and appearance, which can be excluded from scholarly discussions that tend to focus on conventional and widespread clothing practices, can be considered in relation to changing social values and styles. However, they have been challenged by cultural historian Benjamin Wild in his book Carnival to Catwalk: Global Perspectives on Fancy Dress Costume (2020). Wild identifies three challenges for these concepts. First, the two terms are not globally applicable. The tendency for nonnormative styles of clothing to make a critical commentary on contemporary culture is notable before the supposed popularization of art between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These qualities are also apparent in West Africa, for example, where the democratization of art is not a factor. Second, neither concept considers the age of people wearing critical and experimental fashions. Fashion commentators, including Jamie Huckbody (2018) in an article on “ugly” fashion for Harper’s Bazaar Australia, assert how younger fashion consumers, millennials particularly, adopt incongruous styles of dress to challenge normative concepts of beauty. Third, neither concept refers to fancy-dress costume, although they do consider occasions where it was worn. As Wild argues in another article, “We Need to Talk About Fancy Dress Costume: Connections and Complications Between the Catwalk and Fancy Dress Costume” (2018) discussions of carnivalesque dress could be more purposeful if it were acknowledged that this sartorial form exists on a continuum with fashionable clothing, rather than being an abnegation of it or separate from it
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