The politics of fancy dress: sewing and sniping, sequins and sabotage

It’s the usual costume party dilemma: shop bought or home made? Lucy Peden dons her fairy wings and feather boa to talk tactics with participants in the RAG parade

The annual York RAG parade tends to elicit two responses; some recoil at the opportunity for the Make Poverty History brigade to publicly demonstrate their charitable sympathies, whilst others see it as a time to stockpile feather boas and poster paint. Whatever camp you fall into, RAG’s effect on college spirit is undeniable, and the attitude of the participants is almost irrelevant given the sheer fund-raising potential of the parade. Although it’s tempting to bitch about the fact that York is reclaimed by coach loads of zombies (also known as tourists) at the weekend, these are the people with the power to fill the red buckets with their loose change. The paraders enjoy the opportunity to be seen exorcising their liberal guilt, the donating public happily pay to see students up as early as eleven o’clock, freezing off various body parts clad in swatches of PVC and whisps of chiffon, and the truly deserving end up with (please pardon the pun) bucketloads of cash.

However, within this fabulously mutually beneficial arrangement there exists an undercurrent of tension – an alleged culture of tantrums and tiaras. There are ghosts of rumours of sabotage, of the year when itching powder got into the body glitter, when fairy wings happened to get too close to a halogen heater, when the designated face painter used his paintbrush to outline his far-right political sympathies on his forehead. One could be forgiven for being distracted from ‘charidee’, after all, when given the chance to traverse the city streets dressed in the sort of sparkly outfits that would embarrass Pete Burns.

Last year it was most definitely a case of first up best dressed, as James College’s most hardcore raggers were resplendent in their uber-camp, uber-glam Wizard of Oz drag, and latecomers had to content themselves with clutching plastic, marigold-hued boxes as representatives of the Yellow Brick Road. In a reversal of standard student code, making the effort is, for once, de rigeur. Costume is what governs the parade and the more outrageous the ensemble, the greater the chance of raising money (and winning the inter-collegiate beauty competition).

And as the rest of the country tries to choose between Brown and Cameron, RAG’s divisive issue is “home-made or shop- bought?” Both concepts have their merits: those going for the former can have flashbacks to a happy childhood by getting up to their armpits in sugar paper and self-made glue (which, incidentally, if made from the right sort of flour, is organic). The more creative you are, the more opportunity to avoid real work – excuses ranging from the WASP disease of choice, charity fatigue, or by coming over all Ralph Wiggum and claiming to have sampled the aforementioned glue. Unfortunately, this exercise has the unpleasant side effect of being environmentally irresponsible, as huge amounts of paper will be wasted. The alternative of rocking up to the local party shop and demanding their most glamorous pantomime cow outfit also has its advantages: you will look like what you are supposed to be, and, unlike your friends in shoddy home-made dress, you may be able to show a bit of leg and or cleavage, thanks to the rise of comedy porn fancy dress and hen nights. It’s also better for the environment. Hurrah! However, adding forty pounds to the coffers of Ann Summers for a medieval wench/nurse/horse outfit seems rather removed from the spirit of ‘Raising and Giving’. As it happens, the vast majority of RAG reps were keener on sewing machines and Pritt Stick.

The Derwent RAG crew opted for a fairytale theme, ensuring maximum potential for creativity. RAG rep Bavs Gorasia stressed that both she and her fellow rep Becca Lumley were committed to infusing the event with “college spirit”. Bavs herself went as Tinkerbell in “something green run up on the sewing machine” and her friend was a home-made Little Red Riding Hood. Derwent’s primarily home-made creations are accessorised with shop bought items. Witch hats were apparently ‘acquired’ from a costume shop, continuing a proud tradition of RAG inspired blaggery.

Interestingly, Bavs revealed that the majority of parade participants are second and third years, as “first years don’t really know what RAG is all about. It’s our responsibility to make them aware and get them involved, and the best way of doing it is through the preparation.” Although Bavs was preoccupied with banners and balloons, she admitted “it’s making the costume that’s the most fun”. Derwent is renowned for its college spirit, and, although it has become a campus cliché, this positivity stems from a desire to be involved, as opposed to simply being seen supporting the event.

Anne Marie Canning, the chair person of James College JCR, has a similar attitude. A fervent supporter of all things RAG related, she feels that “to entirely hire costumes undermines the entire spirit of RAG.” Many are under the impression that college life in James is not as involved in University life as it might be elsewhere but, according to Anne Marie, the unfortunate stereotype could not be further from the truth. Last year’s triumph in the fancy dress costume was the result of an awful lot of manual labour, as James uses “a mixture of cheap hire and home-made.” The factor here is not about image, but sheer fun potential, and after spending hours supervising the creation of costumes for this year’s Wild West theme, she has come to the conclusion that, “who wants to spend loads of cash hiring when making your own is such a laugh?” Home- made outfits are promoted by the James JCR in the first instance, as Anne Marie explains that “we encourage people to come along in their own creations, which often turn out to be the best; most people had home-made costumes last year”. There is no mention of the hip factor acquired by being socially aware, since, in Anne Marie’s words, RAG is simply about “raising cash for charity by bringing students together.”

Marissa Tufnell, Goodricke JCR member, gave a step-by-step explanation of how her costume was created. Goodricke’s children’s TV theme opened up many costume options, and Marissa revealed that “at first I was going for Spongebob Squarepants, but in the end I plumped for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”, suggesting that this is why home-made costumes are so popular, offering a level of flexibility that a hire shop could not compete with. Marissa was lucky enough to be parading with a very nearly full set of turtles. “It turned out that three other people I knew had the same idea, so altogether there were at least four of us!” With that in mind it is a good thing that the creation process was not too challenging. Perhaps predictably, the costumes consisted of “green trousers, a green top, with eye masks and waist sashes corresponding to the colour of our character, and the sash has the initial as well.” The turtle shells were made from “hanging baskets with green crepe paper inside” and in the spirit of RAG enterprise, Marissa admitted that she “considered keeping a packed lunch in there to maintain energy levels during the parade!” Solving the issue of turtle weaponry proved problematic, but this was resolved by fellow turtle Andy who created nunchucks “by collecting some loo roll tubes and using the chains from the hanging baskets to connect them”. Marissa qualified her gargantuan effort by explaining “it’s definitely more fun to make your own costume, although possibly a bit more time consuming. But on the plus side you do get to keep it for future use”, which could explain any future turtle sightings on the streets of York. Marissa and the rest of Goodricke JCR are involved in RAG because it’s a worthwhile cause, not because it’s a fashionable one, and in the run-up to the parade they were surprised that “loads of people seem to have no idea when or what it is and why we do it, when surely it’s the biggest thing RAG does”. Despite these concerns, the turnout of both participants and spectators at the parade was very high indeed.

At the time of going to press, the total amount raised has yet to be confirmed, but the Langwith wasps have been declared winners of the best fancy dress award. As well as generating money for good causes, the parade revealed the positivity and generosity spread by the whole of the university as well as each college. The parade provided an excellent introduction to the array of fundraising activities taking place within RAG week and was positive proof that you can combine a love of sequins with a social conscience.

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