Thriving revival

Celebrating a glorious Goodwood festival

Fancy dress — is there any more benighted phrase, conjuring rag weeks, the Sealed Knot, Morris Dancers, and dismal straight transvestism?

Admittedly, the best party I have ever attended was a Feast of Bacchus bash. However, this was as much a directive regarding behaviour; as to dress, its assorted nymphs and satyrs rendering as the norm rather than some crashing novelty act.

Fancy dress is a uniquely British fetish

Naturally, I did Titian’s take: all vine wreath, brilliant blue bodice, and sixteenth-century undress. As dawn rose, a fellow maenad was discovered, naked, still gently rocking astride the statue of a bull.

Evidently, this was the exception that proves the rule. One of the most tedious aspects of Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young People was their penchant for peacocking theatricals. Compare his foe Waugh’s account in Vile Bodies (1930) of: “Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood …” #sickmaking.

Fancy dress is a uniquely British fetish. Other nations do carnival, all full-throttle Bakhtinian charivari. Americans do big-bucks Hallowe’en. We eye-roll in faux reluctance, never happier than when compelled to don disguise. This is how a nation of introverts packages its exhibitionism, spinning it as social obligation.

In it, we reveal our kink for rules, history, and kink itself. Sex can be semaphored, women transforming any theme into erotic opportunism, men getting a rise out of uniform, or the aforementioned rugger-bugger drag.

And, yet, we live at a time when dressing with flair has itself become a form of fancy dress. I recently witnessed a chap on the tube, clad in a three-piece suit for the cricket, being stared at as the glaring non-conformist he now is. I am frequently informed that an onlooker loves my “vintage outfit” when I am merely sporting my usual rig-out. Which brings us to the Goodwood Revival.

This Sussex shindig kicked off in 1998, making this its quarter-century. It is a race meeting for historic cars on the old Goodwood circuit. The weekend recreates the glory years between 1948, when Goodwood hosted Blighty’s first post-war race at a permanent venue, and 1966, when the latest crop of vehicles were deemed too speedy for the track.

The circuit is fitted out exactly as it was in the Fifties. Back in 1998, charity shops in a 30-mile radius were ransacked, staff dressed as if it were the day the circuit opened — 18 September 1948 — in frocks and furs, Brylcreem and brogues. Despite the Indian summer, spectators followed suit a year on.

The cars are ravishing, their drivers no less fetching, but I’m in it for the garb. This is not, repeat not, fancy dress. As our host, the Duke of Richmond, explains: “Revival is all about Revive and Thrive: repair, reuse, recycle, made-to-last; pushing the excitement of things that are second-hand and pre-loved. My late mother was a great believer in this. It’s all about how you live, your attitude, and the impact you have on the world.

“As far as my own kit is concerned, I’ll buy old fabrics and make suits out of them, but it’s definitely not fancy dress. There is nothing nicer than wearing a great suit and Revival is a perfect opportunity. The music, the food, the dancing — all that is an important part of the event. But, when you come dressed to celebrate, everyone steps through the gates in the right mood.”

The vintage shopping is the stuff of dreams. At my last foray, I purchased the world’s most beauteous mink. Jet black, unworn, an Eighties take on Forties, it is the coat — in fact, the garment — of my not-so young life. A passing bowler-hatted chap declared: “You look sensational, but when will you ever wear it?” I sport it constantly: to walk the dog, do the bins, over silk negligees and satin dancing sandals when forced to flee across Mitteleuropean borders at 3am.

That Revival takes place during autumn’s fashion weeks is doubtless abore for Goodwood’s PR squadron. However, it ensures that the place is full of genuine clothing enthusiasts rather than carping professionals paid to be there.

Ditto the slebs who attend. You may stumble across Twiggy, Stanley Tucci, or Game of Thrones’s Dothraki horse lord Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) in tweed. However, the place is not packed with soul-sucking fashion mavens comparing Ozempic side-effects. Instead, there it is, truly glorious Goodwood, a beacon of hope in an unstylish world

This article is taken from the August-September 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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