No one regrets turning up to a costume party overdressed. The greater the effort, the greater the fun. A quick flick through the lavishly illustrated Bals: Legendary Costume Balls of the Twentieth Century (Assouline, 2011) will convince any partygoer that picking up a token comedy hat en route is to wildly underestimate the thrill of disguise.
A few years ago I met Melanie Wilson, founder of Prangsta Costumiers. I had some beautiful vintage dresses that were too damaged to sell, but too precious to throw away. I contacted Melanie as I knew she often uses vintage fabrics to create her beautiful fancy-dress costumes. A piece of Edwardian lace, a strip of silk, tassels or a taffeta sash can all be reclaimed and turned into an exquisite, one-off creation.
Wilson set up haute costumier Prangsta in 1998, five years after graduating from Central Saint Martins. She has made lavish costumes for well-known faces including Damien Hirst, Anna Friel and Rhys Ifans, as well as for many a festival-goer looking for an eccentric ensemble. Ready-to-wear costumes are available from about £80, while bespoke ensembles start at £250 and made-to-order outfits are from £650. Melanie refers to Prangsta’s style as “a combination of the historical and hysterical”, and the costumes often have a carnivalesque quality (one of its headdresses is pictured).
Last year Prangsta dressed me for a circus-themed party. I emerged from the dressing room in Wilson’s New Cross studio and stared at my reflection in the mirror. French Renaissance-style pearl-trimmed boots and harlequin stockings led up to a distressed tutu with a 4ft train. My waist – now a pleasing 3in smaller thanks to hard-working corsetry – was remoulded to fit a black satin bodice festooned with pearls, tassels and chain mail. A muddied candyfloss wig took my height to well over 6ft. What was my look? Perhaps a renegade ring mistress, or an illusionist’s deranged assistant. Indefinable – and therein lies the charm of Wilson’s costumes. No one will be wearing anything even remotely similar, no matter how many guests at the party she has dressed.
On another occasion I was looking for a costume to wear to a solstice party. I already had the dress – a vintage frock from my own boutique – but my outfit was missing the pagan touch. Nothing too Aleister Crowley, maybe a floral headdress... but Botticelli rather than Baez. I came across Unique Headdresses, owned by Jan Lambert. Jan creates the most extraordinary tiaras and headdresses (from £30) made out of real flowers and her designs reference historical costume. The Greek headdress (£80), for example, is made from waxflower, rosemary herbs and dried wheatsheafs – representing love and fertility – and is beautifully scented. Other creations include an Elizabethan-style tiara (£100) and an Edwardian-inspired bridal coronet (£90).
Dressing up is one of life’s most wonderful pleasures; fancy-dress parties provide a few hours of escapism. If inspiration strikes, take your sketches to the experts and trust them to bring your imaginings to life. Or simply let them cloak you in a creation of their own.