How Gen Z fell back in love with fancy dress
From concert outfits to character dressing, fancy dress is no longer reserved for freshers week bar crawls
image Renaissance World Tour, 2023, The Washington Post/Getty Images
words Sophie Lou Wilson
Picture this. You’re on your way to a gig. Perhaps you’re sitting on public transport or walking to the venue. As you get closer, you notice more and more tote bag carrying, band tee wearing, Doc Marten clad individuals going in the same direction. Everyone else seems to fall away. You close the maps app on your phone because why look at a screen when you can just follow the crowd of people all dressed in the same indie band uniform?
Concert dressing is a well trodden path, but in 2023 it has became more distinctive than ever. Harry Styles fans wear feather boas. Beyoncé don wear sparkly cowboy hats. Boygenius fans dress up in suits. In short, adults have fallen back in love with fancy dress.
For further evidence, you only have to cast your mind back to July when thousands of Barbies dripped out in hot pink descended on cinemas around the world. Barbenheimer weekend even saw many film fans meticulously plan mid-day outfit changes so they had a look that reflected the mood of Christopher Nolan's gloomy WW2 epic and another look in Mattel-approved head-to-toe pink.
Like any IRL trend, fancy dressing has a vast community on TikTok, too. Creators answer requests from followers asking how to dress like popular fictional characters, from Blair Waldorf in Gossip Girl to Rachel Green from Friends. The prominence of ‘90s and ‘00s TV shows in this space suggests the trend is rooted in comfort and nostalgia. Karen Velasquez’s most recent videos include tips for dressing like Gossip Girl’s Serena van der Woodsen and Joey and Chandler from Friends. “Many of the fictional characters adults like to dress like come from nostalgic shows that have a big community,” she says. “These communities empower people as they can relate and share interests pertaining to the show and characters to feel connected to one another.”
The sheer number of trends and aesthetics at our fingertips today can be overwhelming. There’s something comforting about going back to the style icons of your childhood and early teens, whether that’s Barbie or Rory Gilmore. The rise of Pinterest as an everyday styling tool has also played a role in the return of fancy dress. If you save a few images of your favourite musicians or characters, your homepage will show you more outfits like that to copy or take inspiration from. You can even buy Etsy thrift bundles inspired by your favourite fictional characters, where someone picks out a selection of thrifted pieces in your size that they think the character would wear.
Of course, having fictional characters and celebrities as style icons is nothing new, but recent events have adopted a more uniform, collective mode of dress. “Fandoms are a great source of community, whether that’s through music, TV shows or movies,” says Alexis. “Being a part of a welcoming group where you share similar interests already creates a sense of belonging. When you throw fashion into the mix, it’s just another way to relate to others.”
This is most strongly felt, though, when it comes offline and into the physical world. Concert and cinema dressing gives us a sense of community and expression that isn’t always as prominent as it was in the past with the splintering of subculture and micro-trends online. Dressing up is a way to feel like a part of a community even if you’re going to a gig or film on your own. It’s also a way to connect with art and creativity on a more participatory level rather than just as an observer. “We sometimes feel like we’re stuck in a mundane routine and creative expression through our wardrobes can allow someone to be a part of a different world,” says Karen.
Dressing up turns days big and small into special occasions. Why shouldn’t you appreciate every day and put on a special outfit accordingly? And if you have shelled out what is sometimes an astronomical amount of money on a gig ticket, then you better dress the part. The way we dress and the photographs we capture can help crystallise a special moment in our memory. The cynical might say that this trend is all about getting social content out of the experience, but anyone who dressed up for Barbie will know there’s a feeling of belonging that comes from it that can’t be recreated in the same way online.
Fancy dress is no longer reserved for Halloween parties and stag do bar crawls. It’s something you can incorporate into your life on a daily basis while dialling up the volume for special events. It means you can be whoever you want to be and, when you come together with others doing the same thing, you will get all those magical, warm feelings that come from being a part of something bigger. After all, you’re never too old to play with a dressing up box.
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