Behind the mask of Freshers’ Week fancy dress themes

Before all of you bright-eyed and bushy-tailed freshlings descend upon Oxford for Freshers’ Week, what to wear to the inevitable plethora of club nights will no doubt be at the forefront of your mind.  Advice from fresher veterans of yesteryear will be ringing in your ears: ‘wear comfy shoes’, ‘only wear, or take out, items you don’t mind losing’,  ‘try to wear something that won’t stain’ – the list goes on.

But fear not, as this sartorial dilemma is often remedied by your freshers’ representative or JCR Committee who will stop any thoughts of LBDs teamed with stilettos in their tracks as they dictate to you the themes for the much-anticipated nights out.  Banish all thoughts of looking conventionally glamorous or feeling sophisticated now:  your painstakingly pre-planned ensembles, so thoughtfully designed to reinvent yourself as the ultimate party animal, are to be foiled.  Heed this warning, as it will save you from the inevitable sense of woe which will prevail as you consign your new, sparkly party outfits to your dusty wardrobe until the end of Freshers’ and the dawning of the first week of term.

student fancy dress

Naturally, fancy dress is always a popular option for Freshers’ Week – as, it seems, are parties complete with volumes of foam, lashings of paint or a hot tub.  Yet, are such themes and parties always appropriate?  Young female freshers, in particular, are often expected to participate in themed nights which, let’s be honest, are designed to encourage minimal clothing and support predatory behaviour.  Freshers hoping to impress when arriving at university for the first time are inevitably going to mangle the fancy dress and themed nights into something provocative and eye-catching.  It’s only natural.  But what are the unfortunate results of these attempts to solve the enduring dichotomy between looking good and adhering to the various themes?

One theme frequently represented in the Freshers’ Week line-up is ‘Back To School’.  We’ve all done it: worn an ultra-sexualised version of a school uniform, apparel originally designed to be anything but alluring.  Short tartan skirts, pigtails, stockings and low cut shirts.  But what are the consequences of this mix?  Something that is just, in the words of Jeremy from Peep Show, “a bit paedo?” Or, something altogether more worrying? Surely it is grossly inappropriate to intend to be attractive as an underage schoolgirl, and yet this is the accepted norm for girls on ‘Back To School’ themed nights.

The same can be said of various fancy dress themes that ultimately necessitate dubious attire.  Fancy dress should be exactly what you would expect: costumes that are meant to be funny, scary or entertaining – a bit of fun.  Though, for the vast majority of freshers who are desperate to attract or excite, fancy dress is only ever one thing: suggestive.  Fancy dress today appears to give women, in particular, very little option to dress in anything other than the ridiculously revealing.  Sexy air-hostess, sexy nurse, sexy nun, sexy Scooby Doo … In mainstream outlets, most costumes continue to be interpreted in such a painfully predictable manner.

fancy dressIn keeping with the ‘I’m not that innocent’ sub-text behind Freshers’ Week fun are the various hot tub and foam parties.  I can’t help but wonder if all Freshers’ Week themes are deliberately designed to ensure young people wear as little as possible?  College bops are even more explicitly themed as ‘Party in My Pants’ or ‘Anything But Clothes’.  There are many ignored and unrecognized dangers for girls who, dressed like a pre-breakdown Britney Spears, are encouraged to frolic with strangers in a hot tub.  At a time when there is a high concentration of over-excited and bewildered young people, is it honestly wise to fuel them with alcohol and throw them into a dark pit of paint and semi-nakedness?  In a new town, a lot can go awry for these youngsters.  OUSU’s It Happens Here campaign highlights the shocking frequency with which both male and female undergraduates are subject to lewd and offensive behaviour, which the premeditated events planned for Freshers’ Weeks nationwide may be seen to support.

Of course everyone is entitled to wear whatever they want to wear on a night out – because they have the choice to do so.  So it is exactly this.  We should exercise our right to freedom of choice and seize the opportunity to wear whatever we want, and not to feel pressured to conform to certain style choices because that is what the apparent norm is in Freshers’ Week, 2013.  I anxiously anticipate a time when the abuses of fancy dress and themed nights out are fully acknowledged and women, in particular, are not dictated to by inappropriate and degrading dress codes deciphered by those who stand back and watch. Hopefully one day, we will actually be given free rein to wear whatever we please.