Back to All Events

Fancy Pants


  • The Portico Library 57 Mosley Street Manchester, England, M2 3HY United Kingdom (map)

February 1 – March 25, 2019

In 1836, the enormously popular Manchester Music Festival came to a close with a fancy dress ball so grand a temporary structure was built to connect The Portico Library with the nearby Assembly Rooms and Theatre Royal. Though tickets to the celebration were expensive, the event attracted around 5,000 attendees and was reported in newspapers across the country.

In this exhibition, books from the Library’s collection are presented alongside new artworks that examine how dress and costume’s relationships with gender, class, power and identity have always been complicated. Artists Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou, Ruby Kirby, Lindsey Mendick and Camille Smithwick offer expressive works that explore how dress and costume connect with celebration, ritual and morality. These works are complemented by volumes from the collection including Joseph Strutt’s Complete View of the Dress and Habits of the People of England and Lucy Aikin’s Memoirs of the Court of Queen Elizabeth.

Fancy Dresses Described, Ardern Holt    Fancy Dresses Described or What to Wear at Fancy Balls  suggests costumes for women, some named after historical figures such as Marie Antoinette; some after abstract ideas such as ‘winter’, or ‘night’; and many based on the national dress of various countries. Published before Edward Said’s 1978 book  Orientalism  pushed the West to reassess how it constructs and frames ‘the Other’, the guide simplifies the dress of different countries to reductive stereotypes.

Fancy Dresses Described, Ardern Holt

Fancy Dresses Described or What to Wear at Fancy Balls suggests costumes for women, some named after historical figures such as Marie Antoinette; some after abstract ideas such as ‘winter’, or ‘night’; and many based on the national dress of various countries. Published before Edward Said’s 1978 book Orientalism pushed the West to reassess how it constructs and frames ‘the Other’, the guide simplifies the dress of different countries to reductive stereotypes.

Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou   During Egungun ceremonies, outer layers of imported luxury materials representing the power of the ancestors conceal sacred local fabrics of white and indigo worn close to the skin. According to writer William S. Arnett:  “The two layers of cloth -- the visible and the invisible, the worldly and the sacred -- signify the re-union of the living and departed.”

Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou

During Egungun ceremonies, outer layers of imported luxury materials representing the power of the ancestors conceal sacred local fabrics of white and indigo worn close to the skin. According to writer William S. Arnett:

“The two layers of cloth -- the visible and the invisible, the worldly and the sacred -- signify the re-union of the living and departed.”

Camille Smithwick   Camille Smithwick takes inspiration from literary sources to create characterful drawings and sculptures that evoke a world of original ideas. Her new works, created for this exhibition, imagine figures from the Library’s past and future and incorporate patterns, colours and images from the collection in their designs.

Camille Smithwick

Camille Smithwick takes inspiration from literary sources to create characterful drawings and sculptures that evoke a world of original ideas. Her new works, created for this exhibition, imagine figures from the Library’s past and future and incorporate patterns, colours and images from the collection in their designs.

Ruby Kirby   Ruby Kirby's wearable artworks are celebrations of creativity and imagination that resist demands for seriousness in art. Her garments are used in performances and encourage fun, positive reflections on play and the body.

Ruby Kirby

Ruby Kirby's wearable artworks are celebrations of creativity and imagination that resist demands for seriousness in art. Her garments are used in performances and encourage fun, positive reflections on play and the body.

Lindsey Mendick   Lindsey Mendick’s work alludes to gender expectations and ideas of desire and decadence, decoration and indulgence, pleasure and pain. Her  Head of John the Baptist  evokes often-illustrated Biblical stories of ‘dangerous women’, from Eve and Jezebel to Judith and Salome.

Lindsey Mendick

Lindsey Mendick’s work alludes to gender expectations and ideas of desire and decadence, decoration and indulgence, pleasure and pain. Her Head of John the Baptist evokes often-illustrated Biblical stories of ‘dangerous women’, from Eve and Jezebel to Judith and Salome.

A Complete View of the Dress and Habits of the People of England, Joseph Strutt, Fancy Pants, The Portico Library, 2019.jpg

Though little-known today, 18th-century engraver Joseph Strutt was at one point called the "most important single figure in the investigation of the costume of the past". He introduces his Complete View of the Dress and Habits of the People of England with examples of ancient Egyptian and Greek garments and goes on to illustrate fashionable dress through the centuries.

In the UK, many people’s first experience of fancy dress is at local parties, carnivals and village fetes that draw on longstanding folk traditions of masquerade and ritual.  The word masquerade is also used when describing the Egungun tradition of West Africa, but how is the term understood in this context? The cultural function and meaning of these events are integrated into the spirituality and history of Yoruba culture.  Artist Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou says:  "… the rise of Pentecostal churches across West Africa has been a new challenge to Egungun masquerade. The churches sought to represent indigenous religions and their pantheons of deities as pagan and dangerous. However, rather than suffering rejection, the Egungun have responded in elaborating counter-narratives which have succeeded in keeping this important practice relevant to contemporary audiences."

In the UK, many people’s first experience of fancy dress is at local parties, carnivals and village fetes that draw on longstanding folk traditions of masquerade and ritual.

The word masquerade is also used when describing the Egungun tradition of West Africa, but how is the term understood in this context? The cultural function and meaning of these events are integrated into the spirituality and history of Yoruba culture.

Artist Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou says:

"… the rise of Pentecostal churches across West Africa has been a new challenge to Egungun masquerade. The churches sought to represent indigenous religions and their pantheons of deities as pagan and dangerous. However, rather than suffering rejection, the Egungun have responded in elaborating counter-narratives which have succeeded in keeping this important practice relevant to contemporary audiences."

Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou The Portico Library Egungun.png
Earlier Event: January 31
Fancy Pants free public exhibition preview
Later Event: February 2
Seventeen Artists*