Monday, September 26, 2011

“If the Costume Fits”

Published in "Mai Word with Padre J. S. Bhagwan," in Mai Life – August, 2010

I recently attended the 21st birthday celebrations of one Albert “don’t call me Robert” Ben Harry. As young Al was born in 1989 he decided to have an “Eighties” (1980’s... not 80 year-olds only) theme to his coming of age celebratory experience. I believe that for a brief, and rather scary, moment Al’s friends thought that this was a “what I wore during the eighties” theme party meaning nappies, diapers, plastic pants and baby clothes.

However the alternative, “inspired by the eighties” theme was also daunting. Especially as the official invite came in about a week and a half before the party. How do I grow a luxurious 1987-style Rambo-ka moustache in fifteen days when I stopped buying mushroom tea in case someone reported me importing suspicious chemicals? Most of us who were walking talking living dolls of the 80’s probably couldn’t fit the school uniforms, rugby jerseys or the bananaramic/madonnafication outfits we thought were so “rad” and “excellent”.

As I reflected on what the 80s meant to me and who my 80s icons were, I made some (what I felt were) poignant observations. For example, in the 80s LL Cool J was a rap artist – not just an actor; U2 had more hair and Kelly LeBrock had more curves than her future husband Steven Segal. In the 80s the term Brat Pack referred not to Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jnr. But Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez (Charlie Sheen’s brother) and Robert Downey Jnr. In the 80s, stuble, t-shirt under the suit and loafers or shoes with no socks was the smooth Miami Vice look not the 90’s grunge look or 2000’s lazy slob look. In the 80’s Diana was a princess not an ex-princess. In the 80s, the Transformers were just a bunch of fancy robot toys that became a cartoon series and movie. In the 80s, Sly Stallone had only made two Rambo movies. In the 1980s a word sounding like, “ho,” usually meant a farming implement.

My son, the boy wonder was inspired by his cousin to have his own thematic event for his upcoming 6th birthday. However due to his eccentric tastes and thoughts, he has been inspired to set the theme of his party as The Body. That’s right you may only attend this shindig if you come dressed as a part of the Human Body. What is even stranger is that he has already decided on his costume. Daddy and mummy have two and a half months to conceptualise, design and create a urethra costume! For those of you not medically minded the urethra is the tube in mammals that carries urine from the bladder out of the body and in the male also carries semen during ejaculation! I have about 70 days to convince him that he is too young to be walking around dressed as the inside of a giant penis. Boy genius huh? More like evil genius, mad genius, genius who may scare the other children at his party.

It’s not his fault really. I was, at a young age, used as a human mannequin by my two sisters whenever it was a fancy-dress parade or costume competition or party. Unfortunately this meant a lot of feminine or gender-ambiguous costumes. Instead of a chef I went as a cook. Instead of Michael Jackson it was a ballerina. As a “beautiful child” (the words of the olden people) this would mean that I was seen as a girl dressed as a ballerina rather than an awarding performance of a boy forced to be a ballerina (“Boys Don’t Cry” got nothing on me!). My father would always try to put his ingenious costuming to good use to defend my masculinity and my coolness by turning me into a market vendor, Chinese farmer, skeleton, a Lautoka City Council rubbish tin and even Moses himself, complete with a moppy beard.

Over the years the costume twitch (or itch) remained with me stronger than the force. I made my own “Robinson Crusoe” clothes to wonder around my deserted backyard in; to my mother’s confusion (she did not know whether to be in horror for the destruction of sheets and pillowcase or joyful at her sons tailoring skills) I created the first made in Fiji ninja costume. I was able to turn a simple blue and red tracksuit into a Spiderman costume.

Then I went to New Zealand for boarding school and returned to the world of sister-dress-up. Fortunately this time I my sisters retained the masculinity (a Bowiesque one) in my outfits. However they were drenched in smooth. Slicked back hair, cravats, the Miami-Vice look - great for any male of 17 and above; boring for an eleven and half year old.

When I later returned to New Zealand, this time to train as an actor at the prestigious “Performing Arts School” in Ponsonby, Auckland (where everyone I trained with immediately went onto act on Shortland Street) my dramatic classmate and I would don our suits, overcoats and earpieces and walk around malls, the airport and act (pretend!) the roles of CIA/FBI-types, speaking into our hands or watches and smiling at the ladies while maintaining our distances from the kids for fear of looking less like heroes and more like paedophiles. Or we would find the nearest funeral and go and practice our mourning scenes.

All this talk or typing of costumes reminds me of two of my other dramatic buddies who were invited to a party where everyone had to come as an emotion. The only costumes they could find (or had) were from a photo-shoot or television commercial which involved custard and fruit. The hostess opens her door to find one guy with a bowl of custard placed strategically over his crotch and the other with a pear in the same place. “What emotions are you two supposed to be?” asked the suspicious hostess. The response was not quite what she expected:

“I’m deeply dis custard and he’s deep in dis pear.”


A sunbaked, self-confessed Jesus-freak, Padre James Bhagwan spends his time between doing laps in the pool, lecturing at Davuilevu Theological College, preaching at Dudley Methodist Church, playing with his children and driving his wife around the bend.

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