To Theme or not to Theme? This is my question.

 Remember when you were young and invited to a friend’s birthday party? Remember how much fun it was to dress up, make believe style, when the party had a theme? It didn’t matter if it was a princess theme or a Cowboy and Indians theme. The point was you had to think about what to wear and put the package together. Of course your parents and older siblings may have been there to help but the fact was you left your home in character and had an opportunity to become someone else.

So why then after we get older do we stop the ritual of dressing in theme? Why do we stop believing in the transformative power and fun of dressup? 

My love of the theme party started as a child when I watched Mr. Dressup.  I loved that ‘Tickle Trunk’ full of characters waiting to be born. I knew then that I wanted a costume cupboard. My collection started at age 20 when I developed a love for vintage dresses. I started collecting them and wearing them. I had beautiful dresses from the 50s and 60s that I still have today. Of course they no longer fit me but my daughters and their friends have used them many times. I still continue to collect and enjoy vintage items. 

When I had kids I wanted them to have theme birthday parties because I loved to see the excitement in their eyes as the decorations and fantasy world evolved. I also loved the intensive design decisions resulting in microenvironments or stage sets that would last for 2 hours.  We had cowboy parties, princess parties, swinging sixties parties, Hawaiian Luaus, pirate parties and the list goes on. As the birthdays approached, my kids would ask me “what are we doing for my birthday party”? Having a theme gave us a chance to brainstorm and come up with something we thought would be fun. After a while having a party at the usual birthday spots was not an option. The kids wanted each party to be different. The party was always fun but I would get so stressed because back then I would want every detail to be perfect. I am no longer that anal but I have decided to revisit the theme party as an adult.


 This past couple of years we have had a couple of adult theme parties. Both were in the summer and started with a Tiki theme. The first one was my 50th birthday and the theme was ‘Hawaii-5O’. The second was my husband’s 60th birthday and the theme was ‘Swinging Sixties, Tiki style’. Many people dressed up and the rest just wished they had. The ‘theme’ gave us the nucleus upon which we could build the decorations, the food, and of course the outfits. We could all be in ‘character’ and that always helps break the ice.


 My daughter will theme at the drop of a hat. Here she is with a friend at a lawn bowling fundraiser. Photo by Vairdy Photography.

We may not admit it but every time we get dressed up for a special event we are basically theming. Think of your high school prom or a Wedding. Everyone knows what the ‘theme’ is and they build up the evening based upon it. 


My daughter and friends dressed as Canadian Celebrities, Shania Twain, Nelly Furtado, Alanis Morissette and Avril Lavigne.

The theme accomplishes a lot of good things at once.  It gives us a sense of anticipation as to how people will respond sartorially and, in turn, how the group will respond to their outfit.  It gives us a chance to be creative and even goofy if we so desire.  Basically the theme is a lot of fun and gives us a temporary imaginary world or framework.  It’s part of that strange, seemingly contradictory phenomenon that teenagers engage in whereby they simultaneously express their individuality as distinct from the mainstream while expressing style solidarity with their peers.  In this case the peers are just a temporary assemblage for a party but it does give a kind of ‘ain’t we special’ feeling to the evening.  The group theme thereby confers a kind of temporary acceptance and sense of belonging that people enjoy.The difference between these special event themes and a theme party is simply the level of kitsch and I say the more kitsch the better!