My 1980s Birthday Party

Around the time of my birthday I found myself reflecting on the earliest birthday party I can remember. It was my 5th or 6th birthday and we lived in Thornton Heath in Croydon in a lovely little house with a big oak tree in the garden.

I recall this particular birthday party as being both incredibly exciting and also my first experience of social angst; I was thrilled about all my friends coming to play but also a bit stressed by it. I was dimly aware that my parents were exhausting themselves to make this The Greatest Party Ever, and all the attention was both scary and amazing. I found this feeling difficult to articulate so it came out through some crazy behaviour…

…for instance when my friend Phillip arrived I ran into the street flailing like a windmill, screaming “WHERE’S MY PRESENT? WHERE’S MY PRESENT? WHERE’S MY PRESENT?” until someone explained that this was a tad unseemly.

I also remember the uncomfortable sensation of the house being full – a sense conveyed well in the handful of photographs taken that day. It rained a lot, so all of us ended up cooped up in the tiny living room.

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We decided everyone could play with my Dressing Up Box – an astounding collection of outlandish clothes that formed the basis for all my childhood games.

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Sharing these things was difficult for me. On the one hand I knew it was The Right Thing To Do, but seeing my prized garments on Others produced complex emotions. I think I spent most of the Dressing Up game wrestling with an unreasonable instinct to reclaim my clothes from other children… In this photo I am hunched on the floor in the bottom right hand corner, clad in an amazing nylon dressing gown uneasily regarding the crazy party action. Also: check out our highly patterned turquoise carpet.

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In this photo I am wearing a previous outfit – a white ensemble with red beads – striding forth purposefully from the left hand of the frame. There seem to have been many changes of clothes for me that day.

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I think in the end I did an OK job of playing nicely with others. Everyone seems to have had a go at wearing everything.

I treasure these pictures as surviving evidence of the marvelous Dressing Up Box; especially memorable items included a silver mini-dress; a gold and silver ballgown with smooth gold plastic buttons; the aforementioned psychedelic purple and orange pure nylon dressing gown; a wedding veil; a filmy pink polyester negligee and a hand-knitted baby blanket. I also co-opted my brother’s beautiful silver space-man costume into my Dressing Up Box and it can be seen here on Susan. Louise is wearing the gold and silver ball gown. I remember that Louise and Susan were the really popular girls, just look at them throwing shapes in my Dressing Up Clothes.

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My mother briefly spent a stint as an Oriflame representative and accessing her huge red leather box filled with cosmetics was the Holy Grail of my childhood. The Rules were that under no circumstances was I allowed to play with this magical box of delights. However judging by the clownish eyeshadow and lipstick sported by Cheryl in this photo, these Rules caved under the pressure of it being My Birthday and we were allowed to have at it…

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…the other memory I have of this birthday is of a particular cake. My mother is the QUEEN of the epic childhood birthday cake; we had narrow-boats, spaceships, teddy-bear’s picnics… you name it, if it could be made of cake, she has made it for one of us over the years. The concept for this cake was to create a dress + bodice out of sponge + icing around the torso of a Sindy/Barbie doll in a fashion similar to this photo, stolen from the Internets.

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When I saw this cake I became deranged with excitement. The skirt was decorated with iced gems and silver baubles! The doll was so shiny and beauteous! And it was ALL FOR ME ON MY BIRTHDAY!!! The sight of that icing-clad sugar princess sent me into an out-of-control spiral of emotions. My Father was bearing the cake at the precise moment when I saw it and I still remember the look of blind panic in his eyes when I went beserk: “I’M THE BIRTHDAY GIRL! THE SINDY DOLL IS MINE!” He tore the torso of the doll from the cake and handed it to me to try and stop The Noise at which point I saw it had no legs and began to weep. It was too much. The emotional roller coaster of the doll that must be mine because it’s my birthday followed by the shattering realisation that she had no legs. I was inconsolable. The amazing cake was a terrible sham! The party was a disaster! OH, CRUEL WORLD!

Pops ran off and re-applied the legs to the torso of the doll, washed the icing off it and handed it back to me but the damage was done. I was spent. For the remainder of my birthday party I rocked gently in the corner, clutching the doll to my chest and refusing to speak to anyone or eat the party food. To my relief the other children were eventually ushered away with their party bags, and I imagine I went to sleep absolutely shattered. I hope my parents rewarded themselves with generous measures of gin.

Although my memories are a bit mixed, 30-ish years on I am extremely fond of my recollections of this party and thrilled that evidence survives of the wondrous Dressing Up Box. I love our smudgy, flash-saturated, time-stained photos from the time before we all had mobile phones with cameras on them and a professional photographer in the family. I feel huge love for my parents plotting my cake, blowing up my balloons, and trying to manage the unruly flock of kiddies that descended upon us. They would have been younger than I am now when they opened their home up to this madness.

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I like to hope that these days I can manage better at parties; that I don’t focus on the presents; that I share my toys nicely; and that I can get through dinner without weeping over a cake. But I feel Big Love too for my former self who was unseemly, who went ape for the doll, who was demented with glee for presents and who did not wish to share the Dressing Up Box… the feral child within not yet moulded to the expectations of the world. And I find I am still obsessed with clothes though in a slightly more serious way than I was in 1985.

These days I do not have fairy princesses at my parties, but this year for my birthday I had my family here. Watching the tiny smalls playing in the grass, I found myself thinking that maybe I need to build a Dressing Up Box for them so I can pass on some of the magic that I found in my own childhood. If time must march on (and I think sometimes that it really does go too fast) then maybe it can move in circles.

Big shout out to all my comrades who remember being a kid in the 1980s.

5 Responses to My 1980s Birthday Party

  1. What wonderful and lovely pictures, reading this made me smile so much and made me remember some brilliant birthday parties that my mum arranged for me and my sisters when we were little..one time she hired the local village hall and me and my two younger sisters all had a huge party together with all the other children in the village being invited (mum only did that the once so think it was a bit overwhelming for her too)
    I don’t know if you got something like this on your local tv but in Suffolk we had Anglia TV and they had a birthday club which was a presenter with a furry puppet reading out some birthday cards just before the children’s tv started, mum used to send a card in every year for each of us and I had my name read out twice which I thought was proper exciting (simpler times obviously).
    Your dressing up box was awesome by the way xx (and think you really should make one for your little relatives)

  2. Jemima says:

    This is a wonderful post! And big up the 1980s birthday party veterans.

    Your dressing up box is fabulous and reminds me of my mother’s box full of 70s maxi-dresses, velvet parade capes (We Three Kings party staples) and my grandmother’s white knee high boots (For some reason this was the basis of my She-Ra costume I would don in solitary cosplay moments along with my ballet leotard and a pink plastic sword).

    It’s surprising how the dress-ups are so recognisable. I wonder what a contemporary dress up box would look like – whether it’s purely determined by the fabulous but unwearable glitz in the cupboard and the ill-fitting cast offs of the last ten years or whether it gets actively created in terms of the adults’ ideas of playing dress-up and leads to some sort of dress-up specific fashion cycle. This would make some kind of awesome fashion sociology study.

    Thank you for the nostalgia inspiration – particularly the party histrionics to which I was also prone. You know it was a good party when the birthday girl is in tears for half an hour before and after everyone’s parents arrive.

  3. nobutterfly says:

    I love this story, I would definitely encourage you to create a dressing up collection for the little ones. As a child I was always envious for children that had that opportunity. And I have to admit I would maybe still like a dressing up collection or friends that organise that kind of parties

  4. Susan says:

    Dear Feral Child,

    I laughed so hard, that was just great! Thank you.

    HUGS, Susan

  5. Pingback: An Encouraging Thunder award and a right old waffle……. | ericka eckles

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