Happiness, Butlins, and Dressing Up

Photos: Anna Fox

To anyone who has spent a Friday or Saturday night out in a major British city, these photos will not need much introduction. To everybody else, these giant bald men dressed as ballerinas, cartoon characters, and rockstars may need some explaining. This project, named Resort 2, exists thanks to an unlikely three-way commission (from Butlins, Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, and the University for the Creative Arts at Farnham, where photographer Anna Fox teaches) to document the contemporary face of Butlins – a popular British chain of holiday camps – in Bognor Regis. Fox grasped this exceptional opportunity not only to take a portrait of a national institution – founded on the idea that a family holiday should be accessible to everyone in the country – but also to shine a light on a uniquely British tradition that is as difficult to explain as it is popular: dressing up in silly costumes and getting drunk.

“Butlins is an incredibly special place that has a really important place in British history. It was started by Billy Butlins in the early 1930’s and it was the first place for a working class family to have a proper holiday. The price of a week’s holiday in Butlin’s was the same as a week’s salary for a working class person. So in terms of being an important phenomenon, it’s very significant.”

“It’s also very theatrical, Billy Butlin, the founder, came out of a South African circus so it’s got a kind of circus feel to it. He was apparently a pretty wacky guy, and it has that kind of feel; you walk around this place and it’s entertainment after entertainment after entertainment. It’s not very flashy or super modern or anything like that, it’s really just designed around keeping people happy – all the members of a family happy and all different kinds of people. A proper holiday in a safe space. And they now also have these extraordinary weekend parties.”

“The British population has always loved dressing up. I’m sure it comes out of panto theatre. Lots of cultures have dressing up as a kind of ritual or celebration, but not so many have it a sort of regular weekend event. British men love dressing up as women as well, so you get these amazing weekends with these great big groups of men and women – quite a lot of them on stag do’s and hen nights and things like that – all coming together in costume, groups of fairies and angels and Elvis’s and Amy Winehouse’s, or all as ghosts … and they basically party all weekend. The dressing up is absolutely part of the fun. Some people go and have three different costumes for three days, though the weekends are separate from the family holidays!”

“It’s interesting because even for the party weekends it turns into a safe space – there are all the people who work there looking out for the guests, making sure they’re OK. Friday or Saturday night in British towns can get quite raucous and can be quite scary at certain times, but here you have some protection. It’s like a circus with a wall around it.”

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