Fancy dress is a great divider. There are those among us who like nothing more than the chance to pull on a Superman outfit or dress up as pirate or a Smurf. Then there are the more dour types who loathe the idea of fancy dress and prefer to remain free from the trammels of oversized banana costumes and sweaty gorilla jumpsuits. Happily for the former camp, this weekend's Rugby Sevens tournament in Dubai offers them an excuse to indulge. Fancy dress has become a colourful, raucous staple of Sevens tournaments the world over. Of the 50,000 or so spectators expected at the arena this weekend, a good number will be dressed as elves, fairies and comical animals.
"It's become a unique feature of Sevens as a sport," explains Tim Lacey, the founder and chief executive of the fanatical online site Ultimate Rugby Sevens. "It represents the younger, more fun-loving crowd that Rugby Sevens tends to attract. Fans spend months creating their costumes so they can outdo each other." One of the crucial figures helping with the wardrobe demand in Dubai this weekend is Jayne Eastland, the British owner of the fancy dress emporium Mr Ben's Costume Closet. "I think in rugby you get the average team supporter with the wigs and paint, but the Sevens has become an event unto itself. People really go all out to make it fun," she says.
Her store, which has existed for just over two years, came into being after she and her husband went to the Hong Kong Sevens. "We were in the South Stand, full of people in costumes," she says of the moment when she got the idea for Mr Ben's. "I said I'd write a business plan and if I got laughed out the door, then I wouldn't do it." But having previously worked on film sets and in costume and make-up for the BBC, Eastland knew plenty about dressing up. Her store wasn't laughed at, and it's now one of the first stops for Dubai residents planning their Sevens creations. "I think a lot more people are going in costumes," she says of the demand this year. "We've had six or seven large groups in as well as individuals. All nationalities, too. Everybody's doing something, which is great because then it's not just focused around western expats."
Bookings started coming in two months ago, and the costumes Eastland has sold for this weekend include 15 gnomes (including two child-sized ones), a handful of dinosaurs, policewomen, a large red dragon for, naturally, a Welsh supporter and several Shaun the Sheeps. "Those costumes are quite thin," Eastland says when asked about the temperature repercussions of partying outside in wool all weekend.
Most of the costumes have been bought outright, Eastland says, "because of the damage factor". Those that haven't been purchased will be treated to a hose-down in Mr Ben's dry-cleaners once returned. "There's very little that they've never been able to get out," she says. At Expressions Dancewear & Costumes in Abu Dhabi, trade has been similarly brisk ahead of this weekend. "Someone has just hired a horse," says the owner, Joanne Smith. "It's a two-man one. But superheroes have been popular, too."
Smith launched her business just over a year ago, and imports costumes from the UK, America and Asia. The lure of fancy dress in the UAE, she thinks, is particularly strong for expatriate parties because it offers an irresistible excuse to be someone else different for a spell. "I always think it's amazing how people change. I had a medieval party once and for the whole evening everybody talked in medieval terms," she says.
She expects a flurry of last-minute phone calls today, although by now her punters will just have to take "anything that fits them". One of those watching from the stands will be Nicholas Cartwright, a British banker who has enthusiastically prepared two costumes, one for Friday and one for Saturday. One is banging the home drum with a Union Jack motif, and the other is a Bavarian-inspired outfit involving lederhosen.
"As the circus arrives for its annual visit to Dubai, so do the clowns," he says dryly. Better get leafing through that fancy dress box then. The carnival starts today.