You have to be a certain age to remember dressing up boxes. Today’s tiny tots can put in for a replica of the entire Beckham estate for Xmas & call their lawyers if Santa doesn’t deliver, so the frisson of transforming cast off curtains and abandoned antimacassars into theatrical costumery will be lost to them.
Our dressing up box was a battered old suitcase out of which we selected ancient curtains & lace doilies to serve as the trappings of royalty. Net curtains became the wings or the floaty ethereal dresses of fairies; the big velvet ones you had to lug out two-handed transformed scabby-kneed six year-olds into caped crusaders, aided by some tin foil and a cracked cricket stump to serve as a death ray. A bit of old rag and several terabytes of imagination and you were castaways, princesses, knights and astronauts, pirates and bandits, pressing into service old cardboard boxes, stuff from your dad’s tool box and any domestic animals that could be persuaded to wear a bonnet.
But once you’re grown up, that’s it, isn’t it? Well, no as it turns out. Somewhere in the depths of your computer, assuming it’s fast enough and has a graphics card you could light NASA up with, is the facility to grant access to the biggest dressing up box you ever saw in your life. Second Life, actually. Once you’ve signed up, logged on and discovered how to make your legs work, you can be let loose onto The Grid, as it’s called by its developers, or the ‘What the Cripes Was That?’ as everyone else knows it, at least until they’ve discovered how not to wear boxes on their heads.
Once there and in full charge of your limbs, you can head off (walk, fly, teleport if you don’t mind) to a shopping mall of your choice and dress yourself in anything at all that takes your fancy. A bit of a yen to be a punk? Missed out on the Goth era and fancy taking another crack at it? Want to feed your inner Barbara Cartland with acres of pink fluff and confection? No problem. You can even change your skin colour, your hair and your shape – Bit less bum, rather more leg Madam? Of course. T-W-E-A-K. One person I first came across as a rather gangly bloke, turned up a few days later looking much shorter and rather more girlie. Clearly either an identity crisis or he/she hadn’t got the hang of the controls yet.
And you don’t have to wait to get your new stuff home before trying it on – just drag it over there and then and … this is the moment you realise that all your clothes just disappeared and you’re standing in a shopping mall wearing only a pair of leopard print stilettos and a mysteriously acquired tattoo on your backside proclaiming, ‘Queen Bitch’ in a large florid font.
Still, at least you haven’t got a chunk of advertising hoarding round your neck or a skateboard with a mind of its own attached to your left foot. Once you have that sort of thing in hand, you can afford to pass off the odd episode of inadvertent exhibitionism with a casual burst of multi-coloured particles, or simply break into some smooth moves you picked up at the animation warehouse. Do be careful with these though, some of them are not too clearly labelled and you don’t want to be demonstrating er, how shall I put this – reproductive behaviour. In a crowded bar. On your own. Best way to get yourself banned.
 Second Life is a virtual world in which scientists conduct experiments and everyone else dresses as dragons, cats, or women in suspenders whose legs end somewhere under their armpits. The populations are possibly interchangeable.
 It still happens. Did it last week.
From Not Being First Fish by P Spencer-Beck. Available from Amazon (non-illustrated edition). Second edition (illustrated) due 2018.