Book Review: Costume: Performing Identities Through Dress


When I was a teenager, I loved to try on new personas with clothes, makeup, and hair, imagining myself to be more glamorous and cool than I really was. During a particular period I was enamored with 1960s London and the stylized mod and futuristic looks that prevailed in the fashion magazines, films, and shop windows of the time. As I emerged from my room with painted-on Twiggy lashes, a sparkly minidress and chunky Mary Jane shoes, my mom gave me an exasperated look and exclaimed, for the millionth time, “Can’t you just be yourself?”. But frankly, I didn’t really know who that was. I couldn’t imagine giving up dressing as different people or in the clothing of past eras to become a “truer” version of myself.

Reading ethnographer and folklorist Pravina Shukla’s Costume: Performing Identities Through Dress brought this memory back to my present mind, and reconfirms that none of us are truly one consistent, “authentic” self, especially in the context of donning clothing to express another facet of who we are. In the introductory chapter, Shukla briefly discusses the largely individual pursuit of assuming another persona through Halloween costume—an annual transformation that can make someone feel like a sexier, bolder, more creative, outspoken, funnier, critical, or self-assured version of his or her everyday self.

Shukla focuses the remainder of the study on communal events and organized groups, examining what clothing means for participants through in-depth interviews, observation, and research of group events and practices. She remains an independent, outside chronicler who seeks to understand each participant’s motivations and intentions for wearing special dress. And with folkloristic studies as a foundation and ethnography as her methodology, it is not just the cloth, materials, and design that are important, but the actions, gestures, movements, and performance that costume can motivate.

Shulka acknowledges that costume is a temporary departure from our daily lives and appearance (and clearly differentiates between everyday dress and costume), but stresses that “in wearing costume we do not become someone else; rather, we become in some context a deeper or heightened version of ourselves. Costume provides an outlet for the expression of certain identity markers that do not have an outlet in ordinary life” (p. 15). In other words, the boundary between dress and our everyday selves and costume and the expression of another identity is porous and fluid. Shukla is intent on erasing this delineation that is widely perceived as a set equation (costume equals disguise, or not oneself; daily dress equals truth, or our true selves).

In each case study (perhaps with the exception of the chapter “Play”, which is a bit more lighthearted), the practitioners with whom Shukla converses deeply and seriously feel the task of sourcing, making or wearing costume. The expression of racial identity, political resistance, cultural heritage, family and community ties, a personalized history, or artistic creativity is approached with discipline, passion, pride, and joy. In all instances, Shukla’s participants “seek transformations” (p. 244) through their experience of wearing costume.

Excepting the first two chapters, which examine the history and multiple meanings of the costume of the carnival group Filhos de Gandhy (“Sons of Gandhi”) in Bahia, Brazil and centuries-old folk dress in the Darlana province of Sweden, the study largely focuses on groups in the United States—college students, tech and science workers with dreams of medieval revelry and chivalry as members of the Society for Creative Anachronism, Civil War reenactors, living history professionals at Colonial Willamsburg, and theater actors, directors, playwrights, and costume designers in Boston. Each chapter is rich with description, the reflective words of interviewees, and layered analysis of costume details and the embodied actions that enliven these special garments. While each group (and, often, individuals within that same group) has different reasons for donning costume, there are general goals, hopes, and desires that run through all the case studies. Shukla reflects on and synthesizes these common threads (“sociability”; “heritage”; “protest and spectacle”; “education”; “artistic creation”; and “individuality”) in her concluding chapter.

Throughout the book are color, often full-page photographs of mostly named participants from Shukla’s study, taken by either Shukla or her husband and fellow folklorist, Henry Glassie. You will not find beside these contemporary portraits comparative photographs from historical texts, illustrations, or photographs, for the right or wrong amount of costume accuracy is beside the point of Shukla’s study. While accuracy and authenticity may be very important to certain participants–and Shukla discusses this when applicable–she is most interested in exploring the “immediate context” of the wearing and making of costume, and what it means to its makers or wearers at the present time. Again, these portraits vividly communicate the pride, joyfulness, and care that these actors, designers, historians, educators, and “time travelers” take in their work and actions.

With each group, there is an element of public and private participation and performance. The carnival group Filhos de Gandhy was persecuted during the 20th century by Brazilian police for their defiant expression of Africanness and the rituals of the Afro-Brazilian religion, Candomblé. Their dazzling blue and white costume, created in 1949 by unionized dockworkers as resistance to cultural and racial discrimination, simultaneously articulates the group’s commitment to nonviolent expression, with Mahatma Gandhi as sartorial and philosophical inspiration. Filhos de Gandhy is now promoted and encouraged as a major tourist attraction and emblem of state pride in the latter 20th and 21st century. Although the music and spectacle of the group as they make their way along the parade route is a public performance, enacting rituals and wearing the symbolic costume belong to members alone.

Filhos de Gandhy member, from Costume: Performing Identities Through Dress, Indiana University Press, 2015

Filhos de Gandhy member, from Costume: Performing Identities Through Dress, Indiana University Press, 2015

The membership of Filhos de Gandhy has grown to 10,000 members, who can be drawn to the camaraderie, communal revelry, practice of Candomblé ritual, or the stunning beauty of the group’s costume. Many participants note how flattering the costume is to all body types, and how attractive and confident it makes them feel. While the main components are required and remain the same (white tunic, blue shoulder ties, white towel fashioned into a turban, blue socks and white sandals), each member can customize the costume and make it his own. The number of dedicated Candomblé practioners within the group has diminished in comparison to overall membership, and yet the driving force of Filhos de Gandhy remains the continuation of the Candomblé religion and the celebration of African heritage—and all members are taking part in or support this on some level, whether or not they actively practice Candomblé in their everyday lives.

The Leskand folk costume of the Darlana province of Sweden is publicly seen by tourists for events such as the Midsummer festival, but its meaning is of course most significant for community insiders. There is an outsider perception that the wearing of folk costumes for these events are merely “for show” and have no meaning in “real” life. Local historian and folk costume advocate Kersti Jobs-Björklöf strongly refutes this, and has responded to such statements by pointing out that the costumes are “real” enough for community members to be buried in them—the ultimate private statement (p. 85). Kersti and other community members balance preservation of historic folk costumes with vibrant, enthusiastic wear, and actively educate and consult on the correct combination of colors and patterns for each week (the costume changes from week to week, based on an almanac, or “costume calendar”). Kersti and Shukla emphasize that the costume must be worn and enjoyed by the community–and promoted by well-meaning outsiders–for the folk costume tradition to remain relevant and significant. Shukla observes that in preserving the traditions of folk costumes, members of the Leskand community are rebelling against contemporary versions of their Swedish selves, and that these two states of being are always in tension, but not necessarily opposition.

Male and female Leskand folk costume, from Costume: Performing Identities Through Dress, Indiana University Press, 2015

Male and female Leskand folk costume, from Costume: Performing Identities Through Dress, Indiana University Press, 2015

A similar tension is also in evidence within the Society for Creative Anachronism, which was founded by students at the University of California, Berkeley in 1966, as a “rejection” of the 20th century and a desire to celebrate “ the best parts” of European medieval heritage—the Middle Ages not as they were, but how they “should have been” (p. 118). Fittingly, then, members create characters that are fictional constructs of their own imaginations, which may or may not be loosely based on actual historic persons. Society gatherings are private events, open to members only, and yet everyone is open to public display and scrutiny within the group. No strict adherence to historic accuracy is enforced, and participants are free to be as minimal (a long, t-shaped tunic is the base requirement) or maximal as they wish. In the latter camp, several of Shukla’s interviewees take great pride in creating or sourcing well-made, period specific costume in exquisite or eye-catching materials, which allows them to stand out at SCA events and provides an escape from drab, everyday clothing worn for jobs where convention and conformity is the norm.

SCA member in French medieval dress, from Costume: Performing Identities Through Dress, Indiana University Press, 2015

SCA member in French medieval dress, from Costume: Performing Identities Through Dress, Indiana University Press, 2015

Shukla points out that the SCA was founded during the 1960s, when awareness of civil rights and alternatives to mainstream histories in the United States was rising on college campuses, especially at Berkeley. By preserving an idealized version of European medieval life in the 1960s, SCA members celebrated and emphasized their European heritage in the face of perceived diminishing attention. The presentation or preservation of historic costume can express anxieties surrounding change in present-day society and culture.

In a similar vein, many Civil War reenactors perform and embody roles as soldiers or well-known historical persons as a means to preserve a history they believe is not discussed or taught well in contemporary America. Reenactors can participate for different reasons, whether that is for camaraderie, dressing up in uniform, honoring ancestors, or honoring their own professions or military service by choosing to play similar roles in reenactment events. Many who spoke to Shukla professed a need to convey truth or the “real” story to their public audiences by dressing and acting as Civil War soldiers, lieutenants, and generals. Some feel the need to counteract myths perpetuated by fictional accounts of the war (such as the 1936 novel and 1939 film, Gone With the Wind) while others see reenactment as a critique of contemporary politics. Some participants feel strongly about “keep[ing] the politics out”, while others see participation in events as an act of political protest. While speaking with a few men dressed as Confederate generals, Shukla notes: “Contemporary men dressed as the officers of the Civil War can pass judgment on the Obama Administration while speaking ostensibly about Abraham Lincoln’s presidency” (p. 159). Absolute historical accuracy in uniform, dress, and weaponry is mandatory at public events, and underscores truth-telling and pedagogical goals for many reenactors. Also prized is a physical resemblance to the known person portrayed, in height, weight, and facial features.

Confederate soldier reenactors in Virginia, from Costume: Performing Identities Through Dress, Indiana University Press, 2015

Confederate soldier reenactors in Virginia, from Costume: Performing Identities Through Dress, Indiana University Press, 2015

The motivation to educate others is of the highest priority for costumed professionals at Colonial Williamsburg, the country’s largest “living history” museum. Presentation of historic figures in speech and dress is closely monitored by Colonial Willamsburg’s staff of scholars and designers, who research primary source materials and share this information with the costumed interpreters, who can then improvise within certain parameters. Shukla speaks with staff who embody well-known personages, such as the Marquis de Lafayette, and less well-known persons, such as Baptist slave preacher Gowan Pamphlet, portrayed by James Ingram, who raises the important point that not everyone represented at Colonial Willamsburg had the privilege or means to have their story written down or published. For professional reenactors at Colonial Williamsburg, a correct, comfortable, and attractive costume—which is approved by the official Costume Approval Board—helps them to do their job well.

A journeyman silversmith and the Costume Design Center at Coloinal Williamsburg, from Costume: Performing Identities Through Dress, Indiana University Press, 2015

A journeyman silversmith, and the Costume Design Center at Colonial Williamsburg, from Costume: Performing Identities Through Dress, Indiana University Press, 2015

Shukla interviews those who dress as everyday persons in the “historic trades” (wig makers, weavers, tailors, blacksmiths, etc.) area of the site, and learns that clothing is an excellent starting point to teach visitors about life in the American 18th century; most people tend to ask questions about clothing that appears very different from our contemporary wear. A fascinating interview with tailor journeyman Mark Hutter illustrates that not only does correct dress provide authentic immersion for the visitor, but also helps staff “understand the physicality of another time an place when it literally swathes you”….”I couldn’t understand the work of an eighteenth-century tailor if I wasn’t wearing an eighteenth-century waistcoat and coat. Because the very cut of the coat affects the way that I sit when I’m doing my sewing” (p. 190).

Nearly all participants in each case study made some kind of remark about how costumes affect their body and mind—how they can change their psychological state, their carriage, or gestures. These transformations are especially important for the theatrical stage actor. Each group in Shuka’s study involves some aspect of costuming collaboration, although individuals usually assemble their costumes separately and then come together as a group to share the outcome. In theater, costuming is truly a collaborative process, and Shukla sought out costume designers, such as Rafael Jean, who love collaborating and designing with the active input of actors and directors.

Costumes for Arms and the Man, at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, from Costume: Performing Identities Through Dress, Indiana University Press, 2015

Costumes for Arms and the Man, at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, from Costume: Performing Identities Through Dress, Indiana University Press, 2015

Shukla elicits poetic, philosophical, and reflective responses from two actors based in Boston. Both speak about how powerful costume can be, and how—like the Civil War or Colonial Willamsburg reenactors—it can help you arrive at the “truth”, an expression of what it means to be human in that moment and through that character. Actor Ellen Adair expounds on costume as “a gift” to the actor: it can guide her to physically feel the gestures, weight, and accompanying state of mind of the character she will embody on stage (p. 229). It is that elusive “magic moment” that costume can help the wearer achieve.

When one dresses up in a costume, it is usually a personal choice. Or, as with theater, the most effective costumes are ones that become personalized for the actor and can feel like a seamless extension of his or her body into the body of the character. Shukla’s study proves that sometimes we are more ourselves in costume than in everyday dress, which can feel drab and dull. Wearing costume can be a very personal, individual act, but a very desirable result of our own creativity is feeling a part of something larger than ourselves. This collection of case studies is well worth a read for anyone interested in the physical, psychological, communal, and transformative power of costume.

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