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Enquiring Minds

When is it clothing, and when is it costume?

This occured to me yesterday or day before, while browsing through a group on Flickr for Dragon Con 2006. Most of the photos are of the outfits which people wear (yes, I'm avoiding the word 'costumes' just yet). Looking at them is an exercise celebrating ingenuity, creativity, humour, drama, and humanity. With the word 'costume' being bandied about I felt somewhat out of sorts thinking of many of those outfits as costumes. The air of durability, and the attitude/expression/stance of the people wearing them, gave the lie to the word as I may frequently think of it. A costume is intended to disguise or delude and do so for a fairly inexpensive outlay of time and funds. It is for a short-term use, and hence the low investment is a good thing. I saw some of those. I saw a great deal which did not fit that description.

I've been to a few Cons. Long time back, only a few, and I did not wear anything other than, say, civilian or street clothing. To Cons. I also played for quite a while in the Society for Creative Anachronism (henceforth SCA if mentioned again), so did wear something other than civilian/street clothing. (Yes, I'm avoiding another word here, because I am somewhat unhappy with the means I've seen it used in similar discussions.)

I'm also preparing to travel next month to a Nursing conferance I've attended three years running in October. One of the social events at this weekend conference is a Halloween Ball, Pumpkin and Costume Contest. It's great fun, I enjoy it, and I've even dressed for it twice. Some of the folk get very involved in what they create, just as for Dragon Con and other Cons, but most of them aren't travelling across a continent to get there. It's somewhat easier to bring, for example, a 'table' which will feature one's head as a dining selection if one is driving to the location of the event rather than flying.


Those three general event descriptions (Con, SCA, Party), as well as my approach to one of them and some of my background, got me to thinking. When is it clothing, and when is it costume, what one wears.

From September 1970 to May 1972 my life comprised being a student at Thomas Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This is an excellent academic institution at least in my estimation. I say that because to this day I am often amazed at what I pull out of memory in various situations, being things I learned at AQ. I know a few of my teachers there despaired of me, since after all they dealt with a young man muchly interested in "Beer, Betting, Women, and Work"; in that order, and perhaps substituting something else for Betting.

Still, AQ is an excellent academic institution. It is run by the Dominican Order of the Roman Catholic Church, which may or may not give you a clue to my background. AQ does not require one to be a Catholic to register for classes, nor to be employed. It does provide an excellent Theology/Philosophy department and Masters degree programs in these areas. I took several philosophy courses there, in fact.

I also took Theatre Arts classes; Acting, and Movements Lab. Well, it may of been one class and covered both parts. I'd need to look at the transcript to get definitive. Whatever, here's where we get to one of the first points which perculated up through my consciousness about this question. Miss Donna taught the Acting class, and is one of the teachers who probably despared of my focus. One of her comments in class discussion though, when we were reviewing the clothing worn while portraying a part, is this:

Don't think of it as a costume. That distances you from the character. This is the clothing you (your character) wears in the course of your daily life, and that clothing tells you something about you (your character).

Hence, when I became much interested and involved in the SCA, I did not make costumes for this fellow Tsuji, I made clothing. I'll accept the word garb, because that carries some of the greater permanence, greater wear characteristics as does clothing. Most of that clothing is still in my possestion today, and in fact when invited to a 'costume party' I may well wear that clothing.


People who knew me in the day often commented, particularly if they were able to watch me dress (and Oh My Readers, it is very possible to dress in Japanese clothing without violating any cultural mores about nudity or underclothing exposure), that they could see the transition from Mad Shutterbug to Tsuji as I dressed. Actors of various eras and genre's are known to be quoted saying the same thing, as they dress for work they feel the character becoming more than the words on paper.

I expect that many who attend Cons regularly (from reading and visiting here, I presume the word to be Fen?) and who do so dressed in any of the many roles from their various favorite stories will exhibit the same type of transition from their daily self into their character for Con. And, from talking with someone on my Flist who does this I also know that some of the outfits put together for this are rather more permanent than others. Which is where I come to my question.

When is it clothing, and when is it costume?

When I serve in my role as Registered Nurse at Hospital, I wear surgical scrubs, a hat, and often a mask. If I am also scrubbed in at the sterile field, I wear also sterile surgical gown and gloves over that. It defines who and what I am, a Registered Nurse providing Nursing care. Clothing, or Costume?

When I served in my role as elected officer of AORN (my professional association), I wore a business suit. I don't always, and in fact often prefer something less formal. I like vests, as they provide additional pockets. I tend to dress in what is considered a Western US style, because I like it. I won't deny that it's got some relation to playing Cowboys growing up. So even my business suits are a Western style of jacket. Clothing, or Costume?

In fact, I like Western styling so much that my very formal wear is a Boise jacket and trousers suit, and I mention that because some of you who've seen me, or photos of me, in that suit say I look great in a Tux. Thanks, I appreciate that, but Tuxedo actually is a specific cut of jacket and trousers. What any of the actors portraying James Bond in big formal party settings wear is indeed a Tux. I, however, didn't wear a Tux even at my wedding. I wore a Morning Coat. Clothing, or Costume?

Look at the icon associated with this post, please. That's Tsuji. He's wearing a kamishimo, a matched kataginu and hakama which essentially equates to that formal Boise or Tuxedo discussed above. Most photographs of people wearing kataginu these days show them with these wide 'wings' at the shoulders, something extending past the shoulder joint quite some distance. This is a style from the middle to late Edo period (late 18th through middle 19th C.), a style encouraged by the Tokugawa Shogunate for two reasons, enforced conspicuous consumption diverted funds to clothing which might otherwise be spent on rebellion, and the extension of those shoulders restricted shoulder/arm movement which made swordplay more difficult (though this is easily avoided through the simple expedient of sliding one's right arm through the front of the kataginu thus dropping the wing behind/alongside oneself). The version seen in the icon is a very early rendition of this style, from a time period when swordplay without notice carried a higher probability and helped ensure longetivity.

That particular garment is now about 13 years old with fairly regular use during those years, though not daily by any dint. And, what I've just represented to you lets you know approximately when Tsuji lived, and things he'd need to consider getting through the day, as well as that he had occasion to need to wear something for fairly formal reasons. So, Clothing, or Costume?

Familar with Firefly or Serenety? Same thing really, but there will be folk who may've seen the latter without benefit of the former. Look at that brown coat Malcolm Reynolds wears. Sure, looks rather much like a Duster, another Western style of coat. Looks a bit like one, yup. But look closer, and maybe not so much, or because hey, a Duster is a very durable and versatile coat to wear. In fact, that brown coat looks a lot like the uniform coat worn by the Independants. Tells you something about Mal, neh? Good servicable coat, happen to have it, wear it when needed... and happily, too, letting you know yup, he's a Vet, an Independant, and not so much with a concern you might figure that out. Clothing, or Costume?

And if I put together an outfit, not so much a Captain Mal outfit but something kind of like, which when you might look at it at a Con and say, Yup, he's a Vet, and an Independant, and not so much to be bothered about that particular fact, would it be Clothing? Or Costume?

'Cause, yanno, sometimes it is fun to dress up.


( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 16th, 2006 03:57 pm (UTC)
I always call my nursing scrubs my work costume, so there you go.

When my husband finally graduated from college with his degree in Computer Engineering Technology at age 38 and all of sudden started having to dress like Ward Cleaver to go to work, it was DEFINITELY his work costume.

To me, anything that isn't my usual tshirt and blue jean shorts constitutes a costume, whether it's themed or not.

Not that I'm adverse to wearing actual costumes. I wore quite a few when I was young. I WILL be posting the Bubbles the Barbarian getup some day this next week, god help you all.
Sep. 17th, 2006 12:27 pm (UTC)
But then, as has been mentioned further along in discussion, does this make your Nursing personna a different you? Likewise, for your husband in his Ward Cleaver Gotowork outfit?
Sep. 16th, 2006 08:07 pm (UTC)
I have no idea what the word Fen means.

A costume is something you wear when you're in a different persona. I disagree with the statement that costumes are usually low on the fund scale, a lot of people invest a LOT of time and money into costumes. Your uniform is a uniform. Work costume, or clothing... its a uniform. Same thing with military uniforms... they're uniforms. When auditioning we're taught to think of what we wear as a costume so we think of it as a little play instead of an audition, and it's supposed to empower us.

As for Conventions, I think it's pretty obvious who's wearing a costume and who's wearing clothes.
Sep. 16th, 2006 10:22 pm (UTC)
I have no idea what the word Fen means.

Fannish plural for 'fan.'

I tend not to use it because I really don't care for a large portion of 'Fan-speak.'

Sep. 17th, 2006 03:31 am (UTC)
Interesting. Is it any particular fandom that uses it? Because I've been involved in several big fandoms and never heard "fen" used.
Sep. 18th, 2006 02:51 pm (UTC)
It's more of a traditional fannish thing, I suppose.

Sep. 18th, 2006 11:28 pm (UTC)
So like Star Wars and Star Trek? Because really, never heard of it. Neither have a lot of people in my fandom (I asked.) But then again I could just travel in different circles.
Sep. 17th, 2006 01:18 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the clarification, for which it may well join the word 'mundanes' in my own lexicon.
Sep. 17th, 2006 12:38 pm (UTC)
A costume is something you wear when you're in a different persona.
OK, I can accept that as another definition of costume; after all it is frequently used. And from this point of view it also helps keep one's mind straight as to who I am and who all these characters I've portrayed are.

I still like the position my teacher provided; thinking of the clothing that 'personna' wears tells you a great deal about the person being portrayed. For example, the photo of you and your sister in your BSG costumes (but stipulating say that I don't know about the show BSG): I very easily recognise those as 'uniforms' and therefore immediately know those two people are currently serving in some organised institution. Since I don't see weapons it's possible they are not military, but not definitive as I also know that when I was in the military, we did not always carry weapons. Their stance (the 'At Ease' posture) implies that they are military.

I agree, some people spend a great deal on their costumes for either Cons or SCA or Theatre. These people are also planning on wearing these outfits more than once. The concept includes me, particularly once all of the 'accessories' to complete the ensemble are added in. The kamishimo in the icon, for example, with everything included for wear to such a formal event, approaches $500 at the time I spent the money. Could be more, now.

Other costumes may be a 'one-off' kind of thing, and thus less likely to involve great expense.
Sep. 17th, 2006 12:42 pm (UTC)
(feh, post button too early)

And I agree with the comment about how obvious it is who's wearing costume, and who clothes... stipulating your definition. Were I to see someone wearing say, even your BSG or Kaylee outfits, moving very comfortably and naturally through the crowd as if this is what every day is like, I may lean more toward my definition: these are the clothes this person wears (even though this person is portraying a personna).
Sep. 16th, 2006 09:51 pm (UTC)
I love your Tsuji characterization/costume! Do you have a larger pic online somewhere? I would love to see more detail!
Sep. 17th, 2006 12:43 pm (UTC)
Yes, I do and that's another project. Vain peacock that Tsuji is/was, there are a number of photos of him about. :) And I'm working on a 'photo essay' of my icons with larger versions as well.
Sep. 17th, 2006 10:08 pm (UTC)
Now I am assuming that you are not personifying this particular Tsuji...

I do not see any photos of Jun Tsuji online. Is he the character you are morphing into?
Sep. 17th, 2006 10:25 pm (UTC)
No, that's not the Tsuji. :) In the SCA, which purports to be a medieval recreation-education group, one researches a time/place of interest within the rules and creates a 'persona', someone who could have lived then/there, but is not an actual historical figure, nor out of historical fiction, nor out of fantasy. Must be one's own personal fiction. So...

Tsuji Ryuuzo is the third son of a little known member of the bushi (warrior) class, born 1572 Common Era in northern Honshu. He left home at a young age under dubious circumstances, and through a series of unfortunate and fortunate events managed to survive a Japanese incursion in Korea and the Battle of Sekigahara, and to avoid the Seige of Osaka Castle. The latter two events established the Tokugawa Shogunate, and consolidated their hold on the nation for the next 250 years or so.
Sep. 16th, 2006 10:05 pm (UTC)
I'm pretty sure you've seen pics of my Inara costume.

In it's current incarnation, it's culled from all over - an Indian choli paired with a Persian vest bodice and an Indonesian wrap skirt with a Chinese purse.

But it fits for the character/universe.

That being said, I am acutely aware that not being of Indian/Middle Eastern/Indonesian extraction, I am indeed wearing a costume.

Were I of any of those ethnic/racial backgrounds, I might reconsider that notion.

Sep. 17th, 2006 12:49 pm (UTC)
I have, and it does. Quite a bit of Inara's clothing fits that description, and thus that 'verse. Which helps serve to demonstrate my point, that you've studied the person/character and the clothing helps represent them.

I understand your premise for your later statements, as it's something I meditated on while I did play in SCA. My hair coloring tends toward reddish-brown (and these days with more than a bit of grey), my beard when I wore one definitely red, and my mustachios still do tend more to the red of the reddish brown. Look very Japanese? Not so much. Yet, I still approached that thinking about what I wore as clothing, not costume.

It got to the point that even wearing European garb people called me by my Japanese Persona name, despite most obviously not being dressed Japanese.
Sep. 16th, 2006 10:52 pm (UTC)
Interesting essay. And you can add: what is a uniform?

I note that you stand differently as Tsuji. I have done enough acting, and also dressing up for cons, to know about the putting on of identity. That might be one of the reasons that clothing is so important in some cultures, such as Japanese; putting on certain garb implies committment to qualities the clothes symbolize.

It always amuses me that once in a while I dress in my dom persona, which isn't much part of my day-to-day personality, and men and a few women literally wrap themselves around my legs or follow me around with glazed eyes. Now, I can't have truly grown several dimensions in physical attractiveness just by putting on a couple of boots, so I have to conclude that when I wear those clothes, I put on a persona as well that is a lot more sexually attractive than my normal persona. So it's not just the clothes, no. It's what they represent.

Sort of a bit of magic.

I think I'd find you intimidating in your Tsuji persona. But this explains why FF calls you Tsugi. I'd been confused about that.
Sep. 17th, 2006 12:58 pm (UTC)
I think I'd find you intimidating in your Tsuji persona.

What, me?

Actually, it will be interesting if Skippy weighs in on this. Fat Fred himself has never seen or met Tsuji that I know of. What I recall very clearly is, while Tsuji was always very polite and visibly friendly, there were many who would not approach Tsuji except in a group.

I suspect one contributing factor is I often practiced Iaido in personna at Events, which is the Way of Drawing and Cutting with Sword... and I'm told when I am well into the practice that I frequently there is a really, really big smile on my face.
( 18 comments — Leave a comment )

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