Costume: Performing Identities through Dress

Costume: Performing Identities through Dress

Costume: Performing Identities through Dress

Costume: Performing Identities through Dress


What does it mean to people around the world to put on costumes to celebrate their heritage, reenact historic events, assume a role on stage, or participate in Halloween or Carnival? Self-consciously set apart from everyday dress, costume marks the divide between ordinary and extraordinary settings and enables the wearer to project a different self or special identity. Pravina Shukla offers richly detailed case studies from the United States, Brazil, and Sweden to show how individuals use costumes for social communication and to express facets of their personalities.


It is the third of July, and tens of thousands of people are gathered on a farm just outside of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. A young couple walks by, wearing matching T-shirts: his says “Civil War Nut’s Husband”; hers reads “Civil War Nut’s Wife.” A man in baggy khaki shorts has a T-shirt that reads “Fort Bragg FIRE Emergency Services”; his companion sports a baseball cap that says “U.S. Army.” A little boy is dressed as a Union soldier, in blue pants and shirt, a kepi on his head, with a yellow cavalry sash tied at his waist, proudly carrying a toy infantryman’s rifle. On Sutler’s Row, at the photography studio, a young man poses in a wool Union uniform, indistinguishable from a real one except that it is open in back and fastened with long ties. At the Activities Tent a camera crew awaits, every man clad in shorts, sunglasses, bandanas on their heads, with large laminated “Press” badges dangling from their vests. Outside the tent stands an elegant bearded man in an impeccably tailored, pale gray uniform. He has come from upstate New York to address the crowd in the role of General Robert E. Lee. All of these people express their identities by what they wear.


We all dress to accommodate social and environmental factors and to reflect our personal aesthetics and identities. Sending meaningful messages through dress is one way people engage in a daily artful endeavor, participating in what folklorists call “creativity in everyday life” or “artistic communication in small groups.” Clothing is a palpable, immediate, and intimate form of material culture, which is defined by folklorist Henry Glassie as “culture made material.” The study of material culture, he writes, is “the study of creativity in context.”

This book is a study of individuals and society, of creativity and social communication. I study dress in its immediate context of the human actors who . . .

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