Costumes; or, I Actually Made It Through This Post Without Saying “Performativity”

I was walking across campus one day last week when I ran into a friend. We chatted for a few minutes about this and that, and then he said to me, “I like your outfit!” I looked down at myself: jeans, sensible cheap brown shoes, brown-and-navy-striped sweater, brown corduroy blazer. “Thanks,” I said, delighted that my efforts to select clothes that matched when I’d gotten dressed that morning had paid off—and delighted, too, that my current costuming strategy was an overall success.

Since I had that conversation, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I dress, and how I used to dress. Clothing is an expressive medium, and over the years I’ve completely changed my style of dress again and again and again. Childhood and adolescence is convenient in this respect: you outgrow things. A lot. You lead an active life, and things wear out. And so every couple years, you get to completely reinvent not just your wardrobe, but the first impression you want to give people, what you want them to take away from a glance or a brief interaction.

I’ve always been big on first impressions. I would pick out my first-day-of-school outfit with something akin to fervent devotion, whether it was the party dress I wore in first grade, the plaid skirt and sweater vest I wore in fifth grade, the flowing thrift-store garments I wore in eighth grade, the cargo pants and aggressively political t-shirt I wore in tenth grade, the baggy form-concealing sweatshirt I wore in 12th grade, or the well-fitting jeans and button-down I wore to my first class this semester. From first period (or, later, first lecture) on, I would be making a statement about whether I intended to fit in or stand out, about whether I lived in a world in touch with reality or entirely removed from it, and (increasingly, later on) how I understood and wanted other people to understand my gender identity. And somehow, underlying all these costumes of first impression, lay the desire to please: somehow I expected to please my teachers by wearing my approximation of a school uniform, even though I was educated at Montessori and public schools all my life. Somehow I expected to please them, too, by the display of individuality that was wearing peasant skirt and blouse one day, overalls the next, and dressing as a member of the Continental Congress the next (as a side note, I wish I still had those breeches, but I outgrew them years ago). Somehow I expected to please the boys in my classes whom I wanted to befriend by wearing their hoodies and cargo shorts, their jeans and t-shirts, though of course I stood out more by virtue of being a girl who wore those clothes. I struggled to blend in or to stand out, and then, by the time of a few months ago, I suddenly realized I wanted to be able to dress nicely, and stylishly, the way young grown-ups dress. Tired of being asked by a store clerk for my mom’s permission before I took a free sample at Trader Joe’s, I graduated to jeans and blazers and button-downs and sensible shoes.

I thought that my new style of clothing was absolutely unremarkable at a place like Princeton, until I had a conversation on Facebook with a friend who told me that my clothing style is “distinctive.” That seemed incredibly bizarre to me, because there was a time when I took my style cues from the Society for Creative Anachronism, and when I would actually answer to the name “the smart girl who wears those weird clothes.” Now I look at my friends’ clothes, or sometimes at catalogues or shop windows, and try to approximate the things I like with the help of the racks of Target or Kohl’s or Old Navy. When my friend suggested that how I dress is even noticeable, or worth remarking on, the world of middle school came flooding back. I’ve been thinking since about the long skirts, and the brightly-colored vests, and the clogs, and how my mother would sometimes braid my hair. I’ve been thinking about the knee-breeches and the full-sleeved white shirt I bought from an online costume shop with my allowance, and the stockings and the leather boots and the plastic Halloween sword I would wear at my side, and the baldric I made for it out of an old scarf of my mother’s. I’ve been thinking about how complicated getting dressed then was, as complicated as being an actor and putting on your costume. I’ve been thinking about how good I became at letting my dress fall just so over my chair, or posing in just the right way with my hand on the hilt of my plastic rapier. I must have looked ridiculous—but the attention, whether positive or negative, was sufficient enough.

I compartmentalized a lot of what it was like for me to be 12 or 13 when I got a little older and started caring about fitting in, and over the past few months I’ve taken such melancholy joy in unpacking my childhood—waxing nostalgic for the good old days when I wore petticoats as easily as doublets and didn’t care what anybody thought. I was still, mentally, dating an imaginary friend, who didn’t seem to care either; it would be a long time before I wore shorts every day through the (balmy San Diego) winter because a boy I had a crush on was known for doing the same. It would be a long time before I cut my hair, and before I became terrified of the women’s restroom because, occasionally, another girl would tell me I was in the wrong place.

I’m not sure if being “the smart girl who wears the weird clothes” is what I’m still going for—or rather, after years of trying for casual not-caring about clothes, I’m going for once again. I think I’d settle for being just “the smart girl.” But now that I’m thinking again about how clothes come together to make an outfit—a costume—that says something about who you are, I feel as if I understand all over again the 13-year-old girl who laid out a week’s worth of costumes across her bedroom floor. I’m not sure if I’ll ever voluntarily wear a skirt in public again—too much has changed since then—but I remember how that girl aimed to be herself and to celebrate her individuality—and, also, to belong to a world that wasn’t the one she lived in. And maybe, as I write this, it’s occurring to me that this is the critical point.

In 8th grade, I wrote a 98-page novella called Musicians’ Guild. I haven’t ever read it in full since I finished it, simply because I think I would be so embarrassed by what I found. But I do remember that the characters in Musicians’ Guild dressed the way I dressed back then, in a brightly-colored thrift-store approximation of the clothes of the emerging early modern Anglo middle class (or something like that). Perhaps it wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to say that now, I dress not like a Princeton student but rather like a student at the University in My Head (UMH—see here)—a universe something along the lines of the idyllic, romanticized bits of Brideshead Revisited, but with American studies and computers.

I’ve never been too good with reality. I’ve never been too good with socialization, and fitting in. But as I reconstruct a Whiggish narrative of my adolescence, I am struck by what I meant, back then, by deliberately choosing the costumes of difference. I am struck by what I meant, and indeed what I utterly failed at, when I deliberately chose costumes of careful conformity. And I wonder what it means, now, that my new veering-on-pretentious east coast style (which would, I know, be very out of place in San Diego) has taken over both my reality world and my fantasy one. I no longer am sure what I’m trying to tell the world by my costuming, and I suspect it will take the perspective that growing out of college provides before I really will know. And yet, I’m not sure I really do care. I care that right now my clothes make me feel okay about how I look, and that last week my friend complimented them. I think that’s all I need to know now—and with that, it’s back to my neverending schoolwork. When you’re dual-enrolled at Princeton and UMH, you really have a lot of work to do.

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