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Costumes

Time for war. What do you wear?

Well that depends, not on who you are, but where you are. If you were a member of the tribes of New Guinea you would don an elaborate feather headdress so carefully constructed that if sudden rain threatened to ruin it, you'd postpone the battle for a sunnier day. Yes, some tribes do that. That's the power of costumes.

Of course, we don't always call them "costumes". We usually reach for more delicate and dignified euphemisms, like, fashion, uniforms, power suits... But don't kid yourself. They are all just costumes meant to decorate the body and deceive the eyes. We look so sexy, so powerful, so regal, so attractive, so goth, so (fill in your own blank) with our costumes on. Take the costume off and what do you have? Maybe a slight bulge of the tummy, pimples, blemishes, stretch marks, hair that hasn't been shaved... Rita Hayworth said it best: "They go to bed with Gilda and they wake up with me."

We usually use more
dignified euphemisms:
Fashion, Uniforms, Power Suits...

"Costume", despite its ancient history, is one of those words with very little mileage on the semantic odometer. Unlike some words which are so overused that they lose meaning and context; costume seems only to be used as a reference to pagan and novelty roleplay. But costumes are actually ubiquitous prosthetics for achieving, even if temporarily, the desired body and identity. They are a poor man's plastic surgery. One who cannot afford the cost of implants is already affording the cost of explants - they're cheaper, more convincing and have a proven track record that goes back into ancient history. In the old days costumes were used to convince the gods of man's priesthood. A little later these same costumes were used to convince men of another man's godhood. The costumes have changed, but the motivation has pretty much remained the same - to inveigle admiration, adoration and obeisance. Proctor & Gamble pimped this principle back in the mid 80s when they paid The Young and the Restless actor Peter Bergman to endorse Vicks Formula 44, not as a doctor, but as an actor who plays one. At the beginning of the commercial he skillfully combines confession with accreditation by declaring, "I'm not a doctor but I play one on TV." Before you had a chance to object, he was already one third of the way into his 30 second elevator pitch.

Not that you would object. We rarely, if ever, do. Costumes, especially when worn by a celebrity, are too convincing and persuasive. Sharon Worthy, secretary to the former FEMA director, knew this all too well when she advised her boss to handle the Hurricane Katrina PR crisis, not with action, but performance: "Please roll up the sleeves of your shirt, all shirts. Even the President rolled his sleeves to just below the elbow. In this [crisis] and on TV you just need to look more hard-working. "This advice by Worthy will never be dated. Every President seems to be hit with some kind of crisis that requires rolling up the sleeves to just below the elbow and holding a serious and sagacious look as they survey the aftermath.

Costumes are ritual, recreational and, in day to day social scenarios, habitual. But they aren't always optional...

Genes code for costumes and in
his case it was the wrong costume.

In 1915 Laura Dillon was born with her costume. To navigate her way through society she would have to layer a societal costume on top of her biological one. Anatomically Laura was a woman; but Laura knew that her body was telling a lie. "Inside" he was a man. "Lesbian" was not quite the descriptor for his attraction to women. This was a man with a heterosexual attraction for women. Laura would undergo 13 corrective surgeries so that, using his own words, the "body (could) be made to fit his mind." Between the time that Laura Dillon became Michael Dillon (consequently becoming the world's first trans-sexual), Dillon would turn the application of costuming on its head, using it to communicate, not conceal, his true identity. At the age of 23 Dillon prescribed himself testosterone pills to coax from himself the trademark masculine voice and robust body. He topped it all off by keeping with him a pipe. Under this guise he was able to smuggle himself into medical school. Such subterfuge, along with the introspection that comes with being a research physician dissecting brains, facilitated Dillon's revelation that the body is not a reliable source for telling us who a person really is. Genes code for costumes and in his case it was the wrong costume. In 1946, the gender change surgery was complete and Michael Dillon published his book on altered bodies titled, Self.

What’s My Name?
Names can also be a costumes and the use of stolen identities and pseudonyms remain a common strategy in identity concealment. The modern practice is not all that different from the Egyptians who deemed proper-names to be mere nicknames. A person's real name - which seems to have contained the person himself - was to remain secret. The use of a Name as a costume calls attention to the split between person and body. Though face and form remain the same, a simple change of the name alters who we believe a person to be completely. Claude Cahun was a master at this. Of course, her real name wasn't "Claude Cahun."

Far ahead of her time, as all true futurists are, Cahun challenged gender roles by virtually not having one. With her head shaven and gender neutral clothing, Cahun embodied, in appearance and nomenclature, the ultimate costume. She blurred the lines between what people knew her to be (female) and what they perceived her to be (male). During the 1920s she created a large body of photos with her pseudonymous partner "Marcel Moore."

The two of them would use their pseudonyms as camouflage from the watchful eye of Nazi's who occupied the Channel Islands, where Cahun and Moore lived. Being neither male nor female, or perhaps both, the Nazi's struggled to find or even i dentify either woman. Consequently, Cahun and Moore were able to proliferate anti-fascism leaflets to German soldiers, challenging their obeisance. They both knew that the masquerade could only last so long. On July 25, 1944 they were arrested in their homes. They were sentenced to six years in prison as well as a death sentence. Irreverently, one of the women asked which of the two sentences was to be served first.

The Body is nothing without a Costume.

The End?

Costumes probably are forever married to the Body. They will neither fall from fashion nor cease to be a utility in social settings. We need them. Appearances are such a deep rooted rudimentary reproductive instinct that we no longer call it "pretense"; we call it "PR." It's how we make friends, get jobs and, more importantly, get laid. It's how we pick the people who will lead our country. Hell, even superheroes need costumes. Sure, they usually serve some purpose in battle, but for the most part they're there for PR purposes - they look sweet. The Body is nothing without a costume.

Should we ever grow irritated with our own PR, bullshit and costumes, we have only God to blame. The first costumes came from him, when he gifted fig leaves to Adam and Eve to veil their nakedness. Someday when we are ready to be naked again, God will return to repossess his costumes; reclaiming these pretentious names and bodies that for so long masked our true identities from each other; but more tragically, from ourselves.