When I was twelve years old, I felt more comfortable in a costume than in my own clothes. It wasn’t that my clothes were uncomfortable. In fact, I chose them for their comfort. I wore a wrinkled t-shirt that was two sizes too big because it was comfortable. My jeans were from Walmart, partially because my mom refused (and still refuses) to purchase any item of clothing over $15, and partially because they were comfortable. I wore Converse sneakers partially because they were comfortable but more so because I saw Will Smith wear them in the “i, robot” movie and I thought they were cool. Most importantly, I only wore cotton sports bras because they were comfortable.
My mom sometimes tried to get me to wear the lacy bras that she bought for me, but I refused. The lace makes my skin itch. I told her to buy me the real bras, the ones with padding that didn’t itch. But she refused, thinking that they were too adult. She told me I couldn’t wear sports bras forever, and I told her to watch me. I was regularly mistaken for a boy, but I didn’t resent this. I found it amusing. I got the sense that I was not as pretty as the girls around me who wore Hannah Montana merch from J.C. Penney, but I didn’t particularly care. I would not start caring about this for about two more years. Still, the costume was more comfortable than my clothes because when I wore it, I was performing.
I cannot remember the name of the performance that I was in or who my character was, but I can remember the costume and how it made me feel. It consisted of a red skirt that cinched tight at the waste and a white frilly blouse that tucked into the skirt. I was allowed to wear a padded bra which, in spite of what I told my mom, made me feel more grown up. My mom curled my hair into ringlets and slathered stage makeup on my face. No one would have mistaken me for a boy. The costume pinched in certain places and the makeup made me feel like a powdered sugar doughnut, but that didn’t matter because when I looked into the mirror, I saw someone who wasn’t myself. And I liked it. I would never have dressed like that in reality. It would have ruined my tomboy image, a persona that I had so artfully constructed. But my character, she would have dressed like that. That gave me confidence. It made me want to become her.
In the coming years, I became more self-conscious about the way that I dressed. I do not know whether this was symptomatic of being a girl or of being an adolescent or of both, but I constantly felt wrong in my body. I went through the awkward middle school phase and then through the awkward high school phase. Even after all my peers seemed to have grown out of the awkward phase, I felt I was still stuck in mine. I kept trying to find my authentic self. Did that reside in quirky graphic tees that indicated that I was more complex and interesting than other girls? Did it lie in dark, moody clothing that said I was too deep to wear bright colors? I kept trying on personas in attempts to find authenticity, to encapsulate my personality within my wardrobe. But it never worked. I always felt wrong in the personas I was trying to occupy, in my body, and in myself. I still felt more at home in costume, and in performance, than I did on a daily basis. It didn’t matter whether I was playing a peasant girl or a drunken man or was simply a member of the chorus. The costume made me feel like someone else; it let me escape authenticity.
Once I went to college, I finally landed on dressing like thirty-year-old mom who only shopped at Old Navy, because I only shopped at Old Navy. I blended into the background nicely. All of my clothes were basic and tended to go together because they were all from the same store. I stopped thinking less about authenticity of self and more about utilitarianism. What was quick and easy and made me look like everyone else? This was comfortable for a while. Then I came to Wesleyan.
Once I came to Wesleyan, I felt wrong in my skin again, because the norm here is overt performance. Clothes from the ’90s worn by people who didn’t live through the ’90s. Outfits carefully crafted to look like the wearer didn’t put in any effort. Girls with shaved heads. Boys with painted nails. Smokers who smoke for the aesthetic.
It is not uncommon to hear students criticize other students for being performative. For their performative activism, for their performative dress. The idea is that students put on a show for their peers, rather than as a means of reflecting their authentic self. I believe this is true. Wesleyan students are performative. In the past, I have criticized this. And I think, to a certain extent, there is some validity to the criticism. Performance which is motivated purely out of gaining the approval of peers can be negative, like in the case of performative activism. The idea is that the activism isn’t motivated out of genuine concern about the cause, but out of how much social capital the performance of activism acquires the activist. When it comes to fashion, there’s the simple problem of the popularity contest. When a certain style of dressing becomes the norm, i.e. what the cool kids wear, it creates a system of social stratification. It’s the Hannah Montana outfit from J.C. Penney all over again, and it can make people feel small.
However, I also think that criticizing performative dress is an innately self-contradictory, not to mention self-serving, act which undermines the value of the performance. It misunderstands that all styles of dress are a performance. Each of the styles I took on as I grew up attempted to convey something about my personality: I was a tomboy, I was stoic, I was quirky. I was attempting to locate something authentic about myself, or at least something that I thought was authentic about myself, and use my clothing to convey that to other people. However, as soon as you try to attempt to convey something authentic via performance, you undermine the authenticity of what you are trying to convey. Why would I have to convey quirkiness if quirky was something that I simply was? This contradiction always created a sense of dissonance in me, made me feel that each of my styles was wrong because each of them required my effort in crafting a persona. No matter how hard you try to be authentic, then, your dress will always be inauthentic because it requires the exertion of effort, it requires performance. Given this, it is useless and self-indulgent to point at other people’s performative dress and say that it is performative and inauthentic. Not only is calling other people performative placing oneself in a position of moral superiority, it is hypocritical, since all dress is necessarily performance. However, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.
Being at Wesleyan has encouraged me to look at performative fashion in a new light and take a new approach to the way I dress myself. Rather than trying to convey something authentic about myself, I am doing the opposite. I am putting on a costume, the costume of the person I would like to be, and allowing myself to step into that role. This is, of course, a lie at first. It is inauthentic. It is a performance. But the more I occupy the role, the less of a lie it becomes. I no longer view this as inauthentic, but as an act of creating myself in my own image. I am stepping into a role of my choosing. And in doing so, I’ve found I am more comfortable in a costume.
Katie Livingston is a member of the class of 2021 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.