Blending in, Busting Out: Choices in Social Costuming


Paparrazzi sculpture in Bratislava, Slovakia.


As many a miserable celebrity has wondered, is there any escaping your body in public life? How unintelligible or indecipherable can you really make it?

Aside from being a too-famous actor or singer, say you’re a criminal wanting to escape detection, a stalker trying to keep an eye on your prey, or an undercover operator trying to pass unnoticed. You have two tasks before you: first, to try to diminish the physical markers that make you seem distinctively to be you — the way of dressing, the body shape, the hair style and color. These things can be changed within a day.

Some things don’t submit as readily to alteration. Changing one’s height is not so easy, but the early 19th-century French detective widely acknowledged as the father of modern undercover detective work, Eugène-François Vidocq, demonstrated an aptitude for this. As one observer of Vidocq’s day described, “He is a remarkably well-built man, of extraordinary muscular power, and exceedingly active. He stands, when perfectly erect, 5 feet 10 inches in height, but by some strange process connected with his physical formation he has the faculty of contracting his height several inches, and in this diminished state to walk about, jump, etc.”


Eugene-Francois Vidocq, "father" of undercover work and master disguise artist.


It’s something to aspire (down) to. Those who can change the so-called “unalterables” have the greatest chance of passing unrecognized.

Second, once you’ve removed the things that make your everyday body stand out, you want to add in those physical and social things that will help it blend in into the given environment — whether it be the swagger of a biker gang, the stillness from the seemingly invisible back of an uninspiring high school classroom, or an unobtrusive street stride where you intend mischief on an as-yet-to-be-determined pedestrian. The Russian spies recently apprehended in Long Island did what their neighbors did: “infiltrated” the PTA and cocktail parties. A neighbor saw them as entirely of her world, telling The New York Times, “But they couldn’t have been spies. Look what she did with the hydrangeas!”

Some people who abandon their identities in order to enter a second world — federally protected witnesses, for example — end up believing in the person they have costumed themselves, outside and in, to be. Literature and film are rife with tales of undercover operators who “go bad” — who, that is, are convinced by the social world they have entered, at first as outsiders, that they actually are who they pass themselves off as being. The alterations to their customary appearance contribute to the sense of a changed identity.

How do self-costuming adults use these techniques? Costumes prepared for the elaborate masquerade balls of the 17th and 18th centuries, extravagant as they were, attempted both to make the dancing partygoer personally unrecognizable and to be equally outrageous as all the othercostumes at the dance — whether the dancer was playing a character from the Italian theatre or a count, a shepherdess, or a gondolier. They both subtracted the telltale signs of the everyday person and added signs of fitting in, even through extravagance. They werealso designed as vehicles of seduction for both the ball and afterward, their memory magnifying the wearer’sallure once she or he was back in conventional clothing.

Costuming for contemporary Halloween celebrations works a bit differently from this. For at these, far from being concealed, one’s own “best” distinguishing features may be on display in ways they are not the rest of the year — a pair of legs in a nurse’s (?!) fishnet stockings; a pair of usually concealed breasts pushed up for display in a strangely bustiered witch’s costume; a man’s surprisingly luscious lips filled in in lipstick for a drag costume. They are designed for recognition and to elevate the qualities of the existing body rather than disguise them.

And because of scanty social conventions that govern just how original or extravagant any individual’s costume is expected to be, blending into a group can be quite limited.

Perhaps, as with 18th-century masquerade costumes, part of the desire behind the distinctively sexual displays adults may make at Halloween time is not only to draw an evening’s attention but also to change others’ perception of one’s body during the rest of the year: that demure girlfriend of a sort-of friend of yours is actually a wildcat underneath; the socially orthodox lawyer in the office four down retains an air of sensuality throughout the year. As everyday bodies blend visibly back into the social scenery, pesky memories return of that freer behavior on that one day a year many of us rebel simultaneously against our usual social structure, using our bodies as our parade grounds.

Comment from Jan Edwards: All your issues are thought provoking, but I have a particular interest in clothing and what people say about themselves by how they dress. My years as a costumer taught me that my job was basically to stereotype people. Especially when I was doing commercials because the 15 or 30 second spot required that the clothes say a lot at a glance.