Review of Costume by Pravina Shukla

Costume: Performing Identities through Dress (Indiana University Press, 2015) by Pravina Shukla Associate Professor of Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University Bloomington, examines context-specific costume from around the globe.  Regular Culture Hustler readers will recall that Pravina Shukla refers to dress generally as body art.  In Costume she addresses the dress sub-category of costume.  The book is divided into six chapters: “1 - Festive Spirit,” “2 - Heritage,” “3 - Play,” “4 - Reenactment,” “5 - Living History,” and “6 - Art” and includes introduction and conclusion sections. 

Costume by Pravina Shukla (2015)
Pravina Shukla's new text on costume

Chapters 1 and 2 address particular costumes in Brazil and Sweden respectively, while the remaining four chapters consider costume within different US contexts: Society for Creative Anachronism, Civil War reenactment, Revolutionary era Colonial Williamsburg, and the theater.  The author frames her research by indicating that costume is “special dress that enables the expression of extraordinary identity in exceptional circumstances” [italics in original].  The definition is intriguing for making no reference to disguise or impersonation thereby allowing for the inclusion of special occasion folk costume.  While Shukla does not qualify her definition as universally applicable, her inclusion of Swedish and Brazilian examples implies that costume so defined is at least widely applicable.  The introduction further frames her research indicating that each chapter’s ethnography-based case study shows “how costumes are self-consciously and purposefully employed to express basic human needs: for sociability, creativity, historical identity, heritage, and personality.”  The text fulfills its objective to explore self-conscious, purposeful expressions as they get manifested through “special dress . . . in exceptional circumstances,” or costume. 

Among Costume’s strengths is its inclusion of numerous color photographs, which illustrate costumes discussed.  As a folklorist, the author’s concerns include consideration of: heritage, material culture or “culture made material,” and “the individual in the creative act” who, in this study, is also very often the wearer.   The author demonstrates that for many of her study’s participants, “authenticity” is an important motivating factor in costume.  Comparing the Society for Creative Anachronism with Civil War reenactors and living history educators at Colonial Williamsburg, she points out that the degree of commitment to historic authenticity varies between these different social groups.  Moreover, the degree of authenticity varies within both the SCA and Civil War reenactor groups.

In her conclusion, Shukla notes that the study of costume—and of dress more generally—needs to pay attention “to contexts of production and performance, where influences, processes, and procedures of evaluation come together.”  I heartily agree with this assertion and would have liked to see more analysis of procedures of evaluation.  Unquestionably, individual intention, which the author explores in some detail, is important to costume development and execution.  Additionally, the socially oriented motivations Shukla lays out—heritage, protest and spectacle, education, artistic creation, individuality [within a social milieu]—are also important points of investigation.  Yet very often costume—and other dress forms—fail adequately to communicate desired or intended messages.  What are the measures within different social groups for determining whether a costume is a social success, failure, or something in between?  What happens when a costume succeeds in delivering its intended message?  Even more interesting, what happens when a costume delivers an entirely different message? 

Of course a single text cannot possibly address every reader’s concerns but, at least for this performance studies dress scholar, the possibility of failed messages should be introduced even if no analysis accompanies the study—a modest critique for an otherwise beautifully written and richly illustrated account of costume case studies.

 

 

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