Terminology is a Drag, or Sometimes a Dress is a Costume

The annual Costume Institute Benefit Gala has come and gone with only the jpg social media detritus to let the great unwashed know what we have missed.  Online photos reveal that few men heeded Anna Wintour’s dress admonition for this to be a white tie affair.  Whether the broad spectrum of men’s dress reflected rebelliousness, ignorance, or a simple lack of concern, we may never know.  More pressing is why the Costume Institute – as of May 8, 2014, the Anna Wintour Costume Center – is so named.  Costume?

Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal at the 2014 Met Ball

You might be thinking costumes are for the stage or Halloween and that the “Charles James: Beyond Fashion” exhibition was about, well, fashion, even if the couturier went “beyond fashion” at times.


So what is dress?  Is it different from fashion?  And what the hell is costume?  What does clothing have to do with any of these categories and is it a “language” for communication as Alison Lurie (1981) has claimed?


In my years as a theatrical costume designer and later as the collection manager for “Costumes and Textiles” at the Chicago History Museum, I became concerned with the different words we use to talk about what we wear.  As a doctoral student I ruminated over such matters while sipping champagne and reclining on my penthouse chaise. Now that the bills are coming due and the post-party hangover is setting in, a public report of my ponderous pithery is in order.  Forthwith, my manifesto.


Alison Lurie’s highly accessible book, The Language of Clothes, initially seems to make a great deal of sense.  Different articles of clothing have different meanings.  This is why we would be surprised to see a fast food worker behind the counter in a wedding dress.  Lurie’s sensible and provocative assessments are indebted to Roland Barthes’ work, which considers the semiotic significance of different garments (see, for example, 1983 [1967]).  According to Barthes, in 1960s France, satin signifies “five o’ clock” and everything that five o’ clock pm implies socially, such as the cocktail hour. 


Yet I find assigning strict meanings to certain garments or textiles does not fully capture the context that informs clothing’s meaning.  The body, movement, sociocultural circumstances, and the particular moment in time are all contextualizing factors that can dramatically alter clothing’s meaning.


To further complicate the matter, bodily adornment truly goes beyond clothing to include body modifications such as tattoos, bodybuilding, and hairstyles.  Moreover, bodily adornment of all kinds typically allows for a high degree of meaning inference.  Unquestionably such adornment is a communicative form.  Whether we intend to send a message or not, whether our message is interpreted the way it’s meant to be interpreted, the least amount of grooming that a person invests in one’s appearance still participates in communication with other people.


Scholar and director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Valerie Steele, prefers the term “fashion” to encompass all clothing and body modifications, emphasizing bodies and identity.  Academically speaking, her terminology works yet can be confusing outside of academia.  Apart from the term’s usage as a verb (e.g. to fashion a hat from a copper pot), I like to think of fashion as a means for chronicling time (Simmel 1957).  By that I mean that fashion tastes change from season to season, from region to region, and from culture to culture.  So when you see that old photograph of yourself with big hair, you know it was 1986.  While we typically think of fashion as being the domain of industrialized nations, fashion trends can also be found among those who wear “traditional” attire, as Pravina Shukla has demonstrated in her Banaras, India situated fieldwork (2008). 

The author in 1986

So what of costumes? The Anna Wintour Costume Center, née the Costume Institute, is described on its website as a collection containing “more than thirty-five thousand costumes and accessories represent[ing] five continents and seven centuries of fashionable dress, regional costumes, and accessories for men, women, and children, from the fifteenth century to the present” (accessed 4/30/14). 


“Costume” has been in use in the English language since the 18th century.  The term has French etymological roots and in its early English usage was meant to indicate the mode of “personal attire and dress” (Oxford English Dictionary online, accessed 9/27/13).  In American English it continues to get used in certain contexts to indicate clothing generally, though most of us don’t talk about putting on our costumes each morning.  Rather it is more frequently used in the naming of museum collections such as the Ann Wintour Costume Center or the Costumes and Textile Collection at the Chicago History Museum.  When not talking about theatrical events or occasions calling for masquerade, this particular usage of the term – like so many words borrowed from French – bears a rarefied quality. 


For me “costume” as a general term for clothing does not work.  Using it to refer to museum collections only further confuses the public.  Like Valerie Steele’s “fashion,” “costume” used as such complicates.  Of course, both terms as I use them here are entirely correct.  The problem is that they obfuscate more than they elucidate our subject.


When I talk about costume, I use it in the colloquial sense.  Costume is clothing and other bodily adornment meant to characterize “a particular period, person, place, or thing” such as what you wear for a theatrical performance or during a festival event like Halloween, Purim, or carnival (Merriam-Webster online dictionary accessed 8/20/13).  Costume in this sense requires a heightened level of self-awareness and reflexivity in comparison to daily attire but not necessarily.  After all, some people put more thought into their daily looks than others.  Likewise, not all Halloween costumes are carefully thought out concoctions.  All the same, essentially the costume wearer is understood to have self-consciously adorned their person.  Often a disguise is intended but even this point is a contentious one that I will save for a future discussion.

Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, 2011

Yet another perfectly correct though confusing term is Pravina Shukla’s “body art.” Shukla is a folklorist who engages material culture studies and Richard Bauman’s performance studies approach to verbal art (1984 [1977]).  Body art, says she, is a “merger of will and circumstance” in which bodily adornment is a form of expression that more closely aligns with poetry or visual art than it does with daily language-based communication (Shukla 2008).


She notes in her study of Indian women’s dress that “the act of seeing is seldom neutral” (Shukla 2008: 424).  Therefore, any adorned body – whether in the context of a staged performance or on the street – subjects itself to viewer assessment for effectiveness (Bauman 1984 [1977]).  Some bodies – such as women’s and performers’ – are subjected to greater scrutiny than others increasing the likelihood for dress failures.  And by dress failure I mean failure to meet social expectations for the context such as wearing a wedding dress to ring up orders at the fast food restaurant.


I like Shukla’s term yet I demur from using the word “art” in connection with dress studies.  Like Steele’s “fashion” and the Met’s “costume,” “art” carries so much cultural baggage, which can potentially confuse or distract from the areas under investigation.  In the end I prefer the term dress – though for some it implies gender – to the more controversial body art.  That being said, how I use the term dress is really no different than how Shukla uses body art and my research is certainly indebted to her scholarship.


While there is no agreed-upon way to define dress, I engage Joanne B. Eicher and Mary Ellen Roach-Higgins’ approach put forth in their 1992 essay “Definition and Classification of Dress.”  They use the word dress as a gender-neutral “comprehensive term to identify both direct body changes and items added to the body” (Eicher and Roach-Higgins in Barnes and Eicher 1992: 15).  Clothing, then, constitutes but one component of dress.  Eicher and Roach-Higgins stress the importance of meanings understood by the wearer and the viewer, which often are not perfectly aligned.  They define dress as “an assemblage of body modifications and/or supplements displayed by a person in communicating with other human beings” (Eicher and Roach-Higgins in Barnes and Eicher 1992: 15).  To this I add that context is a significant meaning shaper.


We may never agree to use the same terminology but wouldn’t it be great if there were a dress institute where we could study fashion, costume, and everything in between?

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland.  The Fashion System.  Trans. by M. Ward and R. Howard.  New York: Hill and Wang, 1983 [1967].

Bauman, Richard.  Verbal Art as Performance.  Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc., 1984 [1977].

Eicher, Joanne B. and Mary Ellen Roach-Higgins, “Definition and Classification of Dress” in Barnes and Eicher, eds. Dress and Gender.  New York: Berg, 1992.

Lurie, Alison.  The Language of Clothes.  New York: Random House, 1981.

Shukla, Pravina.  The Grace of Four Moons.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008.

Simmel, George.  “Fashion.”  The American Journal of Sociology vol. 62, no. 6 (May 1957): 541-558.



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