What Costume Shall The Poor Girl Wear?

November 4, 2013 · Print This Article

Titling this post with a Velvet Underground quote, you might think I was going to talk about Lou Reed and his recent passing, but I’m not. That very worthy topic has been well covered by many others. Actually, it just seemed like a fitting quote, because I want to talk about costumes.

Of course Halloween has just come and gone, and that is the first thing most people think of when they hear the word “costume.” Costume, though, plays an important role in many aspects of life, including art. The word costume can be used to refer to any article of clothing or manner of dress. Usually, though, it implies something outside of the everyday. Depictions of historical costume is an important aspect of art history, whether it is the significance of the color of the Virgin Mary’s dress in an icon, the meaning of the steel gorget in a Rembrandt portrait (e.g. the one hanging in the Art Institute), or the absolutely pippin’ fur collar in Albrecht Durer’s later self portrait (as well as that prison striped number with the lace on sleeves in his earlier one).

In some contemporary art, though, costume takes center stage. Matthew Barney’s Cremaster films feature ornate and elaborate costume and makeup effects throughout. In some cases these merely reinforce characters, such as Richard Serra in his workmanlike coveralls, or the opera singer in her baroque gown. In other cases, the costume creates the character, particularly when prosthetics and makeup effects are involved. Specific examples include the woman with the glass leg, who is then transformed into an anthropomorphic cheetah, and Barney as faun or satyr. Makeup and costume also hit at the heart of Barney’s subject matter with numerous characters featuring prosthetically applied, bizarre genitalia. Their rubbery flesh evokes the rubber crotch demanded by censors for Linnea Quigley in her role as the punker chick Trash, dancing nude on a grave in Return of the Living Dead.

Some artists create costumes which transcend the body inside them to become wearable sculptures. The most obvious example is of course Nick Cave, whose “soundsuits” are frequently exhibited as static display objects. It could be argued that they reach their full potential only when inhabited, for massive group performances in which their sound making properties are harnessed, but most of us encounter them hung on armatures, evoking Bruce Wayne’s armor collection from Tim Burton’s Batman. They remind me in particular of the one that Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) called “King of the Wicker People.”

We all make decisions about our appearance on a daily basis. Our motives may include vanity, status, the desire to attract sexual partners, or an appreciation of fashion as an aesthetic experience. I’m known to those who don’t know me personally as “the guy in the kilt,” and while it started as a personal decision to wear something I thought looked cool, it has certainly helped to make my appearance more memorable to others as well. Incidentally, since moving to Flagstaff, I’ve been rocking the kilt 24/7. I mean, I take it off when I sleep, but it has been over three months since I’ve put on a pair of pants.

Some others in Chicago’s art scene have distinctive aspects to their appearance. My wife Stephanie Burke’s asymmetrical hairstyle (which I do for her) is one example. Anna Trier always wears two different earrings. Jenny Kendler was just voted Chicago’s best-dressed artist, a title I’ve attributed to her for years. Wesley Kimler has his bright red suit, invariably paired with paint spattered shoes.

Many others dress more or less like everybody else. I was once at an opening at Pentagon, and was surrounded by a half dozen artist friends of mine, each and every one of whom was wearing a flannel and blue jeans. They prefer to reserve their creativity for their artwork, apparently. Even if one doesn’t put much thought into one’s appearance on a daily basis, Halloween is an opportunity to reflect on the role of costume as an alternative creative outlet, at least once a year.

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