Illustration by Genevieve Humphreys
Did you think about what to wear today, or did you just put on what was relatively clean and close at hand? If you thought about it, how long did you think? How many outfits did you try on before you settled on the one you’re wearing? Did you know that clothing is silent communication? What does your outfit have to say about who you are or who you want others to think you are? Is your outfit communicating the message you want it to send?
I am, by trade, a theatrical costume designer. As a costume designer, I regularly ponder all of the above questions (and more!) as I select clothing styles for fictional people to wear. My designs are based upon analysis and interpretation of a play, part of which is determining how the characters in the play would choose to dress themselves. What they wear also communicates to the audience information about who the characters are as people: their age, gender, social status, emotional state, etc. — a very long list of things for me to consider and make choices over. For example, Hamlet may be dressed in his finest black doublet and hose for his father’s funeral and his mother’s subsequent marriage, but as the play progresses, perhaps his outfit becomes increasingly more disheveled to reflect his evolving psychological state. In other words, who’s got time to stay tidy when you’ve got your father’s murder to solve?
We are all, in our own way, costume designers. We dress ourselves every day in a “costume” (just another word for “outfit”) that characterizes us to those we interact with throughout the day. In other words, we dress the part we want to play in our lives. And just like the characters in a play, what we wear sends a particular silent message, whether we intend it to or not. To further complicate the matter, the message our clothing sends may be received differently by different people. It’s all a matter of personal perception, shaped by upbringing, personal values, social context and personal tastes. I like to think my personal style of dressed-up casual sends a message of “approachable,” but to some people, the message could be seen as “unprofessional.”
What part did you dress for today? College student? College student that over-slept? (Yes, you, the one still in their pajamas and with uncombed hair.) Professor? Professor who wants to appear more “professorial?” (Tweed jacket and elbow patches, anyone?) What parts did the people around you dress for today? Does everyone blend in — a type of non-uniform uniformity perhaps? Does anyone stand out for their individual style? If you couldn’t discern people’s ages, could you tell the professors and students apart by their clothing? Perhaps a better way to think about it all is: how is your perception of other people affected by how they are dressed? Because, whether you know it or not, and whether they intend it or not, you are receiving a message, and if you stop for a moment and think about it, you might better understand a small part of your perception of other people, and perhaps their perception of you. And, if you show up in my classroom looking like a disheveled Hamlet, I’ll try to not assume the worst.