The Secret Emotional Life of Clothes

When I think about Halloween, I think candy, jack-o-lanterns, movies, and all that stuff, but I also think about it as the perfect opportunity to try out something totally different, appearance-wise, and test out whether it’s worth exploring past that.  I’ve definitely seized it as an opportunity in the past, both to try out a different type of “masculinity” – dressing like my idea of a punk a few times, something I was definitely interested in; and also to see what it felt like to dress femme.  I think a lot of people try out things like this too, in the guise of a “Halloween costume.”

I wrote about that here:  Hey Halloween! (how costumes fit into our lives)

I just listened to a really interesting podcast about how what you wear can affect how you feel, how you’re treated, what you decide to do, your cognitive abilities, your identity, and so much more!  It starts with a brief snippet of a Halloween night, with kids running around a neighborhood in all kinds of costumes.  Here’s part of that transcript, talking with a girl who is afraid of flying:

FRANNY: I’m wearing a leather jacket and an aviator hat and aviator goggles and jeans, boots and an aviator scarf.
ROSIN: Franny’s dressed as…
FRANNY: Amelia Earhart.
MILLER: Yep, a woman who ate airplanes for breakfast.  Who was…
FRANNY: Awesome and brave.
ROSIN: And as Franny puts on the white silk scarf, the leather jacket, the hat with the floppy ears…  …Guess what happens?  The nervous disappears.  If I put you in an airplane right now, what would happen?
FRANNY: I’d feel like a pro.

It’s true, to an extent!  We’ve all experienced this, somehow or another, I think.

Listen to the full podcast here:  Invisibilia

For me, shoes have always been a big deal – probably my favorite element of self expression.  I remember the first time I got to get a pair of boy’s shoes, in 3rd grade, and the emotional tenor of that moment and of every single day that I got to wear them.  It was the best thing ever.  And of years later, in my early 20s, when I first got a pair of skateboarding sneakers – it was that same feeling (or, OK, maybe a diluted young-adult version of that same feeling) because I decided that I was worthy of wearing the type of shoes I always coveted.  And I was an adult.  And I could buy and wear whatever I wanted (I had a hard time “letting” myself buy things that I wanted.)  And now!  I recently got a pair of Reebok pump basketball shoes, and I have such a fun time just putting them on!  I’m not a skater or a b-ball player, but that’s OK, shoes say so much more than “basketball,” “running,” “work-boot,” etc.

What are your favorite articles of clothing to play around with?
Have you used Halloween as an opportunity to try out something new, that you might want to incorporate into everyday life?

There are 6 other stories in the podcast, including someone who uses sunglasses to avoid getting bullied, and then ends up feeling so strongly about their magical powers that he just ends up never taking them off.  This was my favorite story, and it’s the first one, so if you wanna just hear that one, it’s totally worth it!


Parts 2 and 3 are also really good.  Part 2 is about a person who started out as a cross-dresser, and then after a breakup, they started wearing feminine clothing all of the time, and identifying as a trans-woman.  She was also a fairly public figure, doing stand-up comedy regularly and being covered in the media.  She was also 6’5″, never passed, and always was on guard, feeling paranoid and defensive.  It was wearing her down, and the feminine clothing had lost their allure.  After about 7 months, she went back, from “Sarah,” to “Will.”  And he endured backlash from the trans-community for doing so.

Part 3 was about a social science experiment (I think I’d read about it in a book, as well), where people were asked to put on a white lab/doctor’s coat, and then go through a battery of concentration tests.  The control group wore their regular clothes.  And it was proven that those with the coat on did twice as well as those without!  Was it something about the extra weight on the shoulders?  No, that was tested for with just pressure being applied.  What about if the coat was referred to as a “painter’s coat” instead of a “doctor’s coat?”  No go – that did not produce any improvements.  It appears that when people feel like they are putting on something that has a particular meaning, they will, largely subconsciously, act accordingly.

Hey Halloween! (how costumes fit into our lives)

Happy almost Halloween!  I thought I’d celebrate by digging deep into my writing archives to see if I could find something festive.  It may not be all that festive, but it does seem apt – I found something I wrote 12 years ago, on Halloween day, that touches on gender identity, costumes, and anxiety.

A little back story for what is to follow:  I was a Junior in college, and I was taking an awesome class called Imagining Herself, a cross-class between Women’s Studies and English Literature.  The book list was from  some Gender Studies Dream Team (for 2002, at least):
Leslie Feinberg – Stone Butch Blues
Riki Anne Wilchins – Read My Lips
Zora Neale Hurston – Dust Tracks on a Road
Kate Bornstein – Gender Outlaw
Audre Lorde – Zami: A New Spelling of My Name

And others that I can’t remember anymore.  Unfortunately, I didn’t read these books (well, I’d already read Stone Butch Blues on my own).  I couldn’t.  I was having some major depressive issues, which really put a damper on what I was capable of doing.  I hadn’t told any professors I needed help yet, but I would be doing so in the very near future.  The professor’s name was Katrina (not her real name).  I sort of had a girlfriend at the time, whom I’ll refer to as “girlfriend?”  Question mark, because I was never clear on whether we were actually together.  Girlfriend? had been in this class the semester before me, so the professor had a clear memory of her.

Here’s what I wrote on Halloween, 12 years ago:
More than ever, I became terribly anxious in Imagining Herself today. I think because we were discussing Stone Butch Blues, and I felt like I was supposed to be adding to the discussion, yet I couldn’t say anything. I’m one of five people in class who are potentially VERY focused on issues raised in that book. These other classmates all contributed a lot. I contributed nothing. I just couldn’t. Katrina even brought attention to me because of the zines I’ve been handing in for my project. She wanted me to talk about some of the stuff.

“[Janitorqueer’s] been doing these amazing zines,” she told the class. I felt like I was in elementary school again, simultaneously hoping for and fearing any kind of attention. “Can you share with us your thoughts about what you’ve been writing about, after reading through Stone Butch Blues again?” I hadn’t read through Stone Butch Blues again. I hadn’t yet read ANY of the books for class. I feel guilty and like a fraud. I stared straight ahead. Said, ” … um … ” in almost a whisper. My mind was totally blank. Why does this happen? She acknowledged my discomfort by asking me if we should just move on. I said, “yeah.”

I thought I might cry. How awful would that have been. I tuned out completely to avoid that scene, and that worked really well. I came back to reality within a few minutes. But for the rest of class, all I wanted to do was grab all of my stuff and run out of the room … go and hide. I have this urge often in class, but it’s never been THIS intense. Sometimes I want to slip through the edge of the floor, but not today. I just wanted to explode out, to escape.

Girlfriend? was brought up during the discussion! We were talking about clothing and performance, and Katrina asked me, “You know [your girlfriend?], right?” I nodded. Because I referred to girlfriend? a few times in my zines, she must have made the connection. Then she addressed the class. “Girlfriend? uses clothes as a performance all the time. She is always playing … she’ll wear goth, hello kitty, Ragedy Ann (girlfriend? prefers to call this one “Bag Lady”) … and when she came into class the day people were instructed to wear particularly masculine or feminine clothing, something different than normal, she said that this isn’t any different for her than any other day because she’s always playing. She feels comfortable dressing extremely masculine and/or feminine.”

A classmate asked, “Did she have pink hair for a while last year?” and I nodded, yes. “Oh, ok, I had a class with her. She is really interesting.” Katrina: “Yeah, she’s very bright.” Classmate: “Political Science major?” I nodded again.

I don’t think I’ve ever thought of girlfriend?’s incredible attention to clothing as “playing.” I thought of it as this valley girl thing she does. This thing which is sometimes tedious and sometimes fun and goofy. (She is really excited about creating me as a goth girl for Halloween.) To look at it as a carefully planned out form of play makes me respect it much more. I feel proud that I “know” her. I feel especially tender toward her, or something, ah, I don’t know! Anyway …”


I remember that Halloween.  She dressed me up in her clothing and did my hair and make-up.  I liked it.  She was dressed as a school-girl gone wrong, or something to that effect.  It was a really warm night, and we kind of just walked around a lot, stopping in at this party and that party, maybe acquaintances of hers.  (I had no idea.  As per usual, I was out of it, dissociating.)

It makes me think about all the things we can be expressing with our clothing choices, gender-wise and otherwise.  And although Halloween costumes are extremes, all sorts of outfits can be seen as “costumes.”  Getting dressed up in formal wear?  Costume.  Even business casual?  Still, costume.  Work out clothes?  Total costume.  If it’s not a t-shirt, hoodie, button-up shirt (mostly flannel), jeans, corduroys (or gym shorts, sweat pants for lounging around), hiking boots, or skater shoes, to me, it feels like a costume.  Which isn’t a bad thing at all!  Costumes have their times and places – I love costumes!  But I will not compromise and wear clothing that does not allow me to feel like myself, when that’s all I wanna be.

Another blog writer covers some similar concepts, here – Becoming Hope:  Masks

Oh, and completely coincidentally, this year I’m going as a goth boy for Halloween.
What’s your take on costumes?