Costume Communicates

College students, Woman’s Home Companion, October 1936.

Many years ago, I finally had time to take a life drawing class. During a break, the woman next to me introduced herself. She was a psychologist. When I told her I was a costume designer, she shared this story — one that taught her the importance of dress, and how much it communicates.

When she was completing her post-graduate degree, starting to look for jobs, she was also asked to do group counseling with high school students who were having behavior problems.

As it happened, on the day of her first group session with the students she also had a very important job interview. She dressed in her best (and only) suit, with high heels she would never have worn on campus for a usual day; she got up early to do makeup and style her hair (instead of pulling it back into her usual “no-time-to-do-my hair” ponytail,) and she carried a briefcase instead of her backpack. She wanted to look as grown-up and professional as possible for the job interview.

Two dressy suits made from Butterick 7928, October 1956, Butterick Fashion News.

She went straight from the interview to her first session with the high school students. It went really well. She felt that they were glad to participate and have a chance to get help with their problems.

A week later, she went straight from attending her own university classes to the high school. That session did not go so well. The students didn’t volunteer or participate as they had. They became quiet, sullen, obviously bored. Every week, every session felt worse. The students who had been so eager were almost hostile now. The young psychologist stayed up nights trying to figure out how to get the group sessions back to that promising first day.

Finally she realized she had to deal with the problem openly; she asked, “What changed?” One girl was willing to answer:

“That first day you came, you seemed to really be interested in us; you listened to us, and we thought maybe you could help make things better. You were all dressed up, and we thought ‘Somebody important cares about us!‘ But then you saw that we was just poor kids, and the next time you came here looking just any-old-way because we didn’t matter.”

“Oh, dear god,” thought the young psychologist. It hadn’t occurred to her that dressing as what she really was — a graduate student in college — would send that signal to them. She realized that being dressed formally had given her extra authority, and built confidence that she was really a doctor. But she hadn’t considered the reverse. She had never thought to carefully explain her real status:  she was a student, like them; poor, like them.  And being honest months later — “I really needed that job, so I tried to look professional and grown-up for the interview” — didn’t help, because it still meant she hadn’t thought it was equally important to dress professionally for them — clients who didn’t pay.

It’s a sad story that has stuck with me all these years. The shaman’s feathers and paint, the doctor’s white coat, the banker’s suit: clothes establish our identity. Whatever we wear tells other people something about who we are, what they can expect from us, and how we expect to be treated. Like it or not, costume communicates.

Doctor, nurse, and baby in an ad from 1937. Delineator.

We know at a glance that this is not a family; and we know these people are trying to help the baby — because we can “read” their clothes, without any conscious thought about what is going on here. We read each other all the time.


Filed under 1930s, 1950s-1960s, Musings, Tricks of the Costumer's Trade, Uncategorized

11 responses to “Costume Communicates

  1. In my opinion, apart from the uniforms, it is not what you wear that matters, but how much care you put into personal grooming – this always shows. Would you trust a nurse in a dirty smock? A policeman in an untidy uniform? A dentist covered in blood? 😮
    In the psychologist’s story, on the first day she came in well-groomed, telling the students that they were important enough to her to spend the time making herself presentable. Later she dropped the grooming, telling the students that actually she didn’t find them important after all. Such impressions cannot be reversed. Perhaps she should have asked herself why she found it worth her time to dress up for the interview but not for her patients.

    • We often had this discussion in my costume design classes. What ought to be (in an ideal world,) isn’t true in this one. (That psychology grad student wasn’t dirty, she was just dressed like a college student with a scrubbed face and simple hairstyle.) My father (who did not have an easy life) once told me, “It doesn’t matter what you wear, as long as it’s clean.” In my experience, he was wrong.
      Yesterday I put on a casual striped knit top and a pair of old slacks. They were spotlessly clean, fresh from the wash. They were even color coordinated, with the blue stripes on my top grading into the dark blue of my trousers. I was dressed appropriately for my day: grocery shopping, running errands, and possibly a walk with my husband, or even going out for pizza. But I was not appropriately dressed for a wedding, or a “business dress required” restaurant, or, in my opinion, for teaching a university (or even high school) class. Clothes that are perfect for a walk on the beach are too casual for more formal situations, and “dressing appropriately” shows respect. (I notice that some bank tellers now wear polo shirts with the bank’s logo, instead of their own clothing choice. But if I need to talk to a manager, someone with authority, I look for the person wearing a business suit.) The question of what university teachers should wear was recently the topic for the Unwritten Histories blog — an interesting discussion by people whose jobs may depend on getting it right.

      • Grooming goes much beyond simply clean clothes though. It’s the care given to the hair, makeup, nails, hands, shoes, jewellery, handbag, hat – all of it. Notice how the psychologist mentioned that she took the time to do her hair for the interview. Clean clothes is the basis for it all, no doubt, but clean clothes alone are not enough to convey the message that the person really made an effort. On the flip side, a wedding guest wearing a clean and pretty outfit is still not appropriately dressed for the event unless her hair and makeup are done and she’s wearing formal shoes, not trainers. Etcetera, etcetera.

      • Thank you for continuing this conversation. I guess the point the psychologist was making was that she had to learn about the importance of clothing — before this incident, she hadn’t consciously considered that what we wear is always communicating something, so we have to give it some thought. Dressing differently for different situations has to be learned, especially in a society that likes to think it is classless– but isn’t. It’s especially challenging for people like me, who move from the “manual labor” world to the “professional” world. By attending college, I was fulfilling my parents’ dream for me, but I was very ignorant about things that people whose parents and grandparents have gone to college take for granted. About my Junior year, I realized that “brains” wern’t enough — I was going to be judged by my appearance, too. So I started to study fashion magazines….

      • No human society is classless, no animal group either. Where there’s competition for resources, there are winners and loosers, hence classes. But I know what you mean.
        I come from the military, my both grandfathers were in the army, as well as many members of the extended family. For the military, grooming is everything. Your combat uniform may be stained in blood but your boots will be shining, and your weapons will be beyond reproach – or you won’t survive. A sniper rising out of a cesspit has more grooming than some civilians I know. Grooming is not only expressed in the cleanliness of your clothes or tidiness of your hair – none of which exists in combat – but it is also expressed in the straightness of your spine and the whole poise and attitude. It’s not just the ball gown that makes a queen a queen, it’s how she wears it.
        Wearing formal clothes and in particular high heels makes a woman stand straight and possibly even speak differently – what you wear not only has an effect on others but on yourself first and foremost. Some people (women) have difficulty wearing formal clothes – they completely lock up and start behaving unnaturally because they don’t feel comfortable wearing these clothes. Well, often it’s because they don’t fit 😉 but even if they do fit, it’s a psychological effect opposite to the intended one. Learning to wear heels for example is also a part of grooming – you don’t want to break your ankle on your way to an important interview, do you? 🙂

      • There’s a reason college theatre programs used to require a class called “Movement for the Stage.” Sometimes it was combined with the “Stage Combat” class, which taught actors how to fall without getting hurt and how to make a fight (with or without weapons) look convincing without anyone being injured. (If you have to get slapped in the face eight times a week, you don’t want that slap to be real!) But the Stage Movement part of the course taught actors how to move naturally in period garments: corsets, bustle skirts, hoops, high heels (men also have to learn to walk in 17th century heels and skirted coats, and how to sit down while wearing a sword.) For 20th century plays, men often have to get used to wearing leather shoes instead of athletic shoes; there are mannerisms (like adjusting your suit sleeves so they don’t get caught on your French cuffs, or giving your trouser legs a little “hitch” as you sit, so the knees don’t bag) that have to seem so natural that the audience doesn’t even notice them. (Cary Grant was a master at these moves.) Women who have never worn short skirts need to learn to sit with their knees together and their ankles crossed. (Those thigh muscles have to be trained.) In many theatres, the audience seated in the front rows will be looking up at the actors….)
        I confess that I have strong objections to the idea that women absolutely must wear high heels for some occasions. I hope it goes the way of “women shouldn’t ride bicycles” and “women shouldn’t drive cars.” Highs heel limit our ability to move quickly. They make us more vulnerable to attack. Muggers do target people who look like they are easy prey. (Like lions and wolves, they single out the slowest and weakest. I was taught to walk fast and purposefully when walking alone in the city. Of course, I probably wouldn’t be doing that on my way to a formal occasion…. 🙂

      • Well, high heels are not all that bad. My karate master suggested that kicks in the attacker’s nuts are far more effective when wearing stiletto heels. 😮

      • This made me laugh and wonder: “women have to learn to sit with their knees together” – yes, from an early age, and regardless of what they are wearing, so including trousers, and may be even more so in trousers. Spreading your legs in public is so last Tuesday! 😉

      • You made me laugh, too! I remember a college friend whose fiance told her how touched he was when she knelt down and kissed her grandmother goodbye whenever they left for a date. “She always whispers something in your ear — is that an old Italian blessing?” he asked. “Actually,” my friend replied, “What she’s saying is ‘Keep your hands at your sides and your knees together’ “

  2. It’s an amazing story, full of the truth that clothing is powerful. Thanks for posting this.

  3. Val

    That’s very true – and I wish it weren’t. Clothes and choice of clothes really shouldn’t matter, the person inside matters. 🙂

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