An article in the New York Times today seems to have finally settled a debate in our house—whether clothes are important to how we feel and behave. If you see my son Max, you’ll know on which side of the question he stands; the same is true of my husband Barry. It may not be immediately obvious what my feelings are on the matter (I’m a middle-aged self-employed Mom—I love my fuzzy sweatpants) but the truth is I’ve known for a long time what you wear can make a great difference in your feelings and performance.
Certainly, there were hints of this in high school when a Villager skirt and sweater with Pappagallo ballet flats could make me feel I ruled the world. However, the most striking instance to this day of the magic an outfit can create was the summer of 1977.
I was doing an outdoor drama, Wings of the Morning, in St. Mary’s County, Maryland and for our Second Stage production, director Andy Weisnet chose Jean Anouil’s The Lark. I had hoped to land the lead role, Joan of Arc, but as these things go I was cast as Joan’s Mother. This was a small role yet I was onstage the whole time as was the rest of the cast. We performed by candlelight in a restoration of Maryland’s first statehouse in sweltering humidity on our day off. When not “onstage” cast members sat motionless on benches in tableau awaiting cues to stand and perform. I committed to doing the play though I was less than thrilled with my part, that is, until I put on the costume.
Designed by Andrea Sachs out of bits and pieces left over from the costuming of the main show, my dress was plain and coarse, a sort of burlap and rag creation. I put on my heavy peasant dress with wimple each night and slipped into another era. I became another person; I moved differently, spoke differently, felt I was Joan’s mother. The effect was so profound even my colleagues treated me as if I were someone they had only just met. There was a reverence in that costume and a stoicism accompanied it. I sat immobile each night of the play enduring heat, dripping sweat and flies just as Joan’s mother had endured what happened to her daughter.
I’ve had outfits since then that made me feel wonderful or powerful or pretty but those feelings pale by comparison to being transported through time into a new identity via the power of clothing.