The Cultural Gutter

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Dressing It All Up

Posted October 23, 2014

weepumpkinFor someone with a well-documented history of cowardice, I really like Hallowe’en. Yes, the holiday comes replete with ghosts and ghoulies, and a porous boundary between the living and the dead. It produces scads of creepy costumes, and an endless supply of horrible slasher films.

But to all that I say:  candy!

There’s more to it, of course. I like the kid-friendly version of Hallowe’en, the one with trick-or-treaters and decorated neighbourhoods. Given those, an interactive evening excursion becomes a kind of processional pageant, with bonus snacks. I like the community aspect of it, which echoes the inclusive nature of Day of the Dead celebrations. Everyone gets to join in.

And I love, truly love, the chance to dress up in costume.

Growing up, my siblings and I made constant use of what we called  our ‘dress up dresser': an old wooden icebox full of exciting things to wear. Some were parental hand-me-downs: hats and a trench coat from Dad; a drapey silver ensemble from Mom which we called ‘the alien suit’ and which we actually have photo evidence of her wearing (it was the 70s). That dresser could immediately turn a dull day into an adventure. Because everything is more fun when you’re in disguise.

Disguise is a common motif in Romance. There’s so much dressing up, dressing down, assuming false names/personas/identities that you’d almost think it was a sub-genre. But instead, it’s a developmental catalyst that crosses all boundaries. And it’s never restricted to Hallowe’en.

Anne Stuart’s short contemporary Crazy Like a Fox is set in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, which offers all kinds of opportunity for dressing up. At one point the heroine ends up in a nun costume. Since Stuart is also affectionately known as ‘Sister Krissie the Impeccably Demure’ and can often be found in a habit of her own, it’s a nice in-joke. Jennifer Blake’s historical novel Prisoner of Desire is also set during Mardi Gras. There were more seriously fancy balls back then, apparently, and I guess less of a ‘boobs for beads’ mentality. But the costume aspect was certainly in play.

In both books, the point is not that the characters dress in costume during various scenes, but that being in costume allows them the freedom to do ravenprincesomething they otherwise might not. To act in ways outside of their norms. To see and make choices that everyday life would otherwise camouflage.

In The Raven Prince, by Elizabeth Hoyt, heroine Anne Wren makes a choice like that in a big way. Since real life will not allow her the liberty of physical closeness with the man she loves, she pretends to be a courtesan, complete with wig and mask. Only thus disguised can she break past the barriers, both internal and external, imposed by societal conditioning.

The same is true for the heroine of Eloisa James’ Duchess By Night. Harriet, aka the Duchess of Berrow, lives a life bound by duties and responsibilities. So when she gets a once off chance to attend a scandalous house party, she takes it. So as not to disgrace herself utterly, she attends in disguise. As a man.

duchessbynightIt makes sense. Both physically and socially, she’s far more safe in male guise. She can move around unescorted, be as athletic as she wants, and generally see and do any and everything she wants. There are some Shakespearean-style cross-dressing comedy of error scenes involving the hero, Lord Justinian Strange, but they’re almost beside the point. Which is: dressing up as someone else helps Harriet figure out how to be herself.

In It Had To Be You, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, heroine Phoebe arrives at the same discovery from the opposite angle. Experience has led her to emphasize her bombshell-style beauty on all occasions. After all, if she knows where people are looking, she knows both how to direct their attention and how to manipulate them. When she meets the hero, Dan, she learns that she doesn’t have to always be in disguise. That changing appearance can be a matter of play, not survival. And that if you want someone to trust you, sooner or later you have to let them see who you really are.

It’s not only fun to able to wear a costume, it’s freeing. With the right outfit and presentation, you get a whole new identity for a few hours. You can be a historical figure. Or an animal. An inanimate object. Even a fictional character. Anything you can imagine, in fact. That anything can be beautiful or repulsive. Tragic, or funny, or politically pointed. It can come from the merest suggestion or the deepest part of your id.

Because it isn’t permanent. You’re just trying it on, testing it out.

In one sense, that’s what Romance is all about, even those stories in which costume and disguise isn’t an element. They provide a chance to test out, however distantly, the possibilities of different kinds of romantic relationships. And those possibilities are endless, depending on which character the reader assigns as a placeholder. From the safety of their own homes, without ever risking the relationships most important to them, readers can see what might happen in all kinds of circumstances, however improbable.

Sure, Romance novels are fiction, and real life is a different beast. But frankly, all works of fiction do the same thing: give us a chance to see what it might be like if things were different. Reading a work of fiction is like wearing a costume: it gives us a few safe hours in which to experience a life completely removed from our own. We can make mistakes, and learn from them. We can try out relationships of any level of intimacy. We can learn that there are not only all kinds of potenttial interactions, but that there are also huge swathes of reactions — and we can choose which kind we want most to imitate. We can learn sympathy, and empathy, and patience. We can practice.

That may be a lot to ask from a plastic cape off the rack at Value Village and a set of false teeth, but it’s worth keeping in mind.


Chris Szego wants you to know that if you put the little peanut butter cups in the freezer a) they will be particularly tasty, and b) you’ll probably need to buy more before Hallowe’en NOT THAT SHE KNOWS FROM EXPERIENCE OR ANYTHING.

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