Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Meaning Behind the Mask

An article by Patricia J. Williams on The Politics of Michelle Obama's Hair got me to thinking. As adults, are the costumes we choose at Halloween somehow reflections of ourselves?

I have always loved dressing up in costumes. My grandmother used to send me marvelous boxes filled with hats and belts, and once in awhile a beautiful dress of tulle and satin she'd found at the church rummage sale. She also sent beautiful afghans she'd made from wool purchased in the form of old sweaters at those rummage sales. She carefully unraveled and then reworked the used wool into beautiful jeweled patterns of colour that kept me warm in my dreams throughout childhood. But this is about those strange and wondrous bits of costuming she sent a thrilled seven year old.

I literally wore out every evening gown she sent me over the years. I fantasized about being on a pirate ship where they ravished me, or about being at the Alamo where Travis and Bowie and Crockett ravished me, or being held captive by Indians in Colonial America, and yes, they ravished me, too. Of course, each imaginary session of ravishing required my dress be torn a bit, and as I liked wearing them off my shoulders so my non-breasts could pretend to swell with passion, those poor gowns were badly used very quickly. I suppose one could say with a smile that they were thoroughly ravished.
By the way, I really didn't have any idea what being "ravished" meant, only that it must surely be thrilling, judging by the looks on movie star's faces in those situations. Paulette Goddard in 1947's Unconquered, Maureen O'Hara in 1952's Against All Flags and 1942's The Black Swan were movies that thrilled my young heart, and still do. As for the fantasies about the men at the Alamo, well I was just in love with the John Wayne as Davy Crockett in the movie, and when I mother eventually managed to throw away my play rifle so I would no longer pretend to be Crockett in my play with friends, I invented a place for a comely lass instead!

I'm sure I must've dressed as some of the standard female roles as a kid, but I only remember being a Spanish senorita one year, and the debacle that was the paper mache' costume my dad constructed for me one year. Dad had a tendency to overbuild some things. If a single layer of paper mache is good enough to hold the thing together, then we'd better put ten layers on for sheer sturdiness! Wouldn't want this thing falling apart..EVER! So he made a spaceman costume for me, and it looked great. Unfortunately, I couldn't lift it, let alone walk around the neighborhood wearing it! As I recall, dad had to resort to hatchet and saw to disassemble that monster. Some other time I'll tell you about the kite he built.

I really started dressing up for Halloween when I was in my twenties. I wore some fairly revealing witch outfits to greet candy seekers, and more than once a kid - and his dad - would come back for a second or even third round. *sigh* What can I say? I was young and had it going on, so I flaunted it without understanding what kind of signals I was throwing out. And this, of course, dear reader, is where we finally get back to the premise of todays entry. Maybe I WANTed to emit "readiness" signals by wearing a tight black dress that laced up the front from belly upward.

If that's so, then what does it say about me that my two favourite costumes of the last thirty years have been either a clown or a bearded lady? I like to think I choose the clown get up because it's disarming, and few don't have some BIG reaction to seeing a clown. The bearded lady has a very interesting effect on people. See, I use crepe (stage) hair and spirit gum to "build" a beard on my face, blending colour and layers up from the neck. Once it's dry, you can tug on it and it doesn't go anywhere, and by carefully blending and building it as I do, it looks REAL. Too real, apparently.

The first time I wore the beard was to a party of a Playboy photographer. Now I knew there would be TONS of Bunnie and other over-the-top sexy costumes, and I also knew I didn't want to simply blend in. So I built the beard. And I curled my elbow length blond hair, donned full makeup (including RED! lipstick), and slithered into a Chinese red strapless dress. Oh, and I wrapped a gold snake around my arm. I was the IT girl at that party. Although there were a few who simply could NOT look at me, including my date, more men hit on me than ever before. I found their reaction extremely enlightening. The mixed gender message was clearly tantalizing to men, a fact I logged away for another time.

That time came my first Halloween at a mega computer corporation. I was one of only a scant handful of women in my entire software division, so I decided it was once again time to break out the spirit gum and crepe hair. This time I wore standard business attire, a dress and daytime makeup. The reaction from the men was the same as the last time, but the reaction that stunned me was that of a top female executive. She positively snarled at me! I won a prize for my costume, though. First prize went to another gender-bender - two VERY large and manly men (think burly Scots or Viking dudes) dressed as a pair of ballerinas in pink and powder blue tutus. They were great!

So the question before us today is; what do our Halloween costume choices say about us? For me, I think it's 1) about wanting approval and 2) about showing my Alpha dog tendencies. And I'm not even gonna THINK about what all those ravishing fantasies meant!

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