Costumes And Identity

When we put on costumes at Halloween, we dress up as unusual sorts of people; they are not at all randomly selected from real folks, or even from fictional characters.  Instead, we prefer to dress up as people whose style of dress says a lot about them, i.e., people with vivid and well-defined roles strongly indicated by the way they dress.  Knowing that someone is a princess, athlete, fireman, doc, pirate, or prostitute says a lot about more about their personality and lifestyle than knowing that someone is an insurance adjuster, sales clerk, or network administrator.

This is interestingly at odds with of our general tendency to avoid regimentation and structure, though we accept more at work than at home.  It seems that at some level we miss and/or admire folks whose lives are tightly structured and defined by a particular strong standard identity.   Or at least we admire them when their role has high status, like docs, athletes, etc.  How much have we lost by not having the better-defined social roles of our ancestors?

Added 1Nov: When I started Overcoming Bias, I also sketched out this other blog concept that I never used, using me in costume in the header:

Header 2

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  • Bill

    So, Robin, what are you dressing up as?

    • phane

      My guess: a machine emulation of Robin Hanson (in a rented body).

    • John Maxwell IV

      And what is the significance of MEAU?

  • Tom P

    I think part of the explanation is that people want to show off their creativity by dressing up, and it’s hard to dress up as someone without an obvious stereotypical uniform. I’m not sure how much it says about whether we like structure, or miss clearly defined roles. (Although those things may be true as well.)

  • Norman

    Seriously? Doesn’t it make more sense to say, given that we were costumes on Halloween, that we would choose costumes that are more concretely identified than just a suit and tie? Vague costumes aren’t really costumes, after all, they’re disguises. The point of Halloween costumes seems to be getting noticed, not blending in.

    Surely there is a simple signaling explanation that is less far-fetched than “we wear costumes that are easy to identify because of nostalgia for regimented social structures.”

    • That was my immediate thought.

      Try dressing up as an accountant. Nobody will know you’re taking part in Halloween!

    • It wouldn’t be appealing to dress up in costumes if there wasn’t something engaging or admirable about the characters we portray.

      • Stuart Armstrong

        Which is why we dress up as zombies and serial killers?

      • all dressed up with no place to go

        It seems like a “this character isn’t me”, or “this character doesn’t have to live by the same rules I do” would be enough to make a character engaging enough to be a good costume, which leaves a pretty wide range of possibilities.

        (I’ve almost always dressed as some sort of visual pun when I’ve done anything for Halloween. I’m not sure what that says about me, except that I like to be recognized as clever but usually think it would be socially undesirable to show off. Probably the same impulse as the pretty girls in sexy costumes.)

  • Sam Wilson

    I wonder what that says for someone who dresses up as a fish sandwich.

  • Diana

    well, here in the East village of NYC when people dress out of character they put on out-of-date, colorful, presentable clothes, talk about nothing and act polite toward everyone.

    thankfully it’s only a day, and then we get to go back to our black-glass fashionista more-attitude-than-thou normal for the rest of the year.

  • I am with Tom and Norman. Most people want their costume to do the talking, and not have to explain themselves. That also explains why people will dress as no one in particular from a recognizable time period or culture, or even an inanimate object.

  • ns

    really? this is a classic case of academic overthink. aren’t we just mocking these people “whose lives are tightly structured”? e.g., i dressed as a horrible pop star who is a train wreck – but i don’t admire her or what she stands for.

  • hhhiuuu

    It is high status to value flexibility and freedom. However, I think we overestimate how much the average person in the world cares about autonomy and individuality. There’s a reason feudalism was so stable and quasi feudal systems (like Soviet communism) were so strong defended.

  • Psychohistorian

    “This is interestingly at odds with of our general tendency to avoid regimentation and structure…”

    Insofar as we have such a tendency, Halloween is completely in line with it. How many different costumes would it take to account for 90% of those who dress up? A dozen? Maybe twenty? Most people don’t put much effort into expressing status or individuality in their Halloween costumes, or in their children’s. Hence all of the princesses and Disney characters among kids and all the pirates, ninjas, vampires, and the like amongst adults. People who actually break the mold with an unconventional costume are few and far between, and the ones who do so effectively tend to acquire a lot of (temporary) status out of doing so.

    Also, saying that we dress up as people who have distinctive manners of dress really says nothing. It’s the same reason why comedians satirize the President instead of John Smith of Des Moines, Iowa: people can actually recognize a satire of the President, but only John Smith’s immediate relatives can recognize a satire of him. We dress up as people with distinctive manners of dress because that’s the point of dressing up. You can’t dress up an a claims adjuster, because a claims adjuster doesn’t have a distinct look. The only exception to this is if you have a distinct look – a flamboyant cross dresser could probably make a great costume out of a suit and tie and a couple accessories, but it would only work with those who knew him.

  • all dressed up with no place to go

    As previous commenters said: of course we dress up as people whose style of dress says a lot about them; dressing in “normal” clothes is not recognizable as a costume.

    Halloween is the one time of year it is acceptable to put on the uniform of someone you’re not without being criticized for it: whether you admire the structure or disparage it, you don’t have the option to “try it on” when the context doesn’t make it clear that the dress is just for costume and you’re not actually trying to be what you present as.

  • michael vassar

    I’m not convinced that strange costumes garner status.

  • all dressed up with no place to go

    michael vassar: depends on your social group and what kind of “strange” your costume is.

  • Knowing that someone is a princess, athlete, fireman, doc, pirate, or prostitute says a lot about more about their personality and lifestyle than knowing that someone is an insurance adjuster, sales clerk, or network administrator.

    I don’t think I believe this. I can guess a lot of things about someone from knowing they’re a network administrator. They’re just not unusual things in my circle of friends.

    I don’t know much about the lives of pirates or prostitutes, but I doubt they have as much regimentation and structure as the life of an insurance adjuster.

  • I don’t think it’s their vivid and well-structured roles so much as their greater level of teamwork in pursuit of a common goal, usually extinguishing some menace. In those roles, you expect to see much more intense ethnic markers to bond them more strongly.

    Sales clerks and insurance adjusters don’t have roles that force them to such a high level of teamwork, so they don’t intensely display their ethnic markers.

    Doesn’t apply to young people, though. They dress up as zombies, werewolves, etc., rather than doctors, policemen, etc.

  • Bill

    Being an empiricist, I sampled the attire of the monsters who arrived at my door this evening, and conducted a random survey of attire and reasons the respondents gave for attire selection.

    My findings: mothers are responsible for the selection. Scary thought.

    • Indeed! I wonder what the kids wanted to dress as instead.

  • Robert Koslover

    Many years ago, we dressed up our son as an IRS agent (in a suit, and carrying a suitcase in which to collect candy) along with a large-print tax return on a clipboard, listing deductions with big stamps over them that said “Denied.” When people opened the door, he announced “Tax or treat!” It was a huge hit. Some people even gave him money.

  • Doug S.

    I had a friend who decided to be a lawyer for Halloween. (The outfit included a suit, tie, and briefcase.)

    The same year, I was a “professional psychic (a.k.a. rip-off artist).”

    The last time I wore a costume, I was a Prinny.

  • Vince

    Since when do people avoid regimentation and structure? Maybe teenagers do, but adults seek it at all costs. Security is our ultimate dream. Listening to bloggers sometimes, you’d think that people would be celebrating layoffs, not fearing them. You’d think they would love being dumped/divorced. We want to FEEL like we have interesting lives, not actually live them.

    Every year, socially frustrated bloggers completely miss the whole point of Halloween, because they’re not who the ritual is meant for. Halloween is cheap, tawdry escapism, and that’s it. Those of us who actually have meaningful, interesting lives look at all these people having fun and get jealous. I have no idea why they don’t just put on a damn costume and get out there and have fun.

    The rules for who and what you dress up as don’t matter nearly as much as how well you pull it off. People can pull off network administrator, so long as it’s a FUN network administrator. Maybe be the one that went postal and shot up his workplace. He could walk around carrying a big red stapler and a plastic shotgun.

    That’s just for dudes, anyway. Girls use Halloween as their last chance for dressing up slutty before they gotta put up the dresses and skirts for the winter.

    You’re telling me that Halloween is about who we idolize? Gimme a break! Who idolizes sexy cat?

    • Your theory about winter entails the testable prediction than in the southern hemisphere, where the “winter” months are more like out summer, girls should dress more modestly for Halloween.

      I had a thought about “More Meta Than Thou”. Robin is dressed up in ancient Roman garb, perhaps because we associate thee and thou talk with them, But they spoke latin rather than English, so they wouldn’t have said either word. Rather, we associate ancient Rome with Renaissance English theatre because the classics were of great importance to them and our knowledge of the classics is filtered through that time.

      • Vince

        Having actually been to the southern hemisphere, I can tell you that very little of it has the sort of seasonal climate that the northern hemisphere does. Plenty of places there, most of the big cities of the place, in fact, have static climates that don’t change much throughout the year.

  • q

    i’m going to put on the costume of someone who really likes this post. excellent post!

  • I just added my costume to the post.

  • The most unusual costume I saw on any of the kidlets that came to my door on Halloween this year was one I initially thought was “Mario”, of the Super Mario Bros. series of Nintendo games. It entailed some sort of red-hued coverall-type shirt, a hat, and a painted-on mustache. But on closer examination I saw that this kid (a boy of maybe nine years old) had a logo on his shirt reading “Santa Clara University Facilities”. My guess is that maybe one of his parents worked in facilities at SCU and he was dressing that way to emulate them, because otherwise I don’t know where a kid of about 9 would get such an idea.

  • Tommy Hanson

    cute costume, dad