Blurred Lines

November 11, 2022

Franz Kafka once said, “I was ashamed of myself when I realized that life was a costume party, and I attended with my real face,” probably in some “profound” analysis of culture and inauthenticity. I’m sorry Kafka, but I honestly don’t care. I love costumes, and who cares what he thinks? Why do we crave “authenticity” and “realness”? Has anyone been “authentic” ever?

You could look at social media, filters, whatever, and say that we as a society have become obsessed with fake perceptions of ourselves, but I think that’s a surface-level assumption reeking of egocentric generational nostalgia. Even if it is the case, what’s so wrong with costumes? I could go through the societal impact of beauty standards, wealth disparities, and the ethics of deceit and trickery, but instead, I want to offer a different perspective.

My Life in Costume

Throughout my life, I've had a few significant costumes: some good, some bad, and some ugly. I love costumes. I love how I can put on a ginger wig and Newport brand belt buckle and get away with its “tackiness” because it's just a costume. I’ve spent my whole life in costumes, and for me, they’ve represented one of two things. Each was either a vehicle for my insecurities and craving for belonging or my way of safely trying out new looks I’d otherwise be too scared to flaunt. There’s a fine line between costumes and uniforms, which is typically drawn based on whether you get to choose what you wear or not. I’ve never had much of a choice in what I got to wear.

From five to 18, I consistently donned generally atrocious uniforms. But, for some odd reason, I’m not resentful. I look back on my years in uniforms, and I see that I never felt oppressed or stifled, despite that being the reality. Instead, my uniform was my costume, protecting me from the fear of standing out. From my Catholic grade school uniform to ballet class to now, for the first time in my life, I’m stuck living without the costumes I used as my mask and excuse to be “tasteless.”

My First Costume

I head off to pre-K in a sea of brown and white: a white Peter Pan button-up blouse, tiny white Reeboks, a brown pleated skirt, and a brown cotton jumper. For 10 years I’d wear this brown and white combo, every day running off into the sea of brown skirts, Sperrys, and a vague smell of incense. I did not fit in at this school.

Southern Louisiana is an odd place to grow up if you’re not “really” from there. Since 1843 (proudly listed on each white polo), the same families have sent their kids to this school, and then they graduate, marry each other, and have more kids to repeat the chain. I can't lie — it's a good business model! — but I was not one of these kids. My parents are not Cajun, they don’t work in oil or law, and they didn’t go to LSU; we did not blend very well. Conformity is survival in these worlds. I figured if I can’t be them, maybe dressing like them will hide me from the painful attention of standing out.

Over the years, I lost some of my childhood whimsy style-wise. I wanted to have the right pair of saddle oxfords, the polo just disheveled enough that I looked effortless, and the exact size of pearl earrings (disclaimer, I wasn’t very good at it). It's a classic tale: No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t be the girl I wasn’t. Yet, this conformity of costume comforted me. It spared me the daily embarrassment of standing out too much or being the one who just never got the message. Don’t get me started on free dress days. Oh my lord, it was rough. This disease of uniformity even infected pajama day.

As girl after girl got out of their mom’s champagne-colored SUV wearing identical Victoria’s Secret silk PJ sets, I knew I had once again missed the memo. I now see value in creativity and uniqueness in style and have grown out of my overwhelming fear of rejection from elementary school. But I also refuse to judge the little girl who felt too scared to be herself back then. I don’t think I was fake or misleading in my costume of conformity, and honestly, it gave me a lot of practice in being observant and flexible in my environment. Searching for safety and acceptance is human.

The Unexpected Costume

Ballet isn’t the most out-of-the-box or innovative art — I’d honestly call it archaic. The technique drilled in you from day one is designed to create robots of precise movement. Our legs are lines, not limbs. Our stomachs are tucked, not flesh. You don’t get very far by being a smartass with attention issues and an accidental propensity to stick out. They put you in pink tights and black leotards and you stand in front of that mirror looking at yourself for two hours daily. Little girls should not be so aware of their bodies, seeing themselves in a lineup like dolls, bodies analyzed inch by inch — it messes with your head.

Then you see the elusive company, the class of girls old enough to dance on their toes, the “real” dancers. They don’t have a dress code. They swarm in a blur of ripped tights, missing leg warmers, whatever shawl their great grandma died in, and hair halfway done. Ironically, this is the reward for success. In the most aesthetically rigid medium, the better you get, the more freedom you have to perform this staged effortlessness. You watch these girls in a mess of color and frayed knitwear and the look sticks. That is how I became a good dancer: I dressed like it was laundry day.

Every chance you get to not be in dress code, you test out these Balenciaga-esque fittings: It’s social capital and a uniform in its own right. Rebellion is inevitable after years under the glaring eye of the ballet master. There aren’t any rules to the look besides looking the worst you can. It's a liberating mix of crafting the perfectly effortless façade of skill and giving in to the human imperfection that is often so forbidden in ballet.

In The Absence of Costume

On Friday I’m going to a costume party, and I’m way too excited. It’s just an ’80s-themed party — nothing too original, nothing too difficult — but ever since I got the flyer, I’ve been hyper-focused on my costume. Last night I laid in bed for an hour mentally dressing myself up in a neon coral denim tube dress with matching lipstick. I looked in my closet and found an abundance of weird “statement” pieces.

The thing is, I’m not really that stylish. I don’t have a great eye for fashion or an avant-garde way to style the fringe shawl or the gingham tights. If I’m being honest, I buy these things not for my personal style, but because I saw something fun at a thrift store and thought this might come in handy for a costume someday.

Reflecting on this is hard sometimes. I wonder: Do I have a personal style? Do I hide behind costumes to avoid being different? Really, though, I think that is my personal style. Just because these items are for costumes and not “real” clothes doesn’t make them any less true to me. I am obsessed with the costume: I love the glamor of it, the freedom to be absurd, and the novelty that I don’t get to do it every day. In college, I don’t have a uniform anymore. In some ways it’s liberating, but I miss the consistency of my old costumes.

There’s something fun about not being yourself for a night: It's a performance but not a deception. It's full of blurred lines. Just as there's a blurred line between uniforms and costumes, there isn’t a clear answer to whether the costume is an expression of self or a way of hiding from it. All I know is that I can’t wait for Friday — there's comfort in knowing I get to dress up soon. ■

Videographer: Maddie Abdalla
Models: Emily Gift & Presley Simmons
HMUA: Leah Teague
Stylist: Justin Le

Other Stories in Life

© 2024 SPARK. All Rights Reserved.