Through out the history of the performing arts, costume has played an essential role in the characterization of individual ³players² on stage or on screen. Dress and adornment used in performance have proven to be particularly relevant to studies of gender roles as they are portrayed through theatrics. Just as costume has been used in the performance of gender in the arts, it plays a key role in the ³acting out² of engendered personality distinctions in social spaces, such as Club Egypt. Although the young people who attend the club are not technically actors, such as film stars or stage enthusiasts, they certainly suggest a sense of performance through their choice of attire. One of my first observations at Club Egypt was that a large percentage of the population was not dressed in everyday street wear. Clothing became performative inside of the club; it was carefully selected and displayed in congruence with a specific code of dress that became apparent after a short period of observation. It was simple to conclude that the garments worn by club goers, especially females, were significantly different from those which might be seen in a class room or on the street. Knowing that the costumes seen in the club were designed to emphasize or suggest personas, I was constantly aware of costume¹s relation to the performative nature of gender in Club Egypt. The important differentiation between costume and ordinary clothing is explored by Jane Gaines in her essay, ³Costume and Narrative: How Dress Tells the Woman¹s Story.² In a discussion of costume and character she writes, ³One assumption is that dress is a key to the personality of the wearer...we are, after all, talking about two distinct orders of things- human beings and material goods. Why ascribe the same attributes to clothing as one would ascribe to a person?² (Gaines, p. 184). As I observed the use of costume in the performance of femininity and masculinity in Club Egypt, I began to question whether or not the individuals in the young crowd truly displayed complex selves. It became apparent that a distinct repetition of personality traits were repeatedly reiterated through costume choice. Furthermore, there was a notable distinction between the types of personality traits suggested through female attire and those performed through males¹ choice of costume. Taking these words into mind, what happens when a human is reduced and assessed according to what her or his clothing might signify?
Upon arrival at Club Egypt, it became apparent that there was a specific code for dress that corresponded with the performance of gender in the distinctly heterosexual setting. As part of our experiment, on the first night of our ³field work² the individuals in my group dressed according to specific personas, some of which fit into the code, while others were incongruent. Jenna and Amber wore clothing that revealed a lot of flesh, as well as heavy makeup and heeled shoes. They were our designated ³sluts.² Anya dressed as a sophisticated intern-type woman in dress pants and a jacket. Katie was our ³innocent² girl, which she hoped to show in her pastel yellow sweater and khaki pants. Michaela was ³athletic² in her Swarthmore jacket and baseball cap. I dressed in an ³androgenous² costume, which was comprised of baggy, man¹s clothing (which provided a lot of coverage) and no makeup or styled hair. As a result, I had the opportunity to make uninterrupted observations of the costumes seen in the club. Because my attire did not place into the understood dress code for the desirable female, I was not approached by men or women. More accurately, I was unacknowledged and almost unseen. On the next night of our ³field work,² we all appropriated costumes that fit the code for the performance of desirable femininity in the club. This could be seen as our control group, while the former might be described as our experimental group. My observations and assessments are as follows:
A) Female Costume Observations- Overall, garments were extremely tight and revealed a high amount of flesh. Most tops (too lacking in material to call shirts) were cropped to expose the abdomen and low-cut to accentuate cleavage or lack-there-of. Tops were and strappy or strapless versus sleeved. Pants were generally equally body-hugging, although some stylishly flared at the bottom. Dresses were tight and usually short. Shoes were extremely high-heeled and platformed. There were two significant variations in dress which deferred from this code of tight body wear. First, in the ³Alternative Room,² females wore very baggy pants, although often sported the revealing tank-tops seen in the main dance room. In addition, they wore sneakers rather than heeled shoes. Second, most females who were heavy or not as thin as the majority of the population in the club wore loose-fitting clothing. As for materials and fabrics, transparent and reflective items of clothing were popular. See-though shirts revealed bras and virtually transparent tight, white pants accentuated the tell-tale lines if thong bikini panties. Makeup was very dark and heavy, and hair styles suggested a great deal of time in preparation.
B) Male Costume- The dress-code of males left less room for variation than that of the females. Loose-fitting jeans appeared on nearly every male, although there were subtle variations in color and level of bagginess. T-shirts and classic buttoning dress shirts were predominant among the male population, although I sighted a couple of tight-fitting tank-tops. Only men who were very muscular wore tight-fitting shirts, while most others wore loose-fitting tops. Garments with name brand labels of designers and sporting goods companies printed conspicuously across the chest were highly common. Jewelry consisted of heavy gold chains and earrings. The most common type of footwear was the sneaker, although some males wore work boots (a recent trend). Many men seemed to use gel or other styling products in their hair, while others opted to cover their heads (and eyes) with low-brimmed baseball hats.
II. ASSESSMENT AND RESULTS
In assessing the performance of gender through costume, it is possible to conclude that the definition of the desired feminine character in Club Egypt focused on sexual availability and weakness, while that of the male centered around strength, power, and control. Men wore no restrictive clothing or unreasonable dancing shoes. Their name-brand clothing and gold chains suggested a value system where financial success and capitalism were displayed as key traits of the empowered young male. They did not expose parts of the body that are normally exposed in every day street attire. On the other hand, by dressing in revealing garb, women and girls enabled themselves to strategically expose parts of the body that are normally kept concealed on the streets or in the classroom. Attention was drawn to breasts and backsides through the selection of tight, clingy, transparent clothing. The clothing often appeared to restrict movement on the dance floor, or it called for maintenance after slipping. While the females who wore baggy jeans and sneakers in the ³Alternative² Room seemed to subvert the inhibited, sexualized image by allowing for more movement and coverage, oftentimes pants were allowed to sag so low off the hips that, in one case, pubic hair was practically showing. Young girls and older women alike wore dark, heavy makeup which is often associated with sexually-desirable fashion models, actresses, and even prostitutes. High-heels restricted foot movement on the dance floor, made walking appear awkward and uncomfortable, and even caused women to trip in some cases (Anja and I saw one young woman fall in a pair of cumbersome white platform shoes). Fetishized high-heeled shoes signify sexuality and desirability, yet their unnatural and uncomfortable structure proves to be constraining, physically as well as symbolically. The notion of the woman bound and restricted through shoes and clothing is addressed in Laura Mulvey¹s critique of the art of Allen Jones, which often depicts sexualized women as with/as fetish items. Laura Mulvey writes, ³The most effective fetish both constricts, and up-lifts, binds and raises, particularly high-heeled shoes, corsets and bras (Mulvey, Laura. ³You Don¹t Know What¹s Happening, Do You Mr. Jones?² in Framing Feminism p. 128). High-heels represent heightened sexuality, yet a lack of agency in their inhibition of movement. Shackles of a sort, they place the female wearer in a position of greater vulnerability than that of the male.
Almost every female showed one sign or another of attempting to classify herself as ³sexual² through her use of costume. Returning to Jane Gaine¹s essay, it must be remembered that the clothing, or costumes, worn by females in the club were not ordinary, but specific to the setting. Is it possible to make character judgments about the population by looking at their attire? It is important to consider Mary Ann Doane¹s notion of feminine masquerade in the performance of gender. She writes:
The masquerade, in flaunting femininity, holds it at a distance.
Womanliness is a mask that can be worn or removed.
The masquerade¹s resistance to patriarchal positioning would
therefore lie in its denial of the production of femininity of closeness,
as presence-to-itself, as, precisely, imagistic (Doane, ³Film and the Masquerade:
Theorizing the Female Spectator² in Writing on the Body p. 184).
In other words, perhaps the way in which the females of Club Egypt performed femininity was merely a game, or an acknowledged appropriation of a distinctly temporary persona without true identification with the role. On the other hand, it is also possible that the feminine dress code adopted by the young club population is, indeed, an internalization of a belief that has recurred throughout history; a notion that saturates society on a grand scale. It is the reduction of Woman to sexuality. While it is important to acknowledge and celebrate the sexual selves of women, it is dangerous when other aspects of female personality are deleted and reduced to Sex.
As a final thought, my use of costume in the performance of femininity in Club Egypt proved several points. First, it is interesting to note that I was not approached my men or woman when I was dressed incongruently with the understood female dress code. When I dressed in a transparent dress, heeled boots, heavy makeup and wore my hair down, I was ³hit on² by twelve males. Although I was masquerading in my conscious exaggeration of ³femininity² through costume choice, I was seen and appro Ý a sexual entity that could be grabbed, touched, and controlled by males in the club. Fortunately, my subversive use of the masquerade certainly provided an opportunity to enlighten many of the males who consumed my image. Through strong verbal and physical responses to numerous physical violations, I conveyed that no one had the right to reduce me to Sex through the assessment of my attire.
Doane, Mary Ann. ³Film and the Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator,² in Writing on the Body. New York: Columbia Press, 1997. p. 185.
Gaines, Jane and Charlotte Herzog. ³Costume and Narrative: How Dress Tells the Woman¹s Story² in Fabrications: Costume and the Female Body. New York: Routledge, 1990. pg. 180-212.
Mulvey, Laura. ³You Don¹t Know What is Happening, Do, You, Mr. Jones?² in Framing Feminism. Routledge and Kegan Inc., New York, New York: 1987 p. 128 .
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