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Sep 22, 2011

Clothing vs. Costume

Friends, this is a costume.  In real life, nobody wears pottery-shard crowns on their head.

This, in contrast, is clothing -- bland, nondescript, contemporary men's clothing, no doubt from Uniqlo, not that there's anything wrong with that.

Clothing covers the body, preventing over-exposure and ideally enhancing our skin tone, nothing more.  Costume says, I am living in a world all my own; for tickets, please see the box office.   Get the difference?



Now one thing I can say with certainty is that a lot of us sewers -- and non-sewers too -- live in fear that something we put on our bodies will be labelled costume, when we intended it to be merely clothing.  Am I right?

Only yesterday, I was reading the elegant musings of our friend Casey, who was discussing her extensive ladies glove collection (though I'm not sure she has ones like these).  To paraphrase Casey, she loves her gloves, but "cannot muster the courage" to wear them in public, unlike, say, hats.   Casey is the perfect example of someone sensitive to the difference between clothing and costume, and I'd love to hear more about how she makes the distinction.  (UPDATE: Don't miss Casey's comment below!)

Just to reiterate:  Clothing (Michael's shirt courtesy of Debbie Cook).




Wait, now I'm confused...

Once upon a time, when Western fashion was dictated by a handful of Parisian designers, the dividing line between clothing and costume was crystal clear.  Today, not so much.

Especially for lovers of vintage, or for the slightly eccentric, the difference between clothing and costume can get blurred.  Who's to say what is and isn't costume, after all?  And a lot of what distinguishes clothes from costume is the styling, or which gender is wearing it.

Readers, do you ever cross the line -- or live in fear of crossing it?  Are you dying to wear crinolines to the supermarket but fear being mistaken for June Cleaver or Alice Lon -- or Milton Berle?

In other news, while preparing for my Daily Ditch ritual, I found this lovely cotton shirting I picked up many months ago at Metro Textiles.  I'd totally forgotten I had it!  I really should make a shirt out of it someday soon, or boxers (don't forget our imminent sew-along) -- or both.

And now for today's Daily Ditch.  This groovy metal and glass mirror is something I picked up in the Nineties at the Chelsea Flea Market.  It's sort of cool, but I find convex mirrors to be big dust collectors, plus I'm at that point in my life when I don't need to see myself distorted every day.  Off it goes!

In closing, friends, how do you feel about clothing vs. costume?  Do colleagues mistake what you're wearing to work for something Lana Turner wore as Lady de Winter in The Three Musketeers? 

How do you distinguish between clothing and costume, and how do you determine when you've crossed the line -- or do you intentionally cross the line (and not just on Halloween)?  Are ostrich plumes and gauntlet gloves always wrong for daywear?

Especially if you love vintage, when does it just become too much?

Rules please!


  1. I was just having this problem a few minutes ago in the dressing room of a shop... I was trying on these pants:
    It took me a while to convince myself they didn't look like a 70's costume or (perhaps worse) pyjamas.... but in the end I got them, and I'm quite happy with them :) I think the most important thing is to wear the clothes you have with confidence, and take it as a compliment if someone asks if you are in costume - it just means your clothes are special!

  2. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said "Who's to say what is and isn't costume, after all?"

    If I'm nervous about wearing something in public because I fear it will be taken as 'costumey' I wear it around the house until I feel comfortable enough in it to go out. Then i just wait for a day i feel brave...

  3. Is it just me or do those male models have expressions that seem to say "why do I have to wear these crap clothes?" I think those outfits fall into the costume category. I suspect there are very few men who would wear them in their daily lives.

  4. Since I'm a costume designer, I kind of get the option to go into costume land, if I want, and around the right people. On the other hand, I at least always attempt to be well-dressed. Since the actors usually are in sweatpants and t-shirts it gives me a leg up into having mental authority over them (which is helpful since I am short!)

  5. I don't wear too much "costume". Certain kinds of vintage do make me feel that way. But I'm extremely sensitive to the distinction, for instance if I wear something overly short/tight/stereotypically "sexy", I feel like I'm in costume, because that is not a way I dress, it's just "not me", even if some other girl would wear it without thinking twice. Costume could be anything we're wearing that is about deliberately projecting an image that's not aligned with our spirit & environment.

  6. This is a question I ponder often, since I have a great love for whimsy that sometimes borders on kitsch. I do, however, find that sometimes whimsy can simply be a secret footnote in a lovely garment-luckily resulting in clothing, not costume. But I have several dresses planned that the fabric requires them be themed- one of Elvis fabric, and one of circus posters. I must make them, but I do hope they emerge as clothing.

  7. Got it! Such a good point your making, great images by the way, some designers in my opinion are able to create the perfect balance between the two, such as Viviene Westwood, who I love for that exact the reason!A pinch of theatre in clothing is exciting.

  8. Well, Peter, I'm quite tickled that you wrote about this and cited my post! :D I was really excited to see the responses to my question yesterday; it's an interesting topic to mull over. ;)

    Costume versus clothing is a bit of a blurry divide for me. Firstly I have to take into consideration my mood. Do I want to stand out today? Or would I rather just go about my day without too many prying questions and sidelong glances? Secondly, I am extremely sensative to appropriateness of dress. Even though I tend towards a more eccentric bent compared to most of those living in my small (deep south) metropolis, I still consider the situation. Just running around town I don't blink an eye at pulling out a bit more of a vintage look. But, for instance, if I'm attending a function with my husband at the base he works at, where his commanding officers will be present, I tone it down.

    I think too it's about mixing "costume" with clothing. At least that is how I view it. Completely out-there shoes? Pair it with a simple, solid color dress and basic clutch. An eccentric vintage hat? Again, tone down the hair and makeup. I like to balance my outfits so I rarely look like a walking costume (although that can be fun ;).

    Ah... I've rambled probably too much! lol. Like I said, I'm of two minds about costume vs. clothing. Sometimes I get very much caught up in the idea of crafting a "look" and a persona through my clothing, and have to remember that I live in the modern world, lead a fairly quiet life and don't need to go *that* far... ;)

    Though I'm quite tempted to break out the little 50s white wrist gloves I have and try wearing them with my pink gingham, 50s-inspired sundress... :D (Cat eye sunglasses too??? rofl.)

  9. Thanks, Casey! And please, bring back gloves!

  10. "Clothing" = fitting in. "Costume" = standing out.

    Which of course means it's all relative to the crowd you mingle with. I say mingle with the individualistic fun crowd and avoid the whole question altogether. Life's too short to be worring about other people's opinion of your non life & death decisions.

  11. I'd like to think I *blur* the line between costume and fashion but I am, of course, biased. I try not to look too costumey ("a pinch of theatre" may be what I start calling it - thanks, Sharon!) but I normally don't care if I get odd looks. I just enjoy the compliments.*

    I went through a novelty print phase, making sweet frocks with horrible joann quilter prints and ... I really like wearing them out. Same with bizarre vintage headpieces, enormous jewelry (my radish earrings come out to play a lot), shoes I've covered in glitter/fabric, feathers and fur, etc. Remember Auntie Mame's spur-of-the-moment Christmas decor accessorizing? Yes. Always.

    ... except to work. That'll get you in trouble, but anywhere else, for me, it's pretty much a go.


    *admittedly, many of said compliments do seem to come from girls under the age of ten.

  12. I was just debating about the gloves today! I went without. I work at a fairly conservative office, and while always overdressed, I'm usually eccentrically dressed. I find it helpful to imagine what sort of comments a given outfit will elicit (without giving into paranoia). "Retro", "put together" etc. Are ok, but as the youngest in the office I've been called "cute" by my superiors enough times to make me save the peter pan collars and petticoats for the weekend.

    Have any other vintage lovers felt ashamed for not being "authentic" enough? It's like a tug of war...

  13. I like 40's style, and for me the limit seems to be hats and gloves. I can wear 40's style dress, shoes, hair and makeup, but hats or thin gloves make me feel like I'm in costume! I don't have to worry about work-appropriate clothing - I'm in college, and am going to be a nurse.

  14. I think the comment about context is spot on. Admittedly, I have worn a crinoline to the supermarket (it does make grocery-shopping a little less tiresome), but I don't want to look quite like I'm going to a fan convention *most* days.

    On the other hand, yesterday I was wearing a lace T-shirt dress, pretty but well within modern conventions, and got commented on because it wasn't T-shirt and jeans, the standard in my profession. Not in a negative way, but I still was standing out.

    It's all about that fine line between standing out and looking ridiculous...

  15. I really like Cynthia's take: "Costume could be anything we're wearing that is about deliberately projecting an image that's not aligned with our spirit & environment."

    ....If it isn't you, it's definitely costume (hello, Halloween), but if it isn't your environment, but it is you, well, that's where it gets sticky, isn't it?

    I work in a very conservative (though not dressy) environment, and I consider my work clothes, for the most part, "office drag"--a costume that I wouldn't otherwise wear. It's taken a long time to find a compromise where I had office drag that didn't make me feel super uncomfortable (because it was so "not me") but also fit the environment.

    Point being, things that look "normal" or don't stand out can still be costumes to the wearer.

  16. To me a costume projects a character. I think certain costumey clothes or accessories can look great. It comes down to your personals style and the situation. I does usually seem that vintage items work better as "clothes" if their paired with more modern pieces and styling.

  17. I do ponder this for myself, as my style can sometimes run to costume. My office doesn't have much of a dress code but I am a lawyer and feel like I should sort of resemble one most of the time. Compared to my Ann-Taylor-J-Crew-Banana-Republic colleagues I am in costume, but I don't look like I could step onto a stage.

  18. I'm with Casey about context, and about mixing elements to prevent a 'costumey' look; adding thoroughly modern shoes, purse, and hair to an otherwise vintage outfit makes it clear to the observer that you are not in costume. Besides, it's fun to see how well items from different eras/styles go together, though not necessarily designed to.

  19. Fantastic topic! With so much "embellishing" we might do on a garment...I seem to end up :( not doing it.
    I think our environment dictates what is too showy and in the Midwest some fun stuff just doesn't go. I wish we were as interesting as New Yorkers when it comes to fashion. BTW...loved the palazzo pants Baeta. and once again Peter...loved your Blog post today.

  20. I read Casey's musing yesterday and immediately thought of my little purse collection, which sat on a shelf gathering dust for years until I decided I was never going to use (wear?) any of them so they got put in a box in a closet, for many more years. There were structured box bags from the 50s, glitzy Collins totes from the 60s, and an assortment of evening bags spanning the whole 20th c. Eventually I sold them off on eBay in the hopes that someone else might actually put them into use.
    So if my self-conciousness won't even allow me to carry a vintage purse, I know I couldn't get myself to wear clothing that stands out for some reason. I definitely sew some vintage styles because I like the fit and certain details, but I use more modern fabrics so it's not obvious.
    Maybe if I was more youthful, vibrant, self-confident, etc, I could really pull off the movie star look that so many of our fellow bloggers excel at. But I don't seem to have the energy for it anymore!

  21. Another great topic. I think age has something to do with clothes vs costume. My friends and I are in our mid-40s, and we have been having a similar discussion about dressing too young. As in will people think I am wearing a costume to pretend I am 23? In RTW, if you want to find "clothes", there's Old Navy (too young) and Chicos (too old). If you wear the "wrong" choice, it can feel costumey. I don't want to be in my 20s again. I love my 40s, but I also love clothes like Flynn mentioned -- patchwork skirts with bright colors, for example. Are pigtails on a 40-year-old too "costumey"? They look great when you are 20 or 60, I think. Why is 40-50 so hard?

  22. You take these pics with your phone? Cool :-)

  23. Yet another great topic. I love vintage-style clothes, but nix the vintage gloves, hat, bag and hairdo to make it more like modern clothing. Wearing the entire vintage ensemble would make it a costume. A group of ladies I hang out with decided to have a Royal Wedding-style Tea Party. We wore hats, gloves and tea-party/garden-party dresses. I have to say I felt self-conscious on my way to the party. Once I got there, I fit right in.

    On the other hand, almost everything I wear could be considered “costume” because I am dressing for a “part” at the time. I loved Scooter’s reference to “office drag.” I am dressing to look a certain way at the office. Sometimes I’m striving for Jackie-Kennedy-the-White-House-years-Oleg-Cassini daywear drag. On Sundays, it’s church drag. For the rare special night out in the city with the DH, I’m striving for NYC drag. During the holidays, it’s holiday drag, though even that depends on the location. Where I live, looking like a Christmas tree is fine. In NYC, that will get you labeled as a “tourist.”

    It can be fun, but it’s also exhausting at times.

  24. This is a great post. I'm so glad you brought this subject up. The very reason I've never dared to venture into vintage sewing is because I don't know where the very thin line of "Clothing vs. costume" is drawn. No offense to anyone that loves vintage, but I see A LOT of vintage sewers look as if they've just walked off of the MGM lot from days gone by. That's not a good thing to me. Personally, if I were to do vintage, I'd like to incorporate it in a "modern" way. I don't think I'd have the guts to walk around looking like I'm in costume for a play.

  25. I think costume vs. clothes has a lot to do with the accessories and the styling. I think wearing clothes that date back earlier than the 1920s will look costume-y no matter what. Of course, for me, those are the "vintage" styles I have more interest in recreating, so when I do costume is is most definitely costume. No blurring the lines, but no looking like a character from Lord of the Rings at work either.

    On the other hand, wearing vintage from the 1920s-1980s depends on how they are accessorized and styled. I think with the shoes, hats, gloves, jewelry, hairstyles, makeup, etc. it can get to looking costume-y very easily, unless it is mixed a bit with more modern accessories. I think you can pick a vintage dress and one vintage accessory, but then make the rest more modern and it becomes "inspired" clothes and not "costume." I also think using vintage silhouettes with modern fabric is another way to prevent the costume look.

    Since I get to play with all the sparkly fun I want with my skating costumes, I try to avoid it more in my real life clothes. Honestly, I don't worry about the costume vs. clothes as much as I worry about the age appropriate issue. I don't think I am that old (mid-20s), but I often worry about wearing clothes that either make me look like a high school student or like I shopped in my grandmother's closet.

  26. I love costume. I prefer it to "clothing," esp. by Peter's definition (ugh, boring!). But I also believe that most anything we wear can be considered costume, in that we usually dress to project an image of ourselves, whether it's our true self or a construction, such as the serious office worker or the sexy first date. The same person may put on each of those costumes at different times during the day for different reasons (impress the boss, get a second date).

    Clothing can be costume, in this regard. It's not merely a way to cover the body. It says who we are, what we want in life, how much money we make, what we think about ourselves, what we want others to think about us. That's what makes it so much fun! To wear, to make, to design, to play with. Enjoy your costuming!

  27. I definitely have "costume" outfits, which veer to the more outrageous. I wore punk and goth clothes for a while because it was the only way I felt comfortable in my own skin. Now, I don't feel comfortable in much of anything because I'm getting older, my style is changing, and I don't want or need to deal with fussy clothes. I have a very small selection of basics that I wear all the time because I don't want to worry about ruining my good stuff.

    Costume vs. clothing would be much less of an issue if women didn't feel obligated to dress up or blend in for the sake of others. Comments on an outfit are often a way of punishing the wearer for being different.

  28. I'm tormented by this dilemma.

    On top of everything else, I'm a steampunk. A constant problem is how to fudge Edwardian/silk/velvet/corsets/STYLE into every day life. Without having someone call the little men in the white coats...

    I see most peoples' clothing choices as reflecting timidity. If it's beige, drab, shapeless, they'll wear it. Most people seem to shuffle around in (and I must point out that I live in Oregon, not New York; this gripe isn't so true in NYC, I know) an outfit that is substituting for pajamas. They won't wear bright colors because they don't want to attract attention.

    T-shirts and jeans are the ubiquitous American equivalent of Mao pajamas, the old Chinese peasant "uniform".

    It takes no thought to dress like Justin Beiber. How is he presenting himself to the world? I'm comfy, so that's it? It seems like a lazy, slob mentality to me.

    My big worry is what is stylish, but short of being costume.

    I'm considered weird around here simply because I always wear dresses! I get sad when I see an eighty year-old lady in blue jeans and a puffy-kitten sweatshirt. My grandmother used to tell me that convicts in chain-gangs wore "dungarees" (jeans) while they worked on road crews. Yuk. Why would I want to dress like that? I don't want to look like everybody else.

    My real concern is where does personal style (my Gram called it "flair") leave off and edge into costume?

    As far as gloves go, with all the dang germs around these days, I wear gloves when I go out, period. I don't want to actually touch anything "public". Then I can take them off when I want to eat.

    Please excuse me; I'm raving.

    I love your blog. You really help me.

  29. Great post, Peter! I was having this conundrum this morning while getting dressed. I'm wearing a 50's style dress and wanted so much to put on a pink petticoat but I'm afraid it would look too costumy in my law office. Granted, our office is small and I can wear pretty much whatever I want but that one petticoat seemed to cross the line, at least in my mind.

    I have a bunch of mid-century frocks, dresses and blouses on my to-sew list and would love to wear them with matching hats and funky shoes but I am not at that point yet. One day...

  30. Megan, just don't put on the petticoat and forget the dress!

    Solange, I hope the gloves you're wearing aren't those flock-lined rubber ones! ;)

  31. My (male) classroom assistant often tells me I dress like the freaky younger sister of Cyndi Lauper (I dress for fun & comfort) I like colour and texture. I teach 4 & 5 year olds I think I brighten up the day ;)

  32. I try to look like I'm on stage only when I'm on stage, but my mantra is "Life is too short for boring clothes." If you love something, wear it.

  33. I love Traditional Asian clothing and wear it out often. I get some odd looks but just don't care. Auntie Mame had it right; live ,live, live your own life. Who cares what others like or do not like. I like Traditional Asian. One man's clothing is another's costume.

  34. There is a line between (eccentric) clothing and costume, and I guess it gets broader or thinner depending on if you live in a metropolis (which, just for the sake of this argument, I'll consider Berlin to be) or the deep south (which surprisingly works for both the US and Germany ;). I have no problems with treading the line of both sides (yes, definitely petticoats in the supermarket on some days)...

  35. Oh Casey - you've hit the nail on the head for me!

    I have been asked too many times whether or not I have been to a costume party when on a night out with friends if I have been wearing a vintage dress, shoes, hat, hair gloves etc. I try not to take offense as I do stand out. Strangers will come up to me and after asking whether I'm in costume go on to say how lovely I look which takes the sting away from the 'costume' comment :)

    For me, like some of you, what I wear depends on what I'm doing, where I'm going, who I'm with and in the end whether or not I can be bothered unintentionally 'drawing attention' to myself. Inviting comments from strangers is never my aim - I'm just being me.

    Most times it is older ladies who will say something and it's always been positive - although I do get looks from people who don't say a word. For the most part they respond to the fact that I have made an effort in my appearance and that I am modestly dressed (in terms of 'skin' factor that is).

    When at work I tone it down - I teach academic staff at a University so work with a lot of professors. There is a lady at at work though who passes my office most days to see what I'm wearing and what I have been sewing.

    For some reason though it always irks me when people try to pick the era - I wear and make 40s and 50s clothing - inevitably they get it wrong haha.

    I know I haven't really answered the question of costume vs clothing but I suppose to me it comes down to authenticity and how what you wear represents you on a day to day basis.

  36. Very topical for me today Peter!

    I wear 1950s vintage, reproduction vintage, or clothing I have sewed from vintage patterns every day. I have victory rolls in my hair, do vintage style make-up, wear vintage jewellery and carry vintage handbags. I joke that Sunday is my day off from stilletos and false eyelashes (its not much of a joke considering its the truth!).

    Today I am wearing a beautiful swing dress and cropped jacket that I sewed myself from gorgeous dusky pink fabric with pink roses and blue hydrangeas, and white milk glass earrings and necklace. It looks divine and I feel beautiful.

    To say I stand out is an understatement. I live in a large country town in Australia and most of the people I pass in the street could be categorised as 'bogans' (read: rednecks). I get lots of looks/stares, but I also get a lot of compliments and smiles.

    For me, I feel beautiful and elegant and thats what matters. I don't care if other people think I'm wearing a costume - its how I feel that counts.

    Oh, and I also own petticoats and gloves, but I save them for special wear, not every day wear. I wear them out to dinner, to the races, to vintage fairs, to parties and functions etc. I'm sure you get the idea :)

  37. How much is too much , is kind of hard to say! I like costumey clothes as well, though i am not brave enough to flaunt it myself, i coax my muse (read my 4.5 year old daughter) to flaunt my costumey collections! She loves Avant Garde (atleast as of now, and has no probs flaunting them!) :D

  38. Reading this makes me wonder what people out there in the world think of me when they spot me on the street. I have never thought of myself as being too costume-y, but then I was the girl who got made fun in the third grade, for wearing a 50's vintage navy blue sailor dress and matching hat to school (this was in the late 70s). I thought I looked fabulous; I don't know what was wrong with those conservative kids!

    Now that I'm more or less middle-aged, I have a sort of "signature look," which relates to contemporary fashions but which is definitely my own thing. I wear some pretty dramatic vintage pieces regularly and I am not afraid of loud colors or prints, but I like my color scheme to be harmonious, my shoes are always sensible and I never wear makeup. Some days people stare at me, but I choose to believe this is because I look fantastic.

    Actually, I think a lot of my fashion chutzpah stems from the fact that my mother (an excellent seamstress) made most of my clothes when I was growing up. And she told me how great I looked *all* the time. This helped me to miss a lot of the body image crap that many women suffer through, and helped me understand fit and styling choices. And you know, mama taught me to sew too. . .

  39. If you have confidence and panache to wear an outfit, however flamboyant, it's clothing. If the outfit is 'wearing you', then it's costume. Thats why some get away with it and others don't :-)

  40. A good friend of mine has a fantastic (or fantasical) way of dressing: very woodland fairy, steampunk, Harry Potter-esque. She looks great and, somehow, doesn't look like she's wearing a costume one bit. But if I were to put on the exact same outfit, I would feel like the most conspicuous weirdo (in other words, I'd feel like I was wearing a costume). The thing is, how she dresses is SO her, which leads me to conclude that I'm wearing a costume when I'm not dressing like myself.

    Costume, to me, isn't just dressing to look like the cowardly lion; it could be wearing fluorescent spandex workout clothes, a ton of make-up or a business suit. I feel good when I "dress like me" which could be jeans and bright yellow clogs, a shabby 1920s dress or a '50s sundress complete with crinoline.

  41. Another way to wear favorite items is to pair "normal, boring" clothes with awesome crazy accessories. I do this with my hats all the time: jeans and tank top with a great fedora and statement earrings, etc. A lot of time I need to dress for movement and potential of getting dirty at work, but that doesn't mean it has to be boring.

  42. In a world of T-shirts and jeans, my wearing a long skirt and low-heeled shoes one Autumn day made me stand out enough that a man in the street needed to stop me to tell me he liked how I looked like a woman.
    So I'm a woman (or girl) and look like one. Does that make me wear a costume? Or are all those T-shirt and jeans wearing girls (me included many times) wearing a costume?
    It's really, really blurry.

  43. This is interesting - I do mostly formal wear, but get the request here and there to do something for the stage - either pageant or theatrical. I resist these contracts as stage-wear is completely different cause it has to communicate to the last person on row 42ZZ while my formal wear is close up and personal. Nothing against either type, but they are different. For me stage wear is gaudy, and for theatrical folks my stuff is boring, and that's as it should be. But we do go through periods of fashion where the costume is more pronounced...I love the "age of Lesage" during the 80's when there never seemed to be enough beading, which can be sort of costume-y. Now we're just not there, but give it time - it will come back.

  44. The difference for me is really more about construction and technique than design. I have a card in my sewing room that says "COUTURE" one one side and "COSTUME" on the other. The "couture" font is complex and "costume" font is Halloween-ish. The side that faces out depends on the nature of the garment and/or how much work I need or want to put into it. Again for me it's back to "Art is a man's name" - in today's fashion it's all good and there is really no difference anymore between "clothing" and "costume" as artistic expression.

  45. I've always been an eccentric dresser, wearing "strange" things 2 or 3 years before they suddenly become mass-trendy. Now, with the internet, I can LOOK FOR upcoming trends! And of course, the best trends are the almost-elitist ones where only a small proportion of the female population are willing to wear them.

    Suffice to say, I've had many a glance-askance in my life. Most are due to sheer wonderment and perplexity, but the funniest are expressions of distaste! Yeah, yeah, you're just sour because I look better in it than you would :P

    I have no problem with costume-as-clothing, because 9 times out of 10 (or more), it's NOT costume to the person wearing it! Viva la difference!!!!


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