Why Do People Wear Costumes?

I went to King Richard’s Faire this weekend. There’s nothing like a good Renaissance fair for eating gigantic turkey legs and watching a joust or two. I remember going to one when I was little. I got the hair wreath thing with the ribbons. Just like this.


A definitely not-from-the Renaissance headpiece I found on Etsy from a store called absinthediaryquills

Actually it was nothing like this, but I had to post this headdress because it fascinates me.

That’s all I remember about the Faire from childhood, so I figured why not go to another one after all these years.

Once we got there, after I got over being in a fakey-fake medievaly/Robin Hood-esque/fairy circle/witch village I was struck by the costumes. (Also I was struck by how many pirates there apparently were in Renaissance villages, but I digress.)

Fantastical costume

Why did he or she dress up like this? In other words, why do people wear costumes? And we definitely love our costumes. We wear costumes at masquerade balls, gaming conventions, on Halloween, during Mardi Gras, when we’re doing live action role playing, Civil War reenactments, and of course at Renaissance Faires. Anthropologists call these dressing up opportunities “inversion rituals,” times we can let loose, violate solid social codes, break the rules, and parade around in otherwise unacceptable modes of dress.

The most obvious reason we need inversion rituals is that there’s a lot we repress as a society and we need a safety valve to let off steam. One huge repressed item is our sexuality. Hence the plethora of Naughty Nurse and Sexy Witch and Slutty Schoolgirl costumes at Halloween.

Naughty Nurse costume

And the sexy costumes at masked balls, and at Mardi Gras, and at Renaissance fairs….Clearly we want societally approved excuses to be able to flaunt our sexuality without feeling embarrassed. But not all costumes, Halloween or otherwise, are about expressing sexuality. I don’t think this woman dressed up as a blue peacocky Renaissance-type person to flaunt her sexuality.

Blue girl

Putting on a cocktail dress and heels (or a Naughty Nurse costume) is dressing up to look like a prettier, fancier, or sexier version of yourself. This is not a cocktail dress or a nurse costume. This woman is dressed up as another self completely, not an enhanced version of her real self.

She’s dressed up like this for the same reason we dream of being superheroes. The costume takes her out of her own life and into a new place. The costume lets her be other than she normally is, someone more. More interesting, more fantastical, more magical.

When I was little, and, uh, yesterday, I used to read fantasy fiction. I’ve read many a tale with elves, swords, dragons, and magic. I love being lost in those universes. While I’m reading I actually can imagine that I’m the hero and I forget about the “real” world. Isn’t this one of the reasons we read? We want to be transported into another reality. I think we wear costumes for the same reason.

Chain mail shirt

If I put on this chain mail top, would I feel like an Iron Warrior Princess from the Middle Ages? If it hadn’t been several thousand dollars I might have given it a whirl for Halloween.

You might not understand the need for inversion rituals, especially if you don’t believe that you’ve lost or repressed anything by living in our modern society. Judging by how many of us seize any chance to dress up in a costume, I wonder whether it’s common to feel that we are missing a chance to express ourselves fully. Do we all have an Inner Warrior Princess that needs to come out?


4 responses to “Why Do People Wear Costumes?

  1. I think they give you the freedom to be yourself, but BIGGER. When I wear medieval dress I can be the delicate lady delighting in my own beauty and elegance, or I can be the sassy girl who won’t take no for an answer and will charge right over anyone who gets in her way. Both are inside me, but they’re balanced. Dressing up is an interesting opportunity to explore a part of your personality to its most extreme without the rest of you getting in the way. But mostly, it’s just fun.

    This post is quite timely. I was just saying to my husband last night that we should take our boys to our local Faire next year, prompted by my three year old running around with a toy shield pretending he was super strong (he’s actually tiny – as small or smaller than your average 2 year old – so it was very funny!).

  2. Pingback: Cloaks and Capes: Yes In Fiction, No In Real Life « Cultivating Style·

  3. Pingback: Halloween Roundup « Cultivating Style·

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