The Jewish holiday of Purim starts this evening and continues throughout the day tomorrow. Something of a cross between Halloween and Carnival (though more toned down than either), Purim is one day in the year in which Jewish children and adults are encouraged to wear costumes. While I’m sure there will be a few fabulously funny and innovative outfits at my synagogue tonight, I know – even before seeing them – that most of the little girls will be dressed as princesses or brides while quite a few of the adult men will be dressed as women. Coming on the heels of Mardi Gras, Purim has me thinking about why so many cultures feature costuming practices that draw attention to gender.
To begin with, it’s useful to make some sort of distinction between clothing and costuming, though these categories certainly overlap. When I dress up in a tailored blazer to go to court I feel that I’m putting on a costume although that blazer was purchased at Macys – not at a costume store, and similar blazers are fairly standard items in the wardrobes of professional women today. Yet I do see something of a difference between clothing that is mostly functional (we wear it to keep warm, protect our skin from the sun, keep our bodies clean or dry, avoid being arrested for indecent exposure, or warding off unwanted interpersonal contact) and costumes that we intentionally don for their symbolic value with the conscious intention of drawing attention, reactions and interpretations.
Like all symbols, costumes are multivocal or multivalent, suggesting multiple meanings to the dresser, the wearer, and the viewers.
As a Jewish American mother, for many years I served double duty as a dresser for Purim and for Halloween. At first I consistently dressed my babies and toddlers in gender neutral “cute” outfits. At an age in which they were too young to notice or care I pushed back against gender stereotypes but embraced age stereotypes (cuteness) by dressing them as un-sexed teddy bears, bunny rabbits, and that ultimate cross-cultural costume: the Purim pumpkin.
As soon as they were old enough to care, my children demanded gendered costumes. My daughter, like all of her friends, dressed as a princess, a fairy or the Biblical Queen Esther (happily for my wallet, these are basically interchangeable costumes) for nearly a decade. Her costumes challenged age norms (she dressed as a young woman, not a little girl) but magnified gender with make-up, jewelry and long skirts that made running and climbing impossible.
My sons went through a brief cowboy, policeman and soldier stage (they later told me that they didn’t care about the costumes but they wanted the guns that we normally did not permit in our pacifist household.) But for most of their childhood and early teen years they wanted to dress as a hyper-masculine super-hero.
Not just any super-hero. My eldest son in particular would begin planning his Purim costume a good four months in advance. Over that time he’d consider, play around with and even stress over whether he would be Superman or Spiderman. Perhaps the tenth time he woke me up at night to talk about the heavy decision weighing on his heart I realized what was going on in his mind: He cared so much about his costume because the decision of being Superman or Spiderman really was about being Superman or Spiderman – a decision of existential importance. Would he be able to climb the outsides of buildings or would he be able to fly? My son helped me see a deeper cultural truth: Costumes are transformative. For that reason many religious traditions use costuming and masks for ritualized existential transformations in which the costume wearer becomes – embodies or is possessed by — the god or the spirit.
Once boys reach their later teens and adulthood and (assumedly) become too sophisticated to think that they truly will be transformed by their costumes, many turn to dressing up as women. Blonde wigs, high heels and mini-skirts are sure-fire recipes for getting a laugh at Purim, Halloween and Carnival masquerades. (Of course, cross-dressing limited to the privacy of one’s own bedroom is likely to be interpreted as pathological or at least bizarre.) At these same events it is rare to see adult women wearing “men” costumes. A woman can masquerade as a particular male profession or identity (fireman, Elvis) but dressing in “men’s” clothes simply means wearing normative clothing in a culture in which male is normative and female is “special” or “other”. Masculinity lacks much of the ‘artifactuality of the feminine’. In fact, a woman wearing generic men’s garments (slacks, button down shirt) at a Purim or Halloween party would likely be asked why she isn’t wearing a costume! This is what Peter Tokofsky calls the ‘asymmetry of cross-dressing’.
Costumes conceal identities and free us to do things we wouldn’t normally do (for example, flirt, get drunk) AND free other people to do things TO the costumed one (I think here of the behavior of “straight” men at a drag show). Embracing that sort of freedom, many cultures practice what anthropologists call rituals of reversal; that is, rites in which, for a prescribed amount of time, social roles and norms are turned topsy-turvy. Classic anthropological wisdom goes like this: In repressive and strictly hierarchical cultures tensions build up. Rites of reversal are an opportunity for everyone to blow off steam for a few hours or days at the end of which most people will feel relieved to go back to the ‘natural’ social order. In her work on Mardi Gras, Carolyn Ware argues that “when men dress up as women they reaffirm masculinity by ridiculing the feminine and therefore ratify the social order.” Chaos is fun for a little while, but few of us want to live out our whole lives in a drunken Mardi Gras parade.
Costumes can elevate (as in the case of the Superman costume) but they also can degrade. A number of years ago an anthropologist colleague in Israel observed the Purim costumes of ultra-orthodox Jews whose religious beliefs demand extensive gender segregation and limit leadership roles to men. In the ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim she noticed a pattern of men dressing as women and women and girls dressing as inanimate objects. In this scene, unlike in the Superman scenario, costumes moved people down an existential level.
For some of these ultra-orthodox girls the cumbersome de-humanizing Purim costumes were good practice for wedding costumes that, for some groups, include a long opaque veil wrapped around the bride’s head hiding her face from the audience, covering her eyes and making her dependent on others to lead her around. I see much the same process of existential transformation in the extreme coverage of women’s bodies and faces demanded by ISIS and other extremist and ultraconservative religious groups: Full body and face coverings erase markers of individuality, turning the wearer of the costume into a symbol to be “read” by others (for modesty, piety and moral status) every moment of every day in every setting and situation.