Dressing Down: Costume, Disguise and the Performance of Ordinariness

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Disguise - the substitution of one identity for another - is a deliberate act of construction, and an elimination of self. Through costume, signs of self are concealed and erased, and in their place appears an apparently complete alternative identity. Although dress is typically aspirational, reflecting a desire to imitate those of higher socioeconomic status, this article observes that there are occasions on which it is desirable to use costume to reduce status, and to escape the perceived pressures and responsibilities of social or economic power. In trans-status disguise, it is necessary to abandon all outward indicators of individuality and status: to perform ordinariness.
Performance of ordinariness is a means to an end: a tool to enable behaviour that would otherwise be inappropriate or impossible. Inspired by Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives, nineteenth century journalists used costume to experience life in the poorest sections of society, with the aim of increasing trans-status empathy. In screen-based narratives, a disguise can often be pivotal to a plot, particularly since, in these primarily-visual media, costume is a key identifying feature of any character. Taking as examples, Coming to America, Superman and The Saint, this article observes how costume permits a perceived lowering of status, which in turn enables liberation. In particular, it will propose that there are parallels between the social experiments of nineteenth century journalists, and the fictional narratives of twentieth-century television and cinema.
Original languageEnglish
JournalClothing Cultures
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2013


  • ordinariness
  • performance
  • disguise
  • costume
  • the saint
  • superman
  • film
  • coming to america


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