The majority of vintage wearers have, in their lifetime of wearing vintage, experienced various reactions from members of the general public. Sometimes these reactions can be simply genuine curiosity at an obviously different fashion choice, and sometimes, unfortunately, it can be negative. Probably one of the most universally asked questions, is “Are you wearing a costume?” or something to that effect. In my case (several years ago) it was, “So you are dressed like this . . . why?” – implying that there had to be some kind of external reason as to why I was wearing that 1950’s hat, fur collar, wool coat and high heeled pumps.
My answer: “Because I like it.”
Many people seem to think that anyone who dresses outside of the societal norm, simply must be wearing a costume. Someone wouldn’t be wearing a hat and gloves and a dress like, for real, would they?
I’ve been thinking about this lately, and trying to figure out my thoughts about it. I would suggest that, while I don’t really like the term “costume”, to some extent, anyone who dresses outside of the mainstream, is in fact putting on some sort of specific persona. It is easy to dress in the fashions of the day (look in every store and you’ll find some kind of iteration of the trends) but it is a conscious choice to dress differently than every one else. Whether you are wearing vintage style, goth, rockabilly or any other alternative style, you are saying something about yourself to those who see you.
So what is the difference between dressing in a so called “alternative style” or wearing a costume anyways?
After much thought (OK actually not that much thought, but some discussion with my mom!), I think it all comes down to your reason for wearing it.
How we choose to dress, tells a story about us. Your clothes can tell people, “I’m a rebel”, “I want to blend in”, “I want to be different” or even simply “I like old stuff”.
If someone were to look at me, they might not be surprised to learn that I also like classic novels, painting, antique furniture and old houses. My clothing has given them a glimpse into what kind of person I am; or at least the image that I want to present to the world.
Choosing to dress differently does raise questions, though, and like I said the most common one is, why are you wearing a costume?
A costume is something that is worn for a specific purpose, for a specific time and place, and it is not worn, usually, outside of that event. It is not a reflection of the person who wears it, because the person who is wearing it, has put on a mask, either literally or figuratively.
Wearing vintage, or another alternative style, though, is a lifestyle. At least it is for me, and many others. The decision to wear vintage style, as your “regular” clothes changes it from being a costume that you put on only at certain times, to being an expression of your own style personality. You don’t have to wear vintage 24/7 either, in order for it to not be a costume for you. While it might be a putting on of a persona, it is also a reflection of your own style and personality. To those people who question you, it is a costume to them, because they can’t imagine themselves wearing it; it is foreign and uncommon. To many people it is unheard of that these could be your “real” and “normal” clothes. (But, what is normal anyways?)
When I, and many others, wear vintage styles we are not just trying to be different. There are plenty of styles I could wear that would achieve the same purpose, but would definitely not be “me”. Wearing Steampunk is probably very fun- but it’s not something I would personally choose to do!
And you know what? I sometimes put together an outfit which I think looks great in my head, and doesn’t really come out that way when I wear it. Something is just not right with it, and so it does end up feeling a bit like a costume. This outfit here is one example of an outfit that came out as just too much. To me personally, I would like to stress. Even though others might think, “that’s so you- it’s got a vintage touch, pearls and a hat”- to me, this was a costume.
I look at this outfit, and I know that I was playing dress up. (Which I was; we just wanted to experiment with taking photos in this location, so I grabbed a few things and threw them on) I would never wear this outfit in real life; the twill trousers are far too casual to be wearing with this hat and blouse, and the hat doesn’t go with anything. If I were to tweak this into an actual outfit, I would pair the blouse with navy blue wool trousers or a skirt, my camel coloured blazer to coordinate with the hat, and I would probably take off the long strings of pearls replacing them with a single strand. That’s just me. Someone else might wear this, and they’d love it!
Ultimately, each person must decide for themselves what the line is between “different” and “costume”. Fashion is supposed to be fun, so if you feel like wearing a costume out and about, there’s no one stopping you! Sometimes you just want to dress up! But, if you are trying to determine whether something is clothing for you or whether it’s a costume, here are some questions you could ask yourself:
- Do you feel more confident wearing this outfit?
- Are you constantly thinking about what people are thinking about your outfit? I’m not talking about shyness, and sometimes feeling a little awkward because you look different. I mean: are you completely uncomfortable because all you can think about is what other people are thinking of your outfit?
- Are you absorbed with your outfit and fussing with it constantly? Aka- you don’t actually feel comfortable wearing it. Once you put on an outfit, you should not be preoccupied with it, if it’s just clothes.
- Is it an expression of things that you like? Or are you wearing it simply because it’s “vintage”, but not because you actually like it?
- Are you just waiting for the moment you can get home and change into something else?
- Are you drawn to a certain era or style, but this outfit is just too much? For example, someone might wear 1920’s styles, but they might not dress completely like a flapper with a headband, pearls, fringed dress and all.
- Do you enjoy wearing this? Is it fun for you? Is it the right expression of your personality? For the same reason I wouldn’t dress goth, you might not want to dress a certain way either.
Well, I hope that these thoughts may have helped you to think through what defines costume vs. style for you.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this- have you ever been asked if you were wearing a costume?
What do you think is the difference between wearing a costume or just regular clothes?