Life is a Costume Party


Life is a costume party. And then you go to the banquet.

Every day, we dress up in something appropriate for the tasks ahead of us. I wear a suit and pumps to court. To the office, I wear slacks, a shirt or turtleneck, and mules. (I’m playing the role of sole practitioner in Anchorage, Alaska.) For my noon-time walk, hiking pants and a fleece jacket with cleated walking shoes over layers of clothes. For the grocery store, sweat pants and a hoody.

Certainly, clothes are chosen for the function but they are chosen as well to impart an image. My suit is expensive. The image I wish to project is that of a successful lawyer. I’ve won a lot of cases before I walked into this courtroom so you all who are watching me should expect me to win this one, too.

My hiking clothes are in trendy colors as are my walking shoes. They say, I’m having fun while I walk downtown. They also say, “Look at me! I know you see me! I’m not hiding my size. I’m proud that I’m outside moving.”

My grocery store outfit says, “Look at me if you want but I’m not here to impress you.”

But do the images I craft reveal the “real me”? No. Nor are they necessarily interpreted the way that I intend. Someone in the courtroom may see an arrogant lawyer, not a confidant one. Someone on the street might see a fat woman of a certain age with bad taste, not a fitness devotee. Someone in the grocery store might see a slob. (They probably got that one right.)

The “real me” conjures these images for effect. I disguise the “real me” with the costumes I wear while I’m playing a role. And while there is truth at the crucible, only the “real me” would pick that costume for that image for that event, it is only a shard of truth so slender that it cannot be interpreted in a vacuum.

And, so we dress our characters. We craft descriptions to convey the essence of their personality, how they see themselves and the image they are trying to project. In Tana French’s most recent book, The Trespasser, Investigator Antoinette Conway is always dressed in a sharp-looking tailored dark suit. She emphasizes that she looks different. She’s taller than most and has dark features uncharacteristic of the Irish. Feeling different her entire life, being independent and authoritative is important to her. She uses her suit to command attention and respect.

But we can also use these descriptions to show the incongruity between the image the character wants to project and the truth of that character. Conway’s inner conflict is whether she wants to stay on the police force and what she would do if she wasn’t a cop.

And that is why I say: Life is a costume party and then you go to the banquet. The question then becomes: what do you feast upon once you get there?

Mysteristas: Can you think of other characters whose costumes belie their truth?


11 thoughts on “Life is a Costume Party”

  1. Lots of food for thought here – not just at the banquet. My character dresses for the occasion in conservative attire, but when she runs, it’s in bright colors right down to her no-show socks. I wonder if Holmes could have solved his mysteries without his deerstalker hat. And Miss Marple, dressed as the little old lady, knitting in hand, hiding a brilliant mind in plain sight. Rita Mae Brown’s Harry Haristeen has proper clothes for all occasions but is herself in jeans and muck boots.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think Poirot is another example. He’s very fastidious, to the point of being ridiculed and dismissed as a “funny foreigner” by a lot of people, but a brilliant detective underneath.

    Along with Connie, I’m going to have to examine my characters’ closets!


  3. I love this, because there were so many times in my professional life that I just didn’t want to put those restrictive clothes on and play that part. Agatha Christie was a master of mastering the costume, as others have pointed out. Your post also brought to mind real life explorers, like Mary Kingsley, a Victorian spinster who hiked the Congo in slips, stockings, and long hoop skirts, (which probably saved her life when she fell into a pit of spikes). Her outfit belied her inquisitive, scientific mind and sharp observations.


  4. The entire cozy mystery genre is built on this, I think–amateur sleuths who look like knitters or bakers or what have you, instead of the sharp detectives they are. Great post, Keenan! 🙂


  5. I just finished reading Lynda LaPlante’s Above Suspicion, which I enjoyed very much, and interestingly, her female detective changes her wardrobe as her character arc is changing. Lots to mull over here!


  6. Interesting … hadn’t thought about it before. Now I need to start paying attention! I do have a couple of hipster characters I’m having fun dressing. Maybe I’ll have to figure out why they dress like that …


  7. Such a great and timely post, Keenan! I have a lot of fun with this in my writing–when my MC needs an extra boost of confidence, on go the heels! Ruth Reichl did this really well in her book Delicious; as her MC grew more confident, she added more color and funkiness to her wardrobe 🙂


  8. Costumes are an appropriate topic at this time of the year when we are thinking of costumes for Halloween.

    “Costumes” can definitely be used in books to reflect the personality and purpose of the characters. One book that I just finished that used “costumes” is “The Darkest Secret” by Alex Marwood. The action shifts back and forth from the “present” to the “past” thirteen years ago. The characters use clothing (or costumes) to delineate their different roles in the present, and in the past. In fact, there is a key plot clue that is worn both in the past and in the present.
    It’s a great book, and I had the privilege of meeting Alex at a book signing, and she is a fantastic speaker. If she is making an appearance near by, you should definitely go.
    Now, hum ….. what shall I be for Halloween?

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Fun! Costumes belying truth… Miss Marple, for sure. Just about any story about a woman who’s an MD. Seems like most of the time people assume she’s a nurse. A secretary rather than the boss. Those assumptions could be deadly in the right circumstance!

    Years ago, when I was in Corporate America, I used to get things addressed to “Mr. Peggy Brantley.” Really? Now, I have to dress up to go to Walmart. It truly is a lovely way live.

    Liked by 1 person

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