I seem to be starting out on the stodgy side for an erotica writer this time, but I’m under a good deal of stress, so I’ll just dive in and warm up as I go along.
Costumes, especially at this time of year, have taken on a meaning similar to disguises, although the term still appears now and then in its older form referring simply to what one is wearing, an outfit, an ensemble, the clothing one has chosen to wear. That use has become somewhat antiquated and formal, used more for such concepts as “National Costumes” in the context of international beauty pageants, and even there the costumes reflect historical themes rather than showing what people in each country wear today.
But even when “costume” just refers to the articles of clothing you put together to achieve a certain effect, there’s sometimes a sense of being in disguise, presenting yourself to the world in a way that you want to be seen, whether or not that’s the way you see yourself in private. Or maybe because it is the way you see yourself in private, but want to be sure others see you that way, too. Costumes can reveal who you are, or who you aren’t but wish you were.
Costume isn’t just a matter of clothing. Make-up and hair styling are important elements, too. And when it comes to disguises for Halloween--hey, it's halloween today!--lor masquerade parties (or conventions with cosplay), cultural icons influence the choices of identities. Characters from stories, comics, movies, history, politics, or communal fantasies can be chosen to express yourself in ways that you can’t in daily life. What you choose can say something about your inner life, or just reflect what commercial costumes are for sale and what movie characters are most famous in any given year.
Most little girls go through a Disney princess phase, and boys like to be superheroes or anything scary, but there’s been some controversy about so much clichéd gendering of commercial costumes. Girls can be firefighters and policewomen, but commercial costumes for those kinds of characters are geared for (one hopes) women, not girls, with the emphasis on “sexy” firefighters and policewomen, etc. Even traditionally female roles like nurses and witches are sexed up, although witches can also be outrageously ugly. Post-princess girls may like scary costumes, and these days are more likely to be zombies than witches, which is fine, But never mind about the commercial costumes. And never mind my bitching about sexy costumes. Letting your bad sexy self loose is great, for adults.
The best costumes are the ones you put together yourself, or with help. My granddaughter went through the princess phase and came out the other side, and last year, when she was nine, she chose to be a character from several Terry Pratchett books. The fact that none of her friends and schoolmates were likely to recognize a Nac Mac Feagle (with blue skin and Scottish kilt and sword), especially one five feet three inches tall rather than the six inch high rapscallions in the books (yes, at 10 years old she’s as tall as I am already), didn’t bother her a bit. She had a great time. This year she’s inhabiting the character of an elven sorceress, and she totally rocks the long hooded robe with embroidered runes.
I don’t remember much about my ow long-past Halloween costumes—I think I was a playing card one year. The costumes I do remember are the ones I wore in junior high when our energetic music teacher had us perform Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. I was Little Buttercup in HMS Pinafore, and Pitti Sing in The Mikado (a flaming example of cultural appropriation, I realize now, of course, but great fun, and I’m glad we didn’t know that then.) We even had stage make-up applied by someone who knew what they were doing, which was the only time I enjoyed wearing make-up. I never did know what I was doing when I tried it myself, and I didn’t much care.
There are other kinds of costumes, though, that aren’t as dependent on clothing or make-up, although a certain degree of attention must be paid. There are personae one can put on like a costume. As a writer, sometimes I feel as though the characters I create are costumes my mind puts on. Often I don’t even know where they come from; they’re certainly not based on me, and only occasionally on people I know, but somewhere over the years I’ve read, seen, experienced, imagined enough to build characters I want to present to the world, not as manifestations of myself, real or imagined, but as inhabitants of my mind.
In a comment on an earlier post here on this topic I mentioned something about doing erotica readings in public, and putting on a persona rather like a costume. That persona doesn’t conform precisely to any of my characters. I couldn’t pull that off. Instead, I play the role of a confident, no-holds-barred writer, a conduit for my characters, bringing them to life not only with words but with the tones and modulations of my voice according to the way I intend my character to sound, the rhythms of the prose that make hearing it a slightly different experience than reading it. At least I hope so. If you’re nervous about reading in public, just remember that you’re channeling your characters, and they deserve to be heard. It helps not to be embarrassed by speaking “dirty” words and conveying explicitly sexy images, but all that takes is practice. I get an extra charge out of it, in fact, since the potential downside of my, shall we say, advanced age, adds a certain shock value to my reading. Once in a while there’s an audible, communal gasp from the audience the first time I get to an especially raunchy bit. By then I’m immersed in my character’s persona, so I hope the shock part doesn’t detract from what she’s saying and thinking and feeling, but I do enjoy it anyway. I guess the young will always think they’ve invented sex, but I do my part to disabuse them of that notion.
I said above that I’ve been under stress for a while, which will continue, and reminds me of another kind of “costume,” although using that term is a stretch. In a way it’s a mental costume, an expression your face puts on when you have to play the role, more than a role, of being calm, competent, empathetic, reassuring, and above all responsible. Because I’m the responsible one, responsible for someone who has had a long, long, good life, deserves the best care, and has been remarkably healthy, but is not healthy now. There have been other times when this seemed to be the case and then things improved, as they may this time, but there has still been a slow decline, as there must be. I think my dad will need to move in with me when he’s discharged from hospital care. It would help if my shallow well hadn’t run dry in the drought we’ve been having, and it will be a few weeks before a well driller can come to drill a deeper one, so we’re living, shall we say, rustically. At least here are places I can go to fill jugs with water, so far, but many wells in the area are feeling the strain and all the local towns are under water restrictions.
It’s okay. I can go with the flow (or lack thereof.) And I can put on the responsible face, even a somewhat happy one, and take him to doctor after doctor and make sure he and the doctors understand each other. I know his medical history better than he does at this point—it’s not easy being ninety-six years old, and it won’t get any easier. But I’ll count our blessings, and play whatever role I have to, and even, maybe, do it well enough that it doesn’t even feel like a costume any more.