Since it’s practically erev Halloween, what better time for some etymological reflections on that curious word, “costume”?
Magnified (but still cross-eyed) scrutiny of my vintage 1971 Oxford-English dictionary reveals that “costume” had a rather elegant pronunciation (“costumé”) in mid-18th century France, and that the word is rooted in the Italian for “custom, use, wont, fashion, guise, habit, manner”. The Italian “costume/custom”, in turn, derived from the Latin “consuetudinem”, which early 18th century Italian artists used to refer to “guise or habit in artistic representation”, with the French and English soon following suit.
As for the word’s richly overlapping shades of meaning: The “costume” folks have been obsessing over in the past weeks is of course a kind of garment (sometimes mass-produced, sometimes creatively hodge-podged) meant to transform or disguise the identity of the wearer. But “costume” can also connote an ensemble appropriate to a particular activity or social occasion, such as the lust-inducing one the OED quotes Beaconsfield’s 1839 description of: “…a white silk costume with border trimmings of birds of paradise feathers”.
And, last but not least, the study of “costume”—or “the mode or fashion of personal attire and dress (including the way of wearing the hair, style of clothing and personal adornment) belonging to a particular nation, class or period”—has been an established field of scholarship since at least 1861, when Braun & Scheider’s gorgeously illustrated “The History of Costume” (which I would have grabbed at a recent estate sale if it hadn’t cost over 400 bucks) began appearing, plate by plate, in a German magazine.
What I’m marvelling at today is the way all these connotations layer at Halloween-time into a phyllo-wrapped pastry of desperation to impersonate convincingly and, if at all possible, spectacularly. This is Cur.io Vintage’s second October as a source of authentic/period/one-off garb and accoutrements, and it is fascinating to see customers—despite the presence of the large, extremely well-stocked costume shop just a few doors down—coming in to hunt for some or all of the ingredients to a costume (in the white-silk-with-birds-of-paradise-feathers sense) that will impress their friends. (On a side note, it’s very interesting how often customers choose to be something they have a very shaky concept of—ie the 20-somethings who want to do a turn as a hippie–and extremely gratifying to me that they prefer trying to “nail” the look on the fly to knowing they could easily get it from a prefab get-up).
At any rate, if I had known what a blast it would be to serve as a local “costumier” (a. F. costumier), I would have opened my shop ages ago!
A quick anecdote, to illustrate the spell the costumic (“nonce-wd. Of or pertaining to costume”) collectively casts over us: When I did my October shop window (pictured at the top of this post), I had no idea whether anyone would recognize the characters I’d chosen to dress my mannis as. But lo and behold, even before I’d figured out how to make facial hair stick to fiberglass without permanently damaging it (and, more to the point, before I’d located a tell-tale raven prop), passersby kept popping in to tell me Poe’s moustache had fallen off again!
And finally, before signing off, I just have to share this recent photo of 2 of my favorite customers, whose appreciation of costumery (ko-stoo-muh-ree) combines a flair for wearing period and vintage garments (all year round, on an everyday basis) with a passion for authentic detail. His opera hat and suit are 1930s and his magnificent cloak is circa 1914; her coat is a man’s lined trenchcoat from the 50s, and her hat is a 60s wool felt pillbox.
Turns out you don’t need to wait for Halloween to explore the beauty and power of “costume” after all!