catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 2 :: 2013.01.18 — 2013.01.31


The answers are in my closet

I am an uncle to one six-year-old nephew. His father, my brother-in-law, is a committed sports fan with unwavering loyalties: Los Angeles Lakers because he grew up in southern California, and Chicago Bears because he attended college there. Around the same time Major League Soccer was starting up, so he adopted the Chicago Fire team too. My nephew, like most boys, inherited his father’s loyalties.

Over Christmas, when my nephew emerged from his bedroom in full Lakers regalia, my sister recounted to me how he and my brother-in-law had been playing sports recently. Between each sporting event, my nephew paused to change his clothes — from a Bears jersey and helmet to a Lakers jersey and shorts to a Fire jersey for soccer. I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid, playing sports involved using the right ball for the game — that’s it. For my nephew, my sister explained, this wasn’t enough. The clothing mattered, too. Participating meant not just using the right ball, which would be sufficient, but also dressing the part. The peripherals were essentials. I laughed at my sister’s story and shook my head at my nephew’s stubborn enthusiasm.

A few days later I rang in the New Year with friends, only it wasn’t simply a New Year’s Eve party, it was a masquerade party. With child-like enthusiasm, I researched masks online for inspiration. You know the kind: richly-colored harlequin patterns, gold rococo flourishes, feathers of maroon, royal blue and canary yellow. I went to Hobby Lobby, found all the materials and made my own mask. But as the paint dried, I realized I couldn’t simply don the mask and be finished. In researching the masks, I’d seen ruffled shirts with high collars. I’d seen dark Victorian vests. The mask simply wouldn’t be complete without these accoutrements. I wanted to enter in to the whole environment, the entire enchanted evening.

I realize now I was not so unlike my nephew.

And this wasn’t my first time, I have to confess. What does one wear to a rodeo? Or to a Sufjan Stevens Christmas concert? I have answered these questions. The answers are in my closet. Yet, while these clothes border on being costumes and caricatures, they do carry a meaning within them. And the role they play is not so different from the more regular clothing of everyday life — just more exaggerated.

Researchers have a name for this field of study: “enclothed cognition.” The field is already well along, and researchers have shown that what you wear affects how you think. I don’t simply mean what we think about, but actually how we think. A recent study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology showed that wearing a doctor’s white lab coat increases the wearer’s attentiveness: closer attention, catching more nuances.

But it couldn’t simply be a white lab coat. It had to be a doctor’s white lab coat. If the same coat was presented as a painter’s jacket, no dice. The researchers further stressed the necessity of wearing the coat, not just seeing it. Doctor’s coat. Wearing it. When it was and they did: it made all the difference.

After six years as a working adult, I decided, last year, to update — and upgrade — my wardrobe. I invited my friend Laura, and she happily accompanied me as my very own fashion consultant. We went to downtown Chicago, and Laura helped me spend my money. And so for the past year, I’ve been a new man in my office. Fitted shirts. Mad Men slacks. I’ve walked into work most days with my shoulders straight, my chin up. I’ve walked with a bit more purpose — panache, one could say — even if subtly and only noticeable to me. I’ve felt, somehow, different. I haven’t been playing a part: this is my real life. I work here. But somehow, I’ve changed a little, too. My clothes express something — to others, yes, but to me as well.

For most kids, playing dress-up is a normal part of childhood. For kids, adult clothes are costumes, but those costumes have distinctly adult behaviors associated with them. And, dressed up, children mimic these behaviors. Over time, the costumes become less exaggerated and the meaning of clothing becomes more subtle, but the effects are no less powerful. Like my nephew’s sports jerseys, my new business attire represents a set of practices, and also a mindset. For a lot of young employees, the cubicle or the window office or the business trip feels like play at first. But eventually the meaning works its way in, and we become the businessmen and women who have cubicles and take business trips. The costumes we wear become part of who we are.

Even as I was excited to masquerade at the New Year’s Eve party, a small hesitation turned over somewhere in the back of my mind. Images of New Orleans and Mardi Gras kept popping into to my mind as I painted the mask. I shrugged off the hesitation, but now, looking back, I see it a little more clearly. Masquerades themselves carry plenty of symbolic meaning. Of the images I found online, many of them were risqué and bordered on illicit. Masquerades, whatever their origins, today have connotations of revelry and drunkenness and debauchery. I felt a bit like a kid in grown-up clothes. The feeling that I was in some way endorsing those values and disregarding my own: that was the hesitation I hadn’t yet named. And clothing often stays at that level, somewhere in the back of our minds.

From my past costumes, vestiges remain. I still have a cowboy belt buckle that I wear now and then. Not as a costume, but simply as a “masculine flourish.” And while I won’t be wearing that painted mask anytime soon, I might find a good use for that vest. But even if I don’t, I’ve still got my business clothes to fit into. And every morning in the mirror, those shirts and slacks subtly suggest to me things I believe or want to believe. And all day, they whisper against my skin, reminding me of the answers I’ve given to a question I’ve mostly forgotten.

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