Nancy Driessel Stearns (West Bend, Wisconsin) Costume made by Margaret Driessel
When I was a child we had a trunk full of wonderful costumes. Not merely cast-off clothing, but real, child-size costumes. I loved rummaging through the costume trunk. I wore the clown costume for Halloween one year, a coverall in shiny, polka-dotted material, with full blouse-y sleeves and green pom-poms made of yarn running down the front as mock buttons. The pants were too long, so my mother hiked them up to an appropriate length and fastened the cuffs with rubber bands. At one point, I forgot that I had taken the rubber bands off, and I tripped on the over-long pants and fell down the front stairs, in full view of my friend who was waiting for me to go trick-or-treating. Luckily, I was only bruised and embarrassed, not badly hurt.
When I came across pictures of my mother dressed in various costumes as a child, I was intrigued. My grandparents said that she spent several years taking dance lessons and was good enough to be included in the dance performances. Each show necessitated a new costume, made by her mother. I had no idea my mother danced as a child. While she took some dance classes as an adult and enjoyed them, she seemed to have no special passion for dance or theater. I don’t even remember her dressing up in costume for Halloween. Yet here she is, in photo after photo, dressed in elaborate costumes for her theatrical dance productions.
Children enjoy wearing costumes because it gives them a chance to try on another role, to step out of their familiar self. My mother probably enjoyed the opportunity to play the peasant or the princess for a little while. Perhaps she loved dance and costumes as a child, but they lost their allure when she matured. Many adults abandon the pretend play of childhood. And yet, even ordinary clothes are costumes of a sort. Put on the business suit and you are dressed up as an executive. Change into an evening gown and you become an elegant lady. We still wear costumes – it’s just that the roles we play are more mundane and closer to our everyday self.
Antigone (U of Pennsylvania, 1988)
I might have given up the costume trunk as I left childhood, but I still wanted to engage in fantasy play, so I joined the realm of the theater, where costumes and playacting are still allowed. I became the frightened Dormouse in Alice in Wonderland, a demure Japanese lady in The Mikado, an angry and determined Antigone. On stage, I could wear outrageous outfits and act utterly unlike myself. I was involved in theater throughout high school and college, and while I doubt that I was an especially talented performer, I valued the opportunity to step outside of my mundane world.
The Mikado (U of Pennsylvania, 1986) Gondoliers (U of Pennsylvania, 1987)
After my mother died, I kept some of her clothing – some dresses, shirts, and her hat collection. I wore her clothes for a number of years – her t-shirts for casual wear, her dresses for my first hostess job. Why did I dress up in my mother’s clothes? To be sure, I had long worn hand-me-down clothes, and this might simply have been an example of “waste not, want not.” They were nice clothes, and there was no reason I couldn’t get use out of them. But in wearing her clothes, I was also dressing up as my mother. Perhaps I hoped that if I wore her clothes, I could take on her persona and be like her.
After I graduated from college, I stopped acting – on stage, that is – and tried to learn how to perform my new professional roles. How should I dress to be a teaching assistant? How does one behave at the departmental party? It was easier in the theater, when we were provided scripts and costumes. In the real world, we have to figure those things out for ourselves, and it isn’t always easy. I never did get the hang of the dress code – I suspect some of my outfits were more like stage costumes than professional attire. Students and colleagues often comment on my clothing. Once, when I was wearing my purple velvet duster, a colleague remarked that I looked as though I taught at Hogwarts.
While in one of my first faculty positions, I enrolled in a Middle Eastern dance class. I had taken dance before – my mother signed me up for dance classes as a child – but I never stuck with any dance form for long. I took a jazz class here, a modern class there, and even a disco class once, but I didn’t really train as a dancer. I’ve always danced, though, to records or mix tapes I made of pop music. I remember dancing in the living room of our house in Florida, my mother sitting on the staircase above me and watching. Put the right music on, and I can’t help myself – I have to move.
Photo by Roger Wood
Middle Eastern dance captured me in a way no other dance form had. I signed up for one semester after another, studying with a variety of teachers and learning as much as I could. Soon, I started performing in student recitals and haflas, then later on, professionally. I was back on the stage. Not only did I get to wear glittering, elaborate costumes and stage makeup, but I designed and made some of my own costumes as well. My closet is full of beaded belts, sequined skirts, and chiffon veils. And when I put on the costume and makeup, I become a different person. I step out of my ordinary self and become The Bellydancer: flirtatious, funny, outrageous, playful, haughty, soulful, exotic, a larger-than-life figure who is the visual embodiment of the music. I’ve found my playacting again, and I still get to dress up.
Maybe my mother didn’t need to step out of her everyday self once she became an adult. Maybe she was so comfortable in her own skin that she had no need for costumes and playacting. Or maybe she just had other ways of exploring alternate selves that didn’t involve dress-up. I don’t know, just as I don’t really know how she felt about dancing as a child. But this I can be sure of: If my mother were still alive, she would watch me perform, in my sparkly costume, and her face would be full of love – just as it was when she watched me dance as a child. No matter how much I step out of my self, I am still her daughter and we are connected. I dance, just as she danced. I wear costumes, just as she wore costumes. I have the pictures to prove it.
I don't spend much time dwelling on the past, and my childhood memories are fragmentary, at best. This project represents an exercise in mindfulness, as I spend some time each week reflecting on my mother's life and my memories of her.