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Book Review: Costume by IU professor Pravina Shukla

Performing Identities Through Dress



Get up. What to wear? For most of us if it’s clean and suitable for the day’s weather, we’re set. For author Pravina Shukla what we wear signifies so much more. Costume: Performing Identities through Dress is revelatory. Shukla scrutinizes anything we ordinarily take for granted—or don’t ordinarily think about—for broader and deeper meanings. Shukla shares research across three continents—North America, South America, Europe—and within several contexts to show how what we wear defines us on personal and community levels. Every day we creatively act to define ourselves, even if it’s subliminal. By book’s end I concluded it’s not only, “you are what you eat” but equally, what you wear signifies who you aspire to be and desire to accomplish.

A few years ago Secretary of State Madeline Albright came to Butler as part of a lecture series. What I particularly took away was her descriptions of the care she took to wear just the right accessory—a pin—to signify her intent. When she left her post, Albright created a touring exhibit and book about her pins. In private life she had no need to wear these carefully pieces of jewelry.

Shukla expands on the simply yet deeply profound ways we create a signature article of clothing. She particularly shows how for some of us the concept of costume as “special dress chosen for extraordinary contexts” can actually become a part of daily life. Some of us take great pains to costume ourselves for a certain look, to project a specific image every day, which is different from taking great pains to create a costume for Halloween or for a fancy dress ball or to be historically accurate as a re-enactor.

Costume is a wide-ranging book bringing attention to clothing as part of festivals and folk heritage events, pop culture conventions and dramatic performances. At what point does clothing become a costume? Shukla leaves it to us to decide by closing with lines spoken by Jacques in Act Two of Shakespeare’s As You Like It:

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts.

My closet has taken on greater significance now that I’ve read Shukla’s Costume. Hmm—what is my image?

Dr. Shukla is Associate Professor of Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University Bloomington. She also is the author of The Grace of four Moons: Dress, Adornment, and the Art of the Body in Modern India.


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