No one knows what the body can do. -Spinoza

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Visit with the Life of My Closet: Or, The Spy's Guidebook In Clothing and Accoutrement

Most recent costume: Maarf Vhan,
a half-Vulcan, half-human inter-galactic diplomat

Around the age of ten I used the money I'd earned from commercial fishing for salmon in the summers to buy myself THE SPY'S GUIDEBOOK. THE SPY'S GUIDEBOOK was an inch and a half thick book mixing intricately detailed text with cartoon like drawings. The book was full of words like "query", discussed using fingerprint powders in black or white, depending on the background to be tested, and also contained a thorough index of codes. I was enthralled.

One of the key elements of THE SPY'S GUIDEBOOK was the chapter discussing costumes designed to turn you into someone else, keep others from recognizing you, and also simply throw people off your trail by distracting their attention from you to what you were wearing. Soon after purchasing and reading THE SPY'S GUIDEBOOK I turned the storage sections of my desk at the time into a costume arsenal. I gathered any clothing and accoutrement I could find in my room that might serve to alter my appearance and organized them into the drawers and cubbyholes of the desk. My parents were unimpressed at this room change. Having odd sized dresses and small pillows with rope sewn into them (to tie about the waist, of course) hanging out of the teak cabinet above my desk didn't have the aesthetic appeal for my parents that it did for me. They didn't look at the piles and see other possible worlds and characters to be consumed by. They just saw a mess of fabric.

Years before I was old enough to buy myself the book, my sister and I used to ride our dirt bikes to the Rexall Drugs behind our house. Once a month we'd have gathered together and saved enough coins from around the yard or living room to manage the purchase of the new Vogue magazine and a pint of Haagen Daazs Chocolate Chocolate Chip Ice Cream. We'd buy our two items and rush back to the house, descending into the basement, and leaning against the dark wood paneling to flip slowly through the fashion magazine while we ate the ice cream. We'd spit each chocolate chip back into the lid of the pint and at the very end, when we'd finished the magazine and the ice cream both, we'd split the chocolate pile and fill our mouths with our own half. I'd stare off out the window while I worked on the chocolate hoard slowly melting it down dreaming about what it must feel like to wear any of the dresses I'd just seen.

After my parents demolished my costume treasury, returning my desk to being just a desk, I dreamt of different ways I might be able to have a costume collection robust enough to transform me into whatever figure I might need to be for spying purposes. Somehow mixed into this imagery in my head was the idea that some of the costumes might resemble the high fashion extravaganza my sister and I saw each month. I had this idea that with a simple change of clothes, and a full commitment to whatever persona the clothing was meant to represent, I could completely alter my mood, who I felt myself to be, and the way others interacted with me too. It wasn't that I would literally be a different person. There would be some consistent self making such choices, but still I would be changed, having stepped into some other world for as long as the costume was worn.

One of the other things I understood from THE SPY'S GUIDEBOOK though too was that wearing costumes wasn't just about entering alternate worlds but also about study of the human psyche. Spying for me was about coming to understand what other people were really about. Changing costumes would change the way I felt, but it would also help me dream my way into understanding other people's worlds. Their daily lives. Such insight would be gained from developing my imagination as flexible enough to stretch into an empathy with other people's lives, but also through careful observation of other people's behavioral habits. That was the key to mastering costumery and the knowledge of what it was to be a person both, and both, from what I could tell, were what spying was all about.

It occurred to me this morning while I put wigs into one bin, leather bracers and harnesses into another, various clip-on animal ears, whiskers, and paws into still another, and then sorted oddly shaped wrap dresses in silk from ruched sided brightly colored dresses in the hanging closet, that I've somehow turned my entire adult life into a combination of these two childhood experiences. Here I am living out both the question of what it would feel like to wear any of those dresses I saw in the fashion magazine and the fantasy of inhabiting alternate worlds via how I dress, what costume I put on. My closet has become the costume treasury I dreamed of as a child. And somehow too, as a result, my daily life has become that same exploration of the human psyche in which I explore continuously not only what it is to be me, but what it might be to be the people I have committed to in my adult life, and the various people I interact with briefly on a more daily basis. So that somehow my closet represents a mix of the worlds of people I've loved and people I've simply met, and at other times only dreamt.

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