When you want to be what you’re not

By Brian Doyle | August 14, 2015
Peter Lee/Flickr
Peter Lee/Flickr


A friend of mine worked for a while in a costume shop, and he tells me some riveting tales of those days.

For one thing, he says, everybody assumes that Halloween is your big season, but that’s not so, or at least it wasn’t so for us. I mean, we sold a lot of costumes in October, but costumes were not the bulk of our annual business—masks were. Isn’t that interesting? That says something about people. We sold a lot of other stuff, all the guck that goes with costumes, all the accouterments for any sort of disguise or role or character you wish to assume—gloves, gowns, cloaks, slippers, action-hero boots, crowns, circlets, derbies, homburgs, Abe Lincoln hats, berets, bracelets, cowboy hats, scarves, cravats, belts of every sort and style—a surprising number of people really care about garish purple belts, and pink belts, and nylon belts, and belts made out of fake fur, and stuff like that. We had two contracts with theaters, so a small steady income flow for us was costumes for plays and musicals, and one time we outfitted a whole movie cast, although that was an independent film and costumes for them were pretty much just hats—the lady who made the film wanted each character to be identifiable by hat alone, an interesting idea. We didn’t sell any lingerie or stuff like that—our owner wanted to be clear that we were a costume shop and not a place to buy something lacy to perk up your weekend. But most of what we sold was masks. Isn’t that fascinating? I have been thinking about that ever since. And most of the masks we sold were simple ones, not monster masks, or Richard Nixon masks, you know? Like people were not trying to pretend to be someone else, they just wanted to not be who they were, for a while. Most of the people who bought those masks were just regular people, regular folks, men and women both, all ages.

Often you could tell they had just come from their jobs, and a lot of them, when they bought a mask, they would say that they were going to a costume party and just wanted to cover their faces without much ado, but I don’t think hardly any of those people were going to costume parties. I really don’t. I think they just wanted to have a mask around, like for emergencies. Maybe they wore the mask for a while just to go somewhere else in their heads, you know what I mean? Maybe a lot of people want to not be themselves just for a little while, in a safe way, nothing dramatic, nothing earth-shaking, nothing adventurous and illicit. I don’t know. In the shop we were trained to just be real professional about the transaction and never ask customers about anything. Just move the units and make the sales and be polite and helpful.

But I always wondered. You know what sold really well? Those happy and sad masks from the theater—you always see them in pairs, yin and yang. I used to imagine that two people would take turns wearing them at dinner or while they sat on the couch watching a movie. You just never know all the layers of people. It’s like we all perform all the time anyway and maybe a mask was a way for some people to not perform, you know what I mean? Like when they wore the mask, that’s how they really felt, without having to project another feeling on the movie screen of their faces. Something like that. I used to think I should go talk to a psychologist about why we sold so many masks, but I never got around to it, and now I find that I don’t want to know anyone’s learned erudite opinion. It’s just fascinating to me that we sold so many masks.

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