Clothing Borders:

Transition Discourses, National Costumes and the Boundaries of Culture

1Culture defines itself not only by what is contained within but by what is outside its boundaries as well. Sesame Street's refrain of 'one of these things is not like the other, one of these things does not belong' articulates this creation of boundaries. However, boundaries are not static. Boundaries, and thus cultures, are ever-changing. The decision of 'one of these things does not belong' is always being evaluated and redefined through cultural processes. One of the most obvious processes and signifiers of the visual boundaries of culture is clothing.

2Clothing maps bodies. Clothing maps culture. Clothing maps boundaries. The visual boundaries of culture have traditionally been placed onto the body with clothing. Fashion and national costume establish both similarities and dissimilarities. While costumes are seemingly frozen in contrast to the supposed vagaries of fashion, both produce bodies of knowledge. However, in Western cultures especially, national costumes project a supposed cultural sameness on the iconographic level that fashion does not. Instead of examining culture per se, this essay will briefly look at ways in which the boundaries of culture are placed and replaced on bodies by costume.

3Clothing maps bodies. Clothing maps culture. Clothing maps boundaries. The visual boundaries of culture have traditionally been placed onto the body with clothing. Fashion and national costume establish both similarities and dissimilarities. While costumes are seemingly frozen in contrast to the supposed vagaries of fashion, both produce bodies of knowledge. However, in Western cultures especially, national costumes project a supposed cultural sameness on the iconographic level that fashion does not. Instead of examining culture per se, this essay will briefly look at ways in which the boundaries of culture are placed and replaced on bodies by costume.

4Costumes depend upon certain cultural knowledges and body techniques to be worn properly. Therefore, it is not the clothing itself but how it is worn that makes it cultural. It is for this reason that costume, as symbolic shorthand, often seems exotic or even ridiculous. Wearing a costume depends upon body techniques that change much more quickly than the veneer of cultural iconography that the costumes produce. Thus, 'it's a small world after all' is placed in the 'fantasyland' section of Disneyland; neither in the past, present or future. Not surprisingly, the fantastic and ridiculous are also the exotic 'Other'.

5While costumes such as kimono, dirndl and military uniforms are understood as national costumes, my definition of costumes in the cultural mapping process is much broader. Costumes serve as iconography on a broad cultural level so that not only do they help define the borders of culture -- either physically or symbolically -- they often seem to stand in for it in its absence as well. The very thing that represents difference -- in this case costume -- is the very thing that is pointed to as the difference. Outside the boundaries of one culture, the 'one of these things does not belong' is reduced to representing all that is different (and so exotic and ridiculous) about the 'Other' culture. Thus, costumes help constitute culture just as they threaten to displace it. However, costume culture is continually suppressed by its own insistent excess that makes it so appealing for cultural iconography in the first place.

6Few costumes have been exoticised by Western culture as much as Asian clothing. Often one piece of clothing, such as the cheongsam or kimono, supposedly metonymically represents all Asian culture. However, even within Asian culture, these costumes are used to define boundaries. Specifically, kimonos compartmentalise cultural display both within and outside of Japanese culture. Within Japanese culture,

a decision to wear kimono is not casual. Kimono-clad women on a Japanese street reflect neither the nonchalance of Hindu housewives in saris nor the set-piece sentimentality of Heidis-in-dirndls. To wear kimono is, inevitably, to make a statement; Kimono equally inescapably mark the boundary of the foreign. Despite the inspiration that the European couturiers periodically rediscover in the kimono tradition, despite the ready-to-wear boutique 'kimona' and low-end lingerie in American import stores, the fact is that no foreigner can wear a kimono without looking silly, at least to the Japanese. (Dalby 112-3)

While most Western bodies do not conform to the body techniques of the kimono, neither do many contemporary Japanese bodies. Costumes are often ridiculous or exotic even in their own culture and this serves a specific function.

7As opposed to fashion, costumes are defined by their static and unchanging exoticism. Indeed, costumes are exotic even within the culture they represent. Costumes are cultural repositories; they are antiquated, outmoded images of a nostalgised past. Costumes communicate victories and triumphs made quaint. Costumes are the G-rated version of cultures past that should have been. When the past seems comfortably ridiculous, as proven in the excessively mannered appearances of national costumes, the boundaries of contemporary body mapping are naturalised. The exoticness of discarded body techniques and modes of display upon which costumes depend, suddenly make the present seem all the more sophisticated and relevant in comparison. Inevitably, this process works to create boundaries between cultures both past and present. While one's own cultural costumes may seem a little silly they also connote a cultural (and costumed) past. Thus, other cultures (vis-à-vis their costumes) are positioned as sillier -- the memory they embody is different -- and so other costumes become caricature not memory because of this difference.

8This process of caricaturing other cultures can be understood as a transition discourse1. Transition discourses are the processes of temporary cultures that are essential to explain change. Thus, transition discourses are also the temporary mannerisms and body techniques of 'habitus': "'Habitus' refers to specialised techniques and ingrained knowledges which enable people to negotiate the different departments of existence" (Craik 4). Like fashion, costumes can be understood as transition discourses. Fashion, as a transition discourse, is an important temporal indicator of negotiations in popular culture. Fashion, understood as ever-changing, is an obvious example of a transition discourse. However, costume -- despite its seeming inertia -- is also a transition discourse. Clearly, this was and is the case in Hollywood. The costumes used to portray racial and ethnic stereotyping (e.g. the collective condensing of all Asians into one costume or 'yellowface') change regularly to correspond with current cultural prejudices. This continuously creates and re-creates 'Other' bodies and other cultures. In this process of 'Othering', cultures create themselves as well.

9Thus, the reductive aspects of transition discourses are also productive. Daniel Roche points out in his book, The Culture of Clothing, that national costume -- specifically the military uniform -- is continually placed and replaced onto bodies in productive ways.

Uniform, along with the cogneries of military discipline procedures, should not be seen only in terms of docility and repression, or ideological instrumentality. It creates through education, realises a personage and affirms a political project by demonstrating omnipotence. (Roche 229)

Costumes do not only discipline and regulate the body, they also produce new bodies as old transition discourses are discarded. The physical costume may remain the same but, like the body, its techniques change. Thus, the cultural past is continuously refigured for the cultural present with transition discourses such as national costume.

10Costumes define changing borders and boundaries of culture. In particular, costumes often visually signify how the foreign is made familiar and vice versa. Costumes in the early musical Footlight Parade clearly show how costumes act as transition discourses to refigure 'Other' bodies. In the Shanghai Lil' finale of Footlight Parade, James Cagney plays a sailor looking for his Asian whore, Shanghai Lil'. Cagney searches for her throughout Shanghai's port bars and opium dens. Eventually he finds his Shanghai Lil', in racist 'yellowface' make-up: Ruby Keeler. They express their joy together through tap. First, they dance separately, then in sync. Again, like in Disneyland's 'it's a small worldafter all', while their costumes show their differences (he wears a tuxedo and top hat while she wears a satin cheongsam pyjama set and Princess Leia hair), their dancing proves their sameness.

11The Shanghai Lil' number is a famous Busby Berkeley dance sequence which culminates with Cagney being called back to his ship. Marching soldiers fill the screen as Chinese prostitutes and opium addicts suddenly join ranks and wave American flags as the soldiers march by. Much is made in this sequence of the disciplined male body. The men parade and the women watch. Keeler, however, breaks ranks to try and join Cagney on his ship. At this point, everything about Keeler's character is ridiculous because she is not American. First, her 'yellowface' make-up and broken speech caricature the Chinese culture she represents. Secondly, her assumption that they will live together on his naval vessel is made ridiculous as she pushes herself through the dark navy formations of the sailors in her pastel satin costume. Finally, Keeler's character is made ridiculous by her body techniques. A soldier slams his rifle down on Keeler's foot as she stands in the middle of the military formation. Keeler grabs her foot, winces and makes faces. In fact, it is at this point that Keeler drops the racist Asian persona and responds like an American. Earlier in the sequence, the number foreshadows this possibility with an Asian sailor and some prostitutes speaking in American accents. This productive rather than reductive result is what allows Keeler to be transformed from 'not like the others' to 'one of these things'. Keeler's actions are in contrast to her costume and necessitate a new transition discourse to allow for the romantic conclusion of her relationship with Cagney.

12It is at this point that a series of marching chorus girls in short, short cheongsams and white, plastic coolie hats overtake Keeler. Costume has transformed the prostitutes and addicts into patriots and thus into the paradoxical sameness evident in 'it's a small world after all'. The 'coolie' chorus joins the sailors in parade. Together the chorus girls and the sailors form an American flag and then a picture of President Roosevelt's face. Finally, they reform to create the triumphant American eagle shooting puffs of smoke and puffs of their symbolic victory. The undesirables have been assimilated, new bodies and new cultures have been produced even though they wear costumes that signify their difference. Clearly, at this point, the Chinese-ness of the prostitutes has been rehabilitated through the ridiculous excess of their new costumes. The 'Chinese girls' (the white female chorus in racial drag) change from a dangerous and uncontrolled foreignness to a more familiar stereotyped and ridiculous 'Other'. At the same time, the 'coolie' costumes rehabilitate the excess of the marching sailors by naturalising the American sailor costumes.

13While the sailor uniform has disciplined Cagney's previously drunken fop (the previously drunk Cagney is suddenly sober when in uniform), the uniform also produces a new persona for Keeler. In the last few seconds of the number, Cagney marches off with the other sailors to his ship. However, as they reach the ship Cagney and Keeler turn to wink at the camera and reveal that Keeler is masquerading in a sailor costume. Keeler's sameness, previously indicated by her body techniques (her tap dancing), can transcend her difference. However, cross-dressed in a sailor uniform, she is still signified as a transgressor. Cultural boundaries need to be changed before she can be accepted.

14It is a simple card trick that reveals this change of boundaries. A card trick, a children's amusement, makes this change of boundaries seem simple and inevitable which again naturalises Cagney and Keeler's union. Cagney gestures to Keeler to watch as he flips through a deck of cards. The movement of the cards animates a tiny ship that puffs big billows of smoke and zigzags into an empty white space. It is a place without borders where puffs of smoke again signify victory over difference. Again, costume is used to insist on the paradox of difference and sameness. Again, culture is displaced onto costume and transition discourses. Sadly, it seems that it is a small world after all and the creation of boundaries as a way of defining culture is ever-present.