For many years I’ve had a keen interest in photography, and theatre. When I wasn’t helping banks bring about the financial downfall of the western world, I was an actor for a small theatre company here in the southeast of England, and a freelance portrait photographer for models, actors and actresses. In my head the two activities are closely related. Taking pictures is nothing more than static theatre. My job is to tell a story with my subject using anything that I have to hand. This makes me the ‘director’, ‘prop master’, and occasionally ‘wardrobe mistress’. Quite often I take a look at the nondescript clothes that the client has brought with them and decide we can do something better. I dig through the items in the ‘dressing up box’ and construct an outfit that’s a little more interesting.
At times like that, my crippling lack of fashion-sense never gets a look in. Instead I’m brimming with confidence, and waft away any objections from my client with a wave of my hand.
“Wait until you see the pictures,” I say. Usually I’m right.
So why is that? Why is dressing myself so hard when I can apparently do it for other people? Is it because I lack that crucial objectivity when it comes to selecting my own wardrobe? I used to think so – but then one day, as I picked out an outfit for a professional hypnotist who needed some new publicity shots – it occurred to me that maybe it was the ‘clothes’, or more specifically, the way I looked at them.
When I’m in a departmental store, assessing myself in the changing room mirror, clothes are, well, fashion. And I don’t really know how to relate to fashion. Fashion makes me think of expensive glossy magazines. The type I can’t afford, and wouldn’t buy even if I could. To me, those magazine fashion models look ever so slightly dead, and yet somehow they still make me feel gawky and inadequate.
On the other hand, when I’m doing a shoot, or standing in front of an audience, clothes aren’t clothes at all – they’re a costume.
Now a costume –that’s something I understand. For an actor a costume is a mask to hide behind. It’s also a prop to help them get into character. From a director’s perspective – the storyteller – it’s an extension of a character’s personality. It’s a method of communication, where each item of a given outfit are words, assembled together into a phrase or sentence.
If I think of my everyday clothes in terms of a ‘costume’ then I’m no longer worrying about whether I ‘look all right’, whether my shoes match my shirt, or whether I’ve made some other hideous fashion faux pas. Instead, I’m concerned only with the character I’m trying to portray, and the story I want to tell. Right now – right this second – that character is one of full-time author, living a few miles outside London. Slightly geeky. Young at heart. Laid back. Enjoying life. But ever the professional and serious about what he’s doing. Now what sort of costume does a character like that wear? How about a pair of well-worn dark blue jeans, with a matching cardigan, over a casual, black & white shirt, under which is just a peek of a t-shirt with some quirky design on the front? A pair of thin rimmed glasses sets the whole thing off.
If I’m giving a talk then I’ll ditch the cardigan in favour of a casual dark grey jacket, put my glasses into the breast pocket, and wear a smiley badge on the lapel.
One day I’ll move to warmer climes, and maybe then I’ll give my costume a slightly more contemporary, ‘New York’ feel, with black t-shirts, cargo pants, and thicker rimmed specs.
This new approach to clothes works well for me. For years I protected myself against the UK winter with whatever came to hand. Most of the time I looked like a cross between a bag lady and a road sweeper, without the charm or elegance of either. Now that I’m adopting the character of ‘author’ I wear a dark grey, almost military in style, overcoat, black leather gloves, and a large rimmed, black felt fedora hat.
But let’s talk about you. What character would you like to portray? The thirty-something, Bridget-Jones-esque, girl-next-door? The hard-working, hard-partying city dweller? The sassy, somehow-single, yummy mummy? The chic geek? If I’m doing my job properly then an image of each of those characters should have popped into your head as I mentioned them. That’s an image you can take with you when you go shopping.
Remember; this character isn’t you. It’s the someone you’d like to be. If, for instance, you’d like a little more confidence, then adopt the character of a confident person. Think carefully about what your character of choice looks like, then go shopping for those items. Because as most actors know, a curious thing happens when you spend a significant amount of time ‘in character’. After a while the personality of your character seeps through the costume into your soul. It becomes part of you. Takes over. After a while you’re not acting any more. You are that person. And that’s a powerful thing. Because it effectively means you can reinvent yourself from the outside in – just by changing your wardrobe.