Why I Love Costumes (And Hate Disguise)

"Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves." (Matthew 7:15)

Disguises are not positively portrayed in the Bible. First there’s the Gibeonites, deceiving Israel with old clothes and worn out shoes. Next, Tamar taking off her mourning clothes and putting on a prostitute’s veil to trick her father-in-law. Later we see Saul wearing a disguise to see the Witch of Endor and Ahab, in disguise, seeking to avoid notice in battle. Neither of those stories ends well. 

And of course we have the warning from Christ to avoid wolves dressed as sheep.

Disguises deceive. They hurt others while removing accountability. Behind a mask, a man feels free to be someone he’s not, to do and say things he wouldn’t bare-faced. That can be dangerous. 

It seems to me, though, that the Bible differentiates between “disguise” and what we might call “costume.”

John the Baptist, for example, wears a type of costume, communicating his character through the eccentricity and strangeness of his garment. Priests wear a costume of sorts, an over-the-top get up designed to differentiate them from others. Esther wears a Eunuch-chosen costume to impress the king. 

Even Jesus is dressed in a costume, a purple robe and crown of thorns, which while not personally chosen, have come to define him more than any other clothes He wore. 

John Calvin, famously suspicious of clothing, wrote that clothing must be utilitarian and simple, otherwise, it clearly falls into the category of disguise, of trying to pose for others.

I’m hesitant to embrace that idea. 

I think the difference between a disguise and a costume is that a disguise conceals identity and a costume reveals it.

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This Halloween I’ll dress my daughters in costumes. London wants to be Abby Cadabby the wand-waving fairy from Sesame Street. Eve will be Cookie Monster. Each girl chose her Halloween alter-ego in June. This month I’m working to finish the costumes. 

I encourage my kids to be whoever they want to be on Halloween. London will be Abby Cadabby because she loves the idea of magic, of controlling the world around her, of making it do exactly what she wants it to do. She also loves pink and flying. 

Eve will be Cookie Monster because she loves cookies and believes I will let her eat unlimited cookies while wearing her costume. 

I call these get-ups costumes and not disguises because instead of concealing their identities, they reveal them. I know more about who London is, about what matters to her, because she’s chosen to be a magical fairy. When we go trick or treating, everyone Eve meets will know she loves cookies. 

Every Halloween I see dressing up as an opportunity to embrace a part of myself, to be loudly for one day who I am quietly every day. This year, I plan to be a fairy with London, because I like magical transformations. And I like pink. And I like the idea of flying.