Above: Always-already Orientalized (+white-washed) but Actually Awesome Feminists Vashti (L) & Esther (R): Edward Long 1878.
Tonight is the start of Purim, a Jewish Holiday that marks the triumph of Esther and her uncle Mordechai as they outwit the villain Haman, who has convinced King Ahasuerus to commit genocide and wipe out all the Jews of the empire.
It’s also basically the Carnival of the Jewish calendar, a Bakhtinian festival with merry making, charity, foods, costumes [why I’m writing about it here], and a tradition of hard drinking–one story behind this is you should be so drunk so you can’t tell Haman from Mordechai–very topsy-turvy.
My personal theology is very social justice oriented–I like Purim because it’s a reminder that as members of a targeted group with degrees of privilege depending on location, it’s our duty to be wary of divisive language, of stereotyping, of making enemies of our neighbors out of fear. Purim is a joyous occasion, but one that reminds us of our tenuous status in the world, and our responsibility to promote pluralism and self-determination.
ANYWAY. As I’m planning my costume for this year’s revelry, I thought I’d share my grad school costumes. I think when my mom was a kid, people basically went as characters from the story. Now, there’s a huge range of costumes worn by kids and adults. There’s a very particular scarf and necklace of my mom’s that I associate with dressing up for Purim with my sister when we were little–we usually alternated between Esther and Vashti. In college, I went once as ‘cowgirl Esther’ with a suede fringe jacket, as if she were like Barbie…
2012: Orientalist Vashti
One of the things that’s amazing about Purim is there are two strong female characters to dress up as. Esther, who is smart and kind and brave, not just beautiful, and Vashti. #TeamVashti. (But also #TeamEsther). Vashti is the first queen, and when summoned to dance naked for the king and his guests, she says FUCK YOU, my body is my own, ur drunk. #rolemodel. Then she gets dethroned and banished, because the patriarchy. (Literally–the rhetoric is that other wives might realize they can say no if she goes unpunished.)
In 2012, the spring of my second year of the PhD, I really wanted to go as Vashti. But since we don’t really know when/where the story takes place, and the Persian Empire (likely setting) was very diverse, I realized that whatever I did, dressing up like a Purim character would be an Orientalist endeavor. Yes, I had just read Said. So…I just embraced it, and went with it, wearing stuff I had bought or been brought from the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia! I was on a Purim Bar Hop organized by a friend; when people asked me who I was, I told people all about the evils of Orientalism!
2013: King Ashuerus/Ahashverosh (Xerxes)
In 2013, I went as the King himself. He’s a little bit of a bumbler in most readings of the text, but also maybe not, and even bumblers can be in charge of vast wealth and the right to death and power over life (the idea that the sovereign has ultimate say even at the individual level). DO YOU GET THE CONNECTIONS IM MAKING. [Subtext >text: I just talked to my mom, who said the Purim Spiel–a comedic retelling/commentary on the text–at our synagogue had “Trumpverosh” “Hillesther” and “Mordesanders”].
I’m wearing a Tajik robe that was given to me by a colleague of my dad’s, and matching sweater dance pants! I have a pretty strict wear-things-I-already-own costuming policy, whatever the occasion. Based on a smidge of historical research, I fashioned my crown from a Chex box, tissue paper, and clip on earrings.
My beard was much more intricate, and required buying black crepe paper. I twisted each piece around a pencil to curl it, then hand-sewed them in rows to a piece of black denim (left over from cut off shorts). Over the ear hooks–hair elastics! I wish I had sprayed some kind of fixitive–as you can see it the full body shots, walking quickly through windy Columbus stole some of the curliness. I also rode the public bus in this costume…
2014: apparently I didn’t dress up?
So…In honor of #blackandwhitewednesday, here’s me as Elvis for 2012 Heatwave Halloween! Action photo credit: Megan Leigh Barnard.
2015: Polar Vortex Amelia
Last year, it was still so so cold for the holiday. My Instagram caption: “Wintery Purim (it’s 8°F) = Wintery Purim costume. Do you know who I am?!” It was awesome because I layered an undershirt and a sweater you can’t see, and wool pants and snow boots–didn’t have to wear a coat over my costume on the bar hop! Anyone who grew up in the Midwest or other not so temperate climes knows having to wear a coat RUINS Halloween!
2016: Stay Tuned!
When putting costumes together, it’s really not necessary to buy something pre-made. (Although that’s totally cool, too). And for me, full cosplay creativity isn’t within reach of time/interest. See what items you have that remind you of something or someone, and improvise from there! You can do a lot with layering, accessories, and hair/makeup to shift everyday items into use. Use safety pins to attach ‘badges’ or emblems, wrap a scarf as a skirt, put on a crazy hat! BOOM. Costumed.
Two quick other Purim-related/politics thoughts. 1) During the reading of the story, it’s tradition to Booo or drown out the name of Haman with a grager, a spinny noise maker thing. I think there are several people whose names I’d like to drown out right about now. 2) Coming from a family of linguists, a favorite line in the story is about royal proclamations, which are sent “to each province in its own script and to each people in its own language.” Linguistic self-determination FTW!