The “image” of a person may refer to a physical representation or to an intangible concept of character or identity. We rely on the first – how we look – to influence the second – how others conceive us. While costumes and clothes are not pictures themselves, we understand that they shape our image in the eyes of others. We “dress up” before we sit for a portrait and worry whether the photographer has captured our true self.
The relationship between costume and character can present comic relief alongside vanity and pretense. For centuries, card games have relied upon costumed “types” to amuse and instruct. Carried from China to Europe in the late 14th century, a traditional deck of fifty-two cards included twelve face cards, three per suit. Tarot cards, introduced a century later, added a fourth face card for each suit, as well as a set of twenty-two allegorical trump cards and a separate card, the Fool (or Joker), which could be played as top-trump or, in some circumstances, to avoid following suit. In France and Italy, tarot decks were used to play popular card games, but in England, where the games never took hold, the cards became favorite tools of fortune-tellers. Beinecke holds some of the oldest surviving tarot cards, the Este cards, painted in Italy around 1450, as well as a contemporary re-interpretation of the tradition, Bea Nettles’s Mountain dream tarot cards, photographed in Penland, North Carolina, from 1970 through 1975.
No one better understands the dual meaning of image than a costume designer. On Broadway, at the Metropolitan Opera, or in Hollywood studios, appearance defines character. Frank Bevan, professor at the Yale Drama School, shaped 20th-century American theater, but when he submitted preliminary costume sketches for the Metropolitan Opera’s 1955 production of Orfeo ed Euridice, Rudolph Bing, the general manager, quickly dismissed one line. As Bing’s assistant reported, “he does not believe [it] represents the Greek style strongly enough and very much prefers that you change the bodice along lines similar to that in sketch #2.”
Recognizing that clothes and costumes influence our sense of gender, bookseller and historian Laura Bailey built an extensive collection of photographs that contest, confront, and transgress traditional assumptions about male and female dress and identity. From images of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, to male POWs playing female roles in camp productions, to fraternity pledges in drag, to pictures of “cowgirls” across the decades, the Bailey Collection reminds us that while clothes might make the man (or woman), they also let us challenge traditional assumptions about social categories.
No single photographer or critic had a greater influence on American perceptions of photography than Alfred Stieglitz. By the time he died in 1946, he had transformed our understanding of photography from that of a craft to that of art. Stieglitz did not buy his first camera until 1882, when he was 18 years old, but dozens of family pictures of him as a child suggest he had an intuitive sense of photography’s power long before he exposed his first picture. Over the course of his life, he was as enthusiastic and comfortable in front of the lens as behind it. As he experimented with haircuts, beards, and clothes, Stieglitz embraced each portrait as an opportunity to assert his personality, his self-identity. Even when sitting for such an accomplished photographer as Paul Strand, Stieglitz seems in charge of the moment, quietly but firmly asserting control of the camera and the image it would create.