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Identity Vignette - Inmate Costume

sweinstein's picture

The Book Club in a Philadelphia Women’s Prison meets Friday afternoons – one week coinciding with Halloween. We entered as usual, and got settled in the chairs that we set in a circle, preparing and waiting for the women to join us. Up until this point I had never actively participated or facilitated any of the discussions, and took a more observational role in book club. This week I agreed to lead the introductions, which meant that I asked everyone to say their name, and because it was Halloween, what costume would they be wearing in book group today and why. I start, and say that I would be an eggplant, and would wear the costume I made the day before. The woman next to me introduces herself, and says that she wouldn’t wear a costume, but instead would dress up as herself. When asked what she meant, she said that the dark blue pants and baggy light blue shirt that she, and all of the other inmates wear, is a costume in itself, and that she would choose not to wear a costume. Instead, she would be wearing basketball shorts, because she likes to play basketball. 

Another woman said that rather than a costume, she would be happy just wearing anything that wasn’t blue. It so happened this week that I, too, was wearing entirely blue – blue jeans, blue shoes and socks, blue shirt.

I was always very aware of the prison uniforms that all of the women were required to wear, and had previously considered the stifling effect that they must have on their identity and self-expression. Before this, the main impact of uniforms/non-uniforms in our book club setting was that they serve as a visual reminder of who stays and who goes after our time is up. I was surprised by how much closer I felt to the woman knowing now what she would be wearing. My wearing all blue was very much a choice (and an accident) that I was free to make because of the agency I have to wear what I want, of my own clothes, in life as well as within the confines of the prison. The uniforms are another barrier from freedom of self-expressions that exists in the prison, and one that can’t ever be ‘undone’ within our book club space. And while this lack of freedom wasn’t undone in one woman saying that she usually wears basketball shorts, it did feel like a small piece of the barrier between who she is, and the person we see in the context of prison and uniforms, was pulled away.


jccohen's picture


It's true that uniforms make a powerful statement about who people are allowed to be in the context of the institution.  It makes me think of school uniforms, and wonder whether they impact students similarly in terms of constraining their expression of self.  Interesting too that this 'what would you wear for Halloween' exercise created another layer, so to speak, in which women could propose what they would wear, that is, your topic created a conditional space for us to construct other selves, however briefly.

adwyer's picture

I am not in your group but...I found this vignette to be quite powerful. When the individual said she would “dress up as herself”, I immediately thought about identity and access. In this situation, she needed access, essentially agency, to show her identity. If access is limited, how does that impact(or limit) identity?