In 2012, researchers coined the term “enclothed cognition” to describe the impact that clothing has on the wearer’s psyche, sense of self, and identity. But women have known this for generations.

“Clothing is about who we are and who we wish we were,” local playwright Debra Kaufman says. “It, and we as women, are expected to be performative, to provide all these social cues.” 

To expose and examine that on stage, Kaufman put out a call for monologues last year. She curated some seventy submissions down to fourteen, first presenting them in a staged reading at last year’s Women’s Theatre Festival. The characters included a lesbian TV star reluctantly donning what she calls “celebrity drag,” a patient in a mammogram gown, and a uniformed waitress at a burger joint.   

After further development, Kaufman co-produced a fully staged version, Illuminated Dresses, with Odyssey Stage, which closed Sunday at Burning Coal Theatre. Director Lori Mahl says she treated the garments almost as separate characters. In Kaufman’s  “Little Black Dress,” the archetypal outfit “represents huge sections of her life,” Mahl says, while the garb in Cynthia Schauff Straub’s “The Business Suit” represents her entire career. 

Straub worked in Chicago’s corporate world after getting her MBA in the 1980s. Breaking into business back then was “rough and tumble” for women, she says, and “the business suit had to register power; it really was armor to face a pretty tough world.” The power suit became a carapace that concealed the wearer’s humanity. 

“Hillary Clinton’s sort of the poster woman for that,” Straub says. 

The cascade of images in Jaki Shelton Green’s “The Communion of White Dresses” explores the North Carolina poet laureate’s complex relationship with a series of garments, including communion and wedding dresses and funeral shrouds. 

“They convey the gaze of colonialism, the gaze of growing up around elderly African Methodist Episcopal church missionaries who always wore white,” Green says. She contrasts the construct of white—“purity, sanctification, and virginity, the whole puritan aspect that weighed heavily on me as a child”—with the ripped garments of passion, fever, fairy tales, and childbirth. 

“White is very tricky,” she says.

In Steffi Rubin’s “The Red Dress,” the dress brings a life-changing insight to a boy during a grade-school costume game: the promise of the trans woman he’ll eventually be. Rubin got permission to dramatize the childhood experience of a friend, a Los Angeles theater artist who grew up in a small New Hampshire town. 

“There was a dress that changed everything, a dress that said not just who you are, but that you are,” Rubin says. 

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