Customs & Costumes

Bathing costume: there’s a phrase hardly anyone uses anymore. Yet the different textile objects to which the phrase can refer are still so widely used that the costume has become a custom.

According to my trusty old American Heritage Dictionary, costume and custom have a common etymological root, “seu,” meaning “of oneself.” Think of old British travelogues describing the customs and manners of the Chinese, or the costumes and habits of sub-Saharan Africa: these are the characteristics that were thought to distinguish one group from another anthropologically.

The word habit comes from a root meaning “to give” or “to exhibit.” The habits of one person make her distinct from another. A nun literally hangs her habit over her body.

English words like habit, custom, and the related accustomed, habitual and customary are similar in Spanish and Portuguese. But costume is not. The Portuguese fantasia (costume) shares obvious origins with fantasy and fantastic, implying an act of the imagination, like playing dress-up or once-upon-a-time. The Spanish disfraz (costume) shares an origin with the English disguise, meaning to literally undo, and thus change, the appearance of something. In these languages, donning a costume is more obviously linked to doing something that is not customary.

Also telling among the three languages are the differences from the English use of customs to mean the clearance process for entering another country. The Spanish aduana and Portuguese alfândega share Arabic origins, but in any instance in any language, the process of “going through customs” is usually invasive. In previous centuries it involved undergoing a personal registry of one’s pockets and saddlebags, etc. and the confiscation of illegal or censored items, along with extensive questioning about one’s family, education, and abilities, and maybe even receiving a vaccination or two. Today these aspects of migration between countries are more spread out over several processes, but the degree of invasiveness of one’s person and belongings has migrated to “going through security”!

It’s easier to take on new situations with an open mind. It would be easier to go through security naked, wouldn’t it? Today, nudity at security or at customs is not customary (or rather, it is, except that it’s “nudity” through those scatterscan images or whatever they’re called). It’s also a lot easier to swim naked. Before the invention and marketing of the bathing costume, people simply disrobed to bathe and/or swim. Bathing and swimming were often the same thing. You think a bathing costume sounds ridiculous? As if you were soaping up last Halloween’s superman duds? Well the bathing costume became the bathing suit or swimsuit and it’s still just as ridiculous.

What is unfortunate, unless you’re a textile magnate, is that the original, capacious bathing costume has proved highly adaptable, morphing over time into everything from the almost-just-as-capacious bermudas with t-shirts, to skimpy bikinis. But customs change, habits change, and what is “of oneself” or what one can “give or exhibit” depends not only on societal customs but also on one’s own attitude and informed opinion.

Why wear any kind of costume or suit to swim and sun? Your engagement with this question determines what is customary for you, while revealing a customs profile of your attitudes toward mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional health.

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