Pee-wee’s Closet

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Katie Haegele on everyday costumes, dressing from the imagination, and Pee-wee Herman.

This old picture of Paul Reubens with Cyndi Lauper rolled past my tumblr dashboard today, prompting me to reflect on him. Reubens lives, in my mind, in the small category of famous people who I really wish I knew. I am not into hero worship. I just think he and I could be friends.

I once listened to an interview he did with Terry Gross on Fresh Air. (You can listen to or read it here.) They talked about his life, and at one point he recalled moving to Florida from upstate New York when he was around nine years old. When his parents told him they were going to Florida he was all excited, thinking they were moving to the tropics. It was important to him to look the part. His mother took him shopping for school clothes and he picked out things that would suit his new look. (Apparently he had more agency in this arena than I did.) He’d be, like, a beachcomber. That’s what you do in Florida, right? Comb beaches? He showed up for the first day of fourth grade wearing clamdiggers and a nautical-themed shirt, “like a total freak.”

I love this story. Picture it: You’re little Paul Reubens, the future Pee-wee Herman, and you wear costumes instead of clothing because costumes make sense to you as a part of everyday life.

He goes on, in his conversation with Terry Gross, to explain how, even though looking back on it he figures most kids would have bowed to the peer pressure to look a little bit less like a total freak, he really thought his classmates were missing something obvious. “I was sort of like, ‘Don’t you get it? You know, I’m a beachcomber.’” And he kept on wearing his get-ups to school.

Well I get it. Don’t you? Thematic outfits. Dressing for the occasion. Or as I have always thought of it, dressing with such absurd appropriateness as to become, inevitably and necessarily, inappropriate.

I once got roped into attending some event at the Art Museum, as we native Philadelphians call the recently rebranded PMA (for Philadephia Museum of Art). It was a cocktail party and I guess I should admit that I wasn’t roped into attending it at all, but actually talked my mom into accepting the invitation so that I could join her. It took place in the evening, after the museum’s normal hours, which is a really thrilling time of day to find yourself in a museum, and it was held in the gallery where a visiting Degas exhibit was hung. Ballerinas and horses, you can picture it. I wanted to go because of the ballerinas. I had a tiny sparkly black dress that I fancied looked like a ballet costume because it was sleeveless, thin and stretchy and tight in the bodice like a leotard, and had a short skirt that twirled out a little when I moved, like a tutu, and I wanted someplace to wear it. I even bought real ballet slippers from a dancewear store in town (“Did you see this in a magazine or somethin hon?”), soft peachy-pink ones, which you cannot wear on the street, as I found out—they are not made for walking anywhere but on a polished dance floor, and the soles will tear and fall apart if you try it. The shoes were what made the outfit a dancer’s costume, but the thick black leg warmers I found at a thrift store turned the look into a joke, which was crucial. I was a dancer at rehearsal, just like Degas’ ballerinas were, except that those young girls were not wearing legwarmers. That was some Fame shit, a reference to my actual storehouse of cultural knowledge: not 19th-century French painters but melodramatic TV shows from the ’80s where everyone looked hot. I knew I looked pretty in the dress, but looking pretty on purpose is so embarrassing. You have to foil it somehow. (See this.)

I was 23 or 24 that year. I stood around with my mom all evening, looking at the fingerprinty little sculptures and waiting for someone to get my joke. Toward the end of the evening, over near the dessert table, a mean-looking older lady asked me—perhaps meaning to be kind, actually, now that I think back on it; she couldn’t help what her face looked like—“Are you a real ballerina?” I remember feeling embarrassed but I didn’t show it, I just twirled away. I looked better than all those losers anyway.

. . . 

When my sister and I were kids, we watched a recording of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure that we’d taped off TV (missing the first five minutes or so, when Pee-wee is still in bed asleep and dreaming of winning the Tour de France) approximately 200 times. The word approximately makes it sound like I’m being facetious but I’m honestly trying to remember. We certainly watched it most days of summer vacation—which is what, like 90 days?—for at least two summers running. We used to be able to do the entire thing by heart, back and forth, each of us taking whatever line of dialogue came next in turn.

I’m not entirely sure I understand why the movie was so important to us. I mean it’s funny as hell, and kids do have a tendency to watch the things they like over and over again, but there must have been something about it that satisfied us on a deeper level. Maybe the coded clothing is what appealed to us, its costumey obviousness a kind of reassurance that you can grow up and become a thing, just like all little kids want to do.

There are so many looks in that movie. There’s the hood who steals Pee-wee’s bike (spoiler alert!), who’s dressed like a greaser from the ’50s, oily hair, cuffed t-shirt and all. The fortune teller who tells Pee-wee his bike is at the Alamo looks like a “real” fortune teller, a “gypsy” with coins dangling from the scarf on her head. The hobos wear hobo hats and have hobo beards. You gotta look like the thing you are, otherwise no one will know. When Pee-wee goes to Hollywood in search of his bike, he strolls around the lots of Warner Bros. studios, looking in wonderment at the actors in actual costumes, and there’s a bit of gender bending for good measure: When Pee-wee talks to a showgirl and an intergalactic-lookin’ dude, a man’s voice comes out of her mouth and a woman’s comes from his. The Pee-wee outfit, of course, is the point of the whole thing, the look the entire movie is hung from. The outfit itself is the character, a boy who lives on his own and decorates his house however he wants and is a “grown man” in a suit and bow tie. That’s what grownups wear, right? A bow tie?

This week I’ve been reading the new book by New Yorker critic Hilton Als, his first in 17 years, an extraordinary thing with the arresting and uncomfortable title, spelled out in uncomfortably large white block letters against a black background, of White Girls. (Especially awkward if you are one, and a lot of your neighbors are Black, and you try reading it surreptitiously on the bus.) The book is a collection of essays, some of them a blend of autobiography and cultural criticism, others profiles of complicated public figures like Eminem and Richard Pryor that allow Als to apply his unusual deconstruction of the many-layered cultural meanings of race.

I haven’t finished the book yet but so far, for my money, the most compelling piece in there is the one about André Leon Talley, who is, among many other things, an unusual Black celebrity. Talley is the former creative director at Vogue, and he’s unique for a fashion magazine editor in that he’s become famous because of his role there, and we can picture what he looks like. In fact what he looks like—six foot seven, larger than life, and never not draped in capes or furs or velvet—is pretty important to who he is. I won’t give away Als’ sad ending to the piece, but I can tell you, you’ll come away with your heart slightly crushed by the idea of this man who so needs to believe in the “kindness” (Talley’s word) of fashion.

There are other fashion-world figures who dress in costume all the time, like John Galliano (the one who always looks like either a sailor or a pirate) and Karl Lagerfeld, who wears those stiff high collars and looks like the pope, or an evil overlord stroking an evil cat in his lap. (The categories that come up for him in a Google image search include “glasses” and “cat.”) Galliano looks mean and Lagerfeld looks perverse, but men like Talley dress and talk with an extravagance I find utterly touching and sympathetic. Not because I dress in or aspire to own couture, or whatever, but because their sense of glamour is, if not ironic, totally performative. It’s this idea of always mugging for an invisible audience which does eventually materialize, because when you dress and act in an outrageous way, people are gonna look.

Pee-wee Herman is a side of Paul Reubens that we know is real. We can picture him dressing in Pee-wee’s clothes every day (though we know he doesn’t), so when he shows up to mini-golf in a preposterous and fabulous mismatched but perfectly paired top and pants—and golf shoes! He’s golfing!—we can perceive it as a concession of sorts, a stand-in costume for the Pee-wee one that he can’t actually wear in real life. My sister and I loved Pee-wee because, as a kid-adult, he knew how much fun being an adult would be / was. Of course he was friends with Cyndi Lauper (who is also wearing golf shoes in the picture, btw). Like Talley, both of these people know that you can create yourself with clothing, or at least create a character that is not you but becomes you to all the people looking on, which for some of us is the only self that matters.

Katie Haegele is the author of White Elephants: On Yard Sales, Relationships, & Finding What Was Missing. Look for her upcoming review of White Girls in the upcoming issue of Utne Reader.

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