Incognito: Role of Fashion in Sleep No More

The McKrittick hotel is nothing like you would expect a New York establishment to be. If you’re so lucky to arrive before night fall, the plain black brick-stone building, with symmetrical overhang and ominous dark carpet leading to a sign-less black door with two big men dressed in black suits at either side, will seem just a little less eerie than it does to those arrive in the evening. Upon entering the “hotel”, a receptionist “checks you in” by stripping you of all your belongings and handing you a playing card she calls your “room key”. After leaving all your possessions behind your only choice is to follow a dark hallway up an ever darker stairwell with sound of live jazz playing in the distance as your only guide. As the music begins to get louder and the lights begin to get lighter, you find yourself reaching a 1930’s style bar. This is where the its all begins… an MC on stage is calling out card numbers “4 and 5 you’re up…6 on deck…7and 8 have a drink your time has not yet come”. The numbers refer to your “room key” a lady whispers in my and my sisters ear. A number…#4 that was my entrance into one of New Yorks most talked about shows: Sleep No More, and so following those who also had “lucky” #4, I was herded through a pair of black curtains into a freight elevator, handed a Venetian-carnival style mask and told that the only two rules were: NEVER take off the mask and NEVER speak, to ANYONE!.

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You may be wondering how could fashion have any kind of role in Sleep No More, and at first I thought the same, I saw the connection between Fashion and Sleep No More as a challenge and did not know how the power structures and underlying ideologies that exist in fashion today, were in the show, but I knew they HAD to be. The more I thought about the show however, the more I began to see Sleep No More as an analogy to the world we know as fashion. Bear with me…

Like fashion, Sleep No More, is created from an experience and participation of a live performance. However, unlike the streets on New York where fashion is the interaction and mutual awareness of both the viewer and the viewed (Davis), Sleep No More reduces the interaction to a world where the viewed is blissfully unaware of the viewer, in most cases at least. In essence behaving more like a movie in which the actors are unfamiliar with the individuals of their audience, Sleep No More, allows the audience to become a silent spectator into its private world. But, similar to fashion and somewhat distinct from a movie, Sleep No More invites and encourages exploration from the viewer especially through hands on experience: challenging the audience to actively question, follow, and go against what you are experiencing, pushing the boundaries of the body through use of space and participation, but with a twist: NO TALKING.

Elizabeth Wilson in Adorned in Dreams introduces the idea of dress as being capable of speaking for a person, and can thus be used a tool for distinctions between one another through means of dress. A concept that Sleep No More arguably was created upon, prohibiting any use of speech as communication from both the cast and audience throughout the show, leaving communication mechanisms confined to the body and its uses. Unlike a typical performance where the experience of the audience is in many ways guided through narration, Sleep No More, sets itself apart through a visual narration that relies on the audience just as much as the actor. It is up to you (the audience) to create meaning from what you are experiencing. Attempting to surface and challenge Fred Davis’ understanding of meaning in fashion as an unconscious act, Sleep No More forces the audience to consciously become aware of their environment through aesthetic elements, including dress. Unlike in our realties, however, where there are indicators and signifiers of what we should follow and like, Sleep No More liberates its audience from a world of restrictions and confinement. Similar to the experience of what being part of a carnival is to the world of fashion, Sleep No More acts upon the oppressive qualities of society by allowing its audience to challenge them as they may please.

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Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, the authors of From Carnival to Transgression, analyze the creation of a carnival as a challenge to the social boundaries set in place, particularly through fashion. They refer to carnivals and events alike as a celebration or “temporary liberation” (295) of an established order or hierarchy of power. I like to think of carnivals as a “get out of jail free card” where even the most basic rules don’t have to be followed, I encourage you to think of Sleep No More as essentially the same. Not only does the show allow its audience to become a member of a world where sex, power, gender, movement, and boundaries are continually being challenged, it allows you to do so as an anonymous guest, incognito, and without fear of being held accountable for your actions, including what you have decided to wear that night. Living up to the idea presented by Pierre Bourdieu in A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste where he states “the body…which is the only tangible manifestation of the ‘person’, is commonly perceived as the most natural expression of innermost nature” (192), Sleep No More allows the body to be the only object visible during the show, by providing and enforcing the wear of a white Venetian carnival-style mask, by every member of the audience. A tool that can be thought to homogenize the audience in order to avoid the formation of any power structures based on audience interactions with one another.

Whether you are the passive member shyly following behind the crowd or the member pushing your way through every closed door, no one in the audience seems to be interested in what you do or what you are wearing, because like them you are wearing a mask, and are for that reason symbolize “nothing” or “no-one”. Instead, every member of the audience is busy exploring the world of Sleep No More, by following the mask-less actors, shadowing their movements and actions, and experiencing the world through their eyes. What calls the audiences attention is the not the hundreds of white masks they run by or are running next to, instead it is those who are not wearing masks and are wearing “drop-dead, Deco-era evening clothes, scanty lingerie or nothing at all…” that entice the audience through their body movement and incredible control of an unknown space(N.Y. Times) In his article Do Clothes Speak? What Makes Them Fashion? Fred Davis mentions, “Even more so that the utterances produced in everyday face-to-face interactions, the clothing fashion code is highly context dependent” (151), a statement, which could not be anymore true for the world of Sleep No More. We are forced to rely purely on context (in a space where we are essentially aliens) that can be interpreted infinite amount of ways depending on the experience of the viewer.

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Thinking about fashion and the creation of dress and Sleep No More, and its unorthodox character, there seems to be an authentic connection between the two. Dress is constructed by a person or group of people who are intending to deliver a message to someone else, they are trying to convey some idea they have, whether of themselves or of the world, for others to interpret. Sleep No More is doing just the same. By constructing a five-story alternate world the creators of Sleep No More are urging their viewers to push the limits and boundaries that constrict their everyday lives, even if its just for two and a half hours. Like Punk, Rastafarian, Hipster, and other subcultural fashion styles, Sleep No More is attempting to counter the culture that dominates our society today. Like all other aspects of mainstream culture, fashion has come to be understood as a powerful tool of communication (if done the right way) or a marginalizing one (if done the wrong way). Sleep No More is trying to break the binary that cultural hierarchies have created by showing us a world in which we are not judged by our actions and decisions, i.e. how we dress and represent ourselves to the world. Unlike the world of fashion where every choice is scrutinized by what is “in” or “out”, creating a transparent self for society, Sleep No More literally masks the self, encouraging silent and therefor inner exploration from its comment-less spectators that are forced to focused on discovery rather than conformity.

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Work Cited:

Bourdieu, Pierre. “Introduction and Chapter 1: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste.” Distinction: A Social  Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1984. 1-209

Brantley, Ben. “Shakespeare Slept Here, Albeit Fitfully.” Nytimes.com. N.p., 3 Apr. 2011. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/14/theater/reviews/sleep-no-more-is-a-macbeth-in-a-hotel-review.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0&gt;

Davis, Fred. “Chapter 13: Do Clothes Speak? What Makes Them Fashion?” Fashion Theory: A Reader. By Malcolm Barnard. London: Routledge, 2007. 147-58.

Veblen, Thorstein. “Conspicuous Leisure.” The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Dover Publications, n.d. 23-71.

Wilson, Elizabeth. “Chapter 7: Fashion and City Life.” Adorned In Dreams Fashion and Modernity. United Kingdom: I.B. Taurus and Co, 2003. 134-289.

White, Allon. “From Carnival to Transgression (1986).” By Peter Stallybrass.293-301.

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