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What Do Storytellers Wear When Performing?
by Chris King

“Do you wear a costume?” asked the voice of the woman who had just called to hire me for a storytelling “gig.” “No” I answered, even though I do have my “special” wardrobe for storytelling. It made me think about storytellers and what they wear. There are as many different styles of outfits and “costumes” as there are storytellers. Let me count the ways — of dress.

Being comfortable is the most important. Just as necessary as being comfortable with the stories we tell, we should be comfortable in the clothes we wear while telling. I am usually most comfortable in long, flowing skirts or culottes that are easy to move around in, but for certain tellings I will wear sleek velvet pants with a dressy vest. It depends for me on the type of audience, and whether I am telling inside or outside.

Casual styles of dress work well for many tellers. There are many storytellers — mostly male — who wear jeans and a casual shirt. Often, you’ll find them sporting some sort of hat also. There is a whole group of storytellers who tell in rhyme called “Cowboy Poets.” Both male and female, this talented group usually wears the expected boots and western cowboy and cowgirl hats. As a matter of fact, there are many tellers, both male and female, who wear hats, and, usually, one particular hat or style of hat. Again, it all depends upon the type of story and audience.

Then there are the elegant outfits. As I say “elegant” I can picture long, flowing gowns and robes in rich fabrics and colors. These are worn by some of the most striking of the women tellers who also tell some of the most emotional and moving stories I’ve heard. I don’t feel that they dress in this same fashion when telling at schools, day care centers, and libraries, but I could be mistaken.

Most well-known storytellers have a “signature” style or look. I am always delighted when someone — a child or an adult — says to me, “You must be the storyteller. You look like a storyteller.” One storyteller I know always wears a large bowtie. Another wears suspenders. I’ve already mentioned the wide array of hats. There are quite a few of the women tellers who wear frilly gingham dresses that somehow speak of the past or of Appalachia. Others dress in black, while even more dress in wild and crazy colors. By now, you are beginning to realize what I meant by as many styles as styles of stories. It is really up to you, as a teller how you want to appear. I feel, however, that to become memorable, it is important to develop your own look and have your own “signature” style.

What about costumes? Do storytellers wear them? Should I wear a costume as a storyteller? There are mixed feeling about costumes. Costumes work as long as they enhance and do not detract from your storytelling. I know one fine storyteller who tells animal and nature stories. She dresses in Native American garb, but because she isn’t a Native American, I have heard bitter criticism of her outfits. I know another who has studied clowning, and sometimes comes dressed as a clown. I feel that in her clown outfit and face, she captures the children’s attention even more easily than when she is dressed in her street clothes. There are others who dress as a character from history while telling in the first person. Some question whether this is actually telling, or is it acting? I witnessed another who frantically changed outfits, hats, and accessories throughout her “gig” and it actually became disturbing and distracting. Most stopped listening to the stories and started wiggling, whispering, and giggling. Masks should be used with the utmost care, if at all, for they can be quite frightening to children, and even adults. And yet, I know another teller who plays the part of a Franciscan monk, dressed in a robe. He is hilarious and his costume just makes his story better and funnier. One of my storytelling teachers would sometimes dress as a rabbit, and was always welcomed with open arms and open ears.

How you dress as a storyteller is up to YOU! By now, I am sure that you have surmised that how you dress as a storyteller is entirely up to you, your style of stories, your comfort level, your audiences, and what you prefer. When I attend a storytelling event, festival, or a conference, it is always a delight to behold the variety in the dress, thoughts, ideas, and styles of the storytellers. It is, without a doubt, the most interesting, stimulating, and unusual group of people you will ever meet.

Enjoy being a teller and dressing like one — whatever that is!


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