Elizabeth A. Fay


On her book Fashioning Faces:The Portraitive Mode in British Romanticism

Cover Interview of September 12, 2010


I would hope that a reader would take my study and use it to think about how we portray ourselves—our characters, and our social identities—today.

We understand today that identity is not stable, and that we all experience a variety—or palette—of identities depending on what we’re doing and who we’re with.  At the office, in a subway, at the grocery store, cleaning the house, walking on a crowded street, chaperoning children through a museum: these are all moments when we take on specific public or private identities both for ourselves (maybe in order to focus on a task) and for others (to persuade others that we’re serious, competent, in charge, knowledgeable, etc.).

But how did this modern identity-play come about? And why are we both so facile at it today and so uncomfortable when public figures like politicians employ it?  What are the social circumstances surrounding our own fascination with identity portrayal? And why do we think portraits of the body and especially the face can contain a “truthful” portrayal? What secrets of the individual character do we think portraiture and biography (verbal portraits) can reveal?

Thinking historically about these questions can help us understand public posturing, group identity, group defensiveness, shifts in public personae—that kind of identity posturing that can be very sincere even when playful or quickly changing.

© 2010 Elizabeth Fay