001: Superhero Dressing
As a young child I could fly. Well, not really, but after first learning about Superman, I was convinced, determined that I could fly. To put my abilities to test I took flight from my aunt's sofa, my destination the sofa across from it, and in the brief moment that I was airborne, with the naivety and hubris that only a child could possess, I believed I could fly. I remember this moment not as a consequence of the injuries I sustained – if anything they reinforced the memories – but because it was one of those rare moments of my childhood that I remember, a moment of total liberation from self-doubt, the feeling of this great power within me, of invincibility.
Over the years and across the circumstances of adulthood, I have felt an absence of that power, of invincibility, a depletion of that child-like faith in myself. I am no longer my own superhero and those who are chosen to lead us, who are meant to protect us and ensure a semblance of stability (or at least are paid to do so) only fail us. In the absence of stability a feeling of overwhelming fragility can pervade, exacerbated by capitalism's refusal to let us stop, take stock, catch a breath. Joy can feel unattainable and permitting ourselves even a fleeting instance of joy in the midst of so much crisis is superseded by guilt. With so much that is wrong, the desire to feel good in spite of it has felt foolish, a gross privilege.
In times like these or even during the lulls when we are not provoked to use phrases like "in times like these," fashion can seem exceptionally callous. In the best and worst of times fashion is often stripped of any other meaning other than being strictly utilitarian, clothes on the body, or as a tool of commodity fetishism, money in the pocket. There is, however, a tendency overlook how fashion can also be political, how it communicates race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, how it can be a signifier of resistance, revolution or repression, the demand to be free or the stifling of freedom by those who have taken it upon themselves to dictate how one should be free. It can communicate great gulfs of emotion, strength or grief, joy or sadness when words will not suffice, a barometer for our mental wellbeing. How I dress is often how I commune with myself and with others.
Growing up, my mother always emphasized the importance of getting dressed, marked by her belief that doing so had the power to make us feel better about ourselves or more assured in times of wavering faith. And it appears that there is some truth to this. In an article about how fashion can impact our mental wellbeing, fashion psychologist Camay Abraham encourages dressing for how we want to feel, focusing on how we aspire to feel instead of how we are feeling. Abraham's direction is rooted in the science of enclothed cognition. Enclothed cognition is the systemic influence clothes have on the wearer's psychological processes. The term was coined by two researchers in a paper for the Journal of Experimental Psychology and argues that the experience of wearing clothes can cause people to "embody" the clothing and its symbolic meaning; when clothing is worn, it can influence the wearer's psychological processes, activating associated abstract concepts through the clothing's symbolic meaning.
Here I want to make a case for Superhero Dressing. By Superhero Dressing, I mean a way of adorning ourselves which not only encompasses our power and takes up space – a sartorial assertion – but which also harnesses our former child-like faith in ourselves, that if we fall down we will indeed get back up again. I propose a way of dressing wherein we are our own superheroes, as a way of granting ourselves an iota of grace as a response to senses of fear, anxiety, and more acutely, helplessness.This idea came to me while watching Valentino's fall/winter show, the stage and some of its actors resplendent in bright pink while others juxtaposed in a brilliant black. In the show's final minutes, the 57 year-old supermodel Kristen McMenamy wafted across the pink stage in a pink chiffon gown with matching elbow-length gloves, a pink cape floating from behind her outstretched arms, balancing her and at the same time as if to propel her forward.
Draped in a color typically reserved for performances of hyper-femininity, McMenamy appeared anything but: here she transformed into a superhero, from the excess of her cape to her countenance of resolute faith, one possibly fueling the other, she exuded an aura of possibility or dare I say even invincibility. It made me think about some of my own pieces of clothing that instill me with courage each time they are worn, such as an electric green silk-satin long dress by Bernadette Antwerp, which incidentally bears a cape, or a navy Jacquemus top with sleeves so voluminous I have to take up space, even if my natural state should resist it. I feel this way when I wear a sari too: courageous and filled with pride and a renewed sense of self, I stand taller, my head held high.
When so much is going wrong in our worlds there can be an insistence that can come from within us or from those around us to constantly mourn and forgo joy or any modicum of normalcy. There is a denial of the beautiful gift we have as human beings, to be so multifaceted that we can harbor grief, tenderness, anger and love all at once. For those of us whose roots are in countries that resisted occupation, rose up against colonial forces and fought till the very guarantee of liberation, our cultures have cultivated a space for joy in spite of crisis for generations. This is why rest is so radical and refueling the mind and body are so critical – so that we can sustain ourselves, our loved ones, and the wider world around us.
Superhero Dressing isn't a foolish denial of hardships. We tend to forget that for many of us we in fact rise to be our own superheroes, finding a way to stand up when forces attempt to render us powerless. Fashion certainly can't radically change the world we occupy, but I find that how I dress at the very least affects how I view my place in it. There is a demonstration of fearlessness in simply dressing for how we want to feel. If dressing up impacts our mental wellbeing, I encourage that we not only dress up but dress exuberantly to honor that child who believed in invincibility, who knew that should they fall, they would get back up again.