Superhero fashion can have more meaning when we take a look to its striptease. When Superheroes put off their civilian clothes and put on their spandex, they’re doing more than just changing their clothing. Even if it seems odd, Superman and Anthropologists share the same ideas when choosing their clothes. But how so? Superman, like many other Superheroes, lives in a fight negotiating the relationship between two different identities: Clark Kent and Superman. This struggle defines the Superhero as much as his costume. In fact, his civilian clothes and his civilian identity define him just as much. Having a dual identity asks from the Superhero to have two different closets: civilian and super, ordinary and extraordinary.
When Superman dresses up in his civilian clothes, what he is doing is doing a role, much like an actor. In his civilian clothes he is also doing another super important thing: putting himself apart from his super self, the Superhero. When Superman dresses in any of his suits, civilian or super, he is performing for an audience. In one, he has the role of what he thinks humans are: sloppy and clumsy. Because let’s face it, Clark is quite silly. But when he is Superman, he acts for the people in a selfless way. In both roles, he has an audience.
However, when Superman is Clark when he is just the civilian alter-ego, he has time to take back ownership of himself. He can now “relax.” However, his civilian clothes is also a planned construction of a character, as much as his Superman suit is. Thus, the civilian wardrobe act as both a way to hide in the crowd and as a performance, since he needs to perform an ordinary role for his audience: co-workers, Lois, etc. But, how easy is to perform being ordinary?
Choosing an ordinary wardrobe of civilian clothes is a difficult task since the Superhero needs to choose certain stereotypes within the culture he lives in and take the role to heart. Whoever the Superhero meets must never know the truth. So, the Superhero ends up relying on social rules. When we dress, we do it, not because of mere fashion, but because we’re conforming to a social contract and at the same time telling that we’re different.
Thus, the civilian costume that the Superhero wears to blend in and be invisible must be very convincing. So, when Superman chooses Clark’s wardrobe, he is also choosing a specific set of stereotypes on an ordinary man. Or at least, what he understands of what an ordinary man is. This means that Clark Kent is what Superman really thinks about us! (And let me tell you: it’s depressing!)
Not all Superheroes choose their wardrobes. Some already had their civilian clothes. Spider-Man doesn’t need to choose a new civilian wardrobe since he already has one. His only challenge is to maintain it! Said in other words, he performs the ordinary that he already knows, even if he has changed deeply.
But, what do all these wardrobe changes have to do with Anthropologists? Sometimes, when they are working, they need a different identity to gain access to close research settings. For example, think about an Anthropologist, who is studying a subculture, or someone who is studying geeks who play D&D but who isn’t a geek nor has played much or none D&D. This Anthropologist will need “civilian” clothes and fit certain “stereotypes” of that community to blend in. That Anthropologist might end up engaging in covert participant observation. But not only Anthropologists would end up doing some striptease à la Superman; other researchers might do as well.
In this sense, Superman and Anthropologists are very alike: they need civilian clothing belonging to that certain group to blend in, and they need to learn the customs and ways of the group so that they look like one of them. As participant observers, they use past experiences to create a model on which they construct their civilian alter-egos. Right, Superman was raised by the human Kents, but his origins are Kryptonian, and thus he needed tons of observant participation not to smash cars when the other teens couldn’t.
However, there’s a small problem: whatever the outfit, Superheroes cannot remove their powers. And so, Anthropologists cannot remove their selves when doing their jobs. Once a Superhero, forever a Superhero.
Want to read more? Try reading: The Superhero Costume : Identity and Disguise in Fact and Fiction.
Also, find more interesting info here:
- Geek Fashion: We Love Fine Marvel Superheroes.
- Lessons on Geek Anthropology: When Superhero Fashion Makes You Feel Super.
- Comics THORsday: Comics, Women and Fashion. Spider Gwen and Silk.
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