Last weekend I did some pretty serious shopping-— by that I mean I went to a single vintage/consignment shop and basically bought a new Fall wardrobe for pretty cheap. One of my favourite dresses to come out of the trip (to Common Sort, a secondhand store in Parkdale) is a red minidress with buttons down the front and a perky white collar. It’s super cute on its own, but I really only bought it because it reminds me of a dress worn by Veruca Salt in the 1971 movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: the spoiled rich girl character who wants a golden goose so badly she performs an angsty musical rendition called “I Want It Now,” only to meet an untimely fate in the garbage chute.
Veruca Salt was a horrible, entitled bitch, but it’s not hard to imagine her getting everything in the world she could ever want while wearing that prim red dress. Veruca Salt is certainly not a role model-— her demise was a cautionary tale for greedy children, but it sure is fun to put on the dress and pretend everything in the world is going my way. It’s not that I want to be Veruca Salt, not at all, it’s just that dressing like fictional characters allows us to temporarily explore something outside ourselves, and revel in an identity that isn’t our own.
Fashion is one of the most important signifiers of identity that we present to the outside world. We use clothing to help make our outsides match our insides. But, sometimes, we’re presented with insurmountable challenges and certain articles of clothing can help us relinquish the mundane difficulties of life, if only for a moment.
Dressing like characters can help us to channel something inside ourselves that we may not possess otherwise, like the otherworldly confidence of Miss Veruca Salt. If you need to harden your exterior so the negative aspects of reality don’t sink in too deep, why not dress like Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Xena, Warrior Princess?
Clothing cannot solve your problems, but it can change your attitude towards them. In Grade 11 math, my class had a really weird, old teacher who, when he wasn’t teaching us SOHCAHTOA, would tell us to dress up on test days because if you look good, then you will feel better about yourself and achieve higher grades. Seems pretty logical to me, considering the disturbing results of a University of Michigan study, which tested the math scores of men and women wearing plain clothes and swimsuits. The men scored the same no matter what they were wearing, but the women scored much lower when they took the test in swimwear. In wearing themed outfits, you can channel the admirable qualities of a character and leave the negative ones behind — you are still yourself underneath all those clothes, after all.
It helps to have another identity readily available when you’re unhappy with your own. From an early age, in a bid to both define ourselves and learn how to fit into an archetype, girls learn to identify with characters other than their own. During elementary school, my friends and I would determine which Spice Girl or Powerpuff Girl we would play as for the duration of recess. We wanted to see ourselves as part of a phenomenon, but also to figure out which of our own characteristics were represented by characters in the media. Are we the angry brunette or the dizzy blonde? No one is that simple in real life, but at least we have a choice.
While most of us stop dressing in costumes as we get older (save for Hallowe’en), those who do engage in cosplay, the practice of replicating specific fictional characters. Cosplay is a mainstay of geek culture, and those who engage in the practice mostly do so at fan conventions like Comic-Con and Anime North. Essentially, cosplayers perform an extreme version of something I do every single day: dress to project confidence, expertise, or allure.
Toronto’s own Carol Zara is a cosplayer extraordinaire and runs the geek-girl blog Digitally Blonde. Zara has engaged in cosplay all over North America, and has dressed up as girl versions of Marty McFly and Clark Kent, as well as April O’Neil of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and more abstractly, the Twitter bird. Zara tends to veer towards more obscure characters, ones “nobody else has done yet or they just haven’t [done well].” For Zara, an important part of her brand of cosplay is lending sex appeal to fictional characters. To cosplay April O’Neil, Zara got a yellow jumpsuit custom made, and added “deep front cleavage all the way to [her] belly button, with a bright pink bra showing, a funky belt and a pair of yellow Ray Bans.” She ended up meeting some of the creators of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, who told her “you’re just like what we thought she should look like in real life” – one of the highest compliments a cosplayer could receive.
The reason why Zara picks her specific characters is because she feels strongly about them in the first place. “If I’ve ‘cosplayed’ as a character, it’s because I have a connection with it,” says Zara. It seems cosplay is more than just acting out a character: it provides a new form of personality expression, and is also a great way to meet your heroes at fan conventions.
Dressing up like characters is partially about stepping outside your own boundaries and partially about presenting a better version of yourself to the outside world. Perhaps learning to dress like yourself is the most complicated task of all.
Isabel Slone is a Toronto-based fashion blogger and writer. Follow her on Twitter at @isabelslone.