Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Clothes Make the Man

In the pilot episode of My So-Called Life, Angela Chase dyes her hair red. "I know she did it to get a rise out of me," her mother insists, but of course that's not at all why she did it. She dyed her hair because she felt trapped inside everybody else's perception of her as the shy, quiet, yearbook-committee-joining good-girl. She did it because she felt that altering her appearance could somehow free her to be a different person.

Fairy tales are largely responsible for this fantasy, I think. Cinderella can be a scullery maid or a princess - it all depends on her gown and glass slippers. In "The Goose Girl," a maid forces a princess to trade dresses with her, and when they arrive at the palace, nobody questions their identity-swap. Even in "Little Red Riding Hood" the nameless heroine is less important than her defining attire. More accurately, perhaps, we might say that the heroine is her attire.

There is something intoxicating about the idea of recreating oneself with a simple change of clothing and, perhaps, hairstyle. My favourite stories have always been makeover stories: books like The Blue Castle or movies like Strictly Ballroom in which the dowdy heroine sheds her braces and limp locks and emerges as an independent, self-defined and compellingly beautiful swan.

Bub is not immune to the power of this fantasy. His favourite stories may not offer many make-up tips, but the common element is the moment of metamorphosis. For months after watching Brother Bear he would freeze in the middle of an activity, a far-away look in his eye, then turn slowly on the spot before announcing, in a hushed whisper, "I turned into a bear!" When his fascination with Brother Bear waned, the Incredible Hulk took its place. Bub was quick to recognize the link between anger and power, the way anger transforms mild-mannered Bruce Banner into a monster of enormous strength. The Incredible Hulk is not really a good story for small children. I'm just saying.

When we asked Bub what he wanted to be for Halloween this year, he answered immediately and decisively, "The Green Lantern." This response was surprising for a couple of reasons: (a) Bub rarely responds to questions about his preferences or about such shadowy, hypothetical future events as Halloween; (b) I'm not entirely sure who the Green Lantern is. He's a superhero, but is he one of the SuperFriends? What, exactly, are his powers? How did Bub become so well acquainted with him as to form a definite and unchanging desire to become him for Halloween?

"Did you cut the green shirt yet?" Bub asked hubby a few mornings ago. We exchanged glances. Hubby had told Bub about his costume plans, but we hadn't realized that Bub was actually listening. Not only was he listening, but he has become strongly attached to the idea. When asked what he's going to be for Halloween, his answer is always the same: "Daddy's going to cut the green shirt, and I'm going to turn into the Green Lantern!"

The Green Lantern costume has become something of a project for hubby. He has debated the various versions of the costume (Alan Scott vs. Hal Jordan); he has confiscated every round object from the kitchen in order to trace out the perfect logo. The costume is still very much a work in progress right now, but the bones of it are there: a shirt and pants in black, stretchy fabric; a green vest and matching boot-covers. When we showed it to Bub he stood stock-still and then breathed, "I love it!" He pulled it on, paused expectantly, and then his face fell. "I don't like this," he glowered. "I'm taking it off."

It's possible that Bub doesn't like the sensation of the stretchy fabric on his skin. But I think the real explanation for his sudden aversion to his Green Lantern costume is the let-down: he thought that the costume would allow him to transform, to metamorphose into somebody strong and powerful: a superhero. There's nothing more crushing than to pull on a new set of clothes only to find yourself unchanged: just a small boy dressed up in Nike workout gear and a shirt with holes cut in the sides of it.

38 comments:

WONDERWOMAN said...

I can relate, sometimes when I get dressed, I look in the mirror expecting cinderella and then, oh yah it's just me with makeup on. Not that it's not fun getting dressed up.

wordmama said...

What an absolutely gorgeous post! The way you've mixed metaphor with Bub's reality is just seamless and so touching. I can't tell you the number of times I did this consciously as a child (willing myself to be Wonder woman, Lucy from The lion, the witch and the wardrobe, a My Little Pony or Care Bear through costumes). The disappointment his hard every time.

Funny enough, I still do it unconsciously - putting on my power suit whenever I have a difficult meeting ahead of me or wearing my brightest, most colourful dress to a wedding.

I'm not sure if my powers have increased or my expectations have decreased, but it seems to work better as an adult!

gunky said...

it is through role play that one learns empathy and social norms . . .

we can't pass a cat on the street without my three year old saying, "i'm gonna be that cat! ok? and you can be that car over there!" then he meows and i rev my engine, and we start over with something else in a few minutes . . .

Niksmom said...

Oh to be able to harness the combined powers of fashion and imagination to make it so for Bub!

Of course, this also reminds me that I should probably introduce my son to the fabric of his cape to make sure he's not averse. sigh*

Mad said...

Bea is back IN DA HOUSE!

Miss M is going to be an angel for Hallowe'en. It amazes me how she just knows what she wants with no waffling whatsoever.

She still wears last year's elephant costume here and there. I honestly think, though, that she can make that imaginative transformation when in costume. That seems to be one of her gifts: the ability to transform herself totally using nothing more than her imagination. I wonder if it comes from having an actor for a father?

On another topic, I have noticed with chagrin how much she is starting to invest her sense of self into the clothes she wears. When the temp dipped last week, she was completely taken over with thoughts of her fall wardrobe. She wore a new (Value Village), shiny, purple velour top to school and I could just see her excitement as she waited for someone to tell her she was beautiful. Of course, no one did. This is a day care, after all.

Bea said...

Mad - Pie is extremely interested in her clothing as well, but so far it seems like a pure control issue. Nothing I choose will be acceptable unless it's very, very pink (but when allowed to choose herself she will occasionally permit orange instead). I don't think she looks for compliments yet, but last week when I came home from work she looked up and said - just like any thirty-year-old - "I like your skirt, Mama!"

Kathryn said...

Aww. I know. And your kids are so lucky to have you. Someone who understands that. So that when Pie dyes her hair purple your will simply nod and smile. :)

Coming from me. The girl who dyed her hair every color of the rainbow. ;)

Sue said...

Yes, yes, yes. Gosh, this is wonderful.

cinnamon gurl said...

Yay, Bea's back!!

We just asked Swee'pea what he wanted to be for Halloween but he didn't answer. He's very concerned with wardrobe though, probably in the way Pie is - for control.

And this is an unrelated stupid thing but I found myself fretting that his new daycare teachers keep going on about how cute he is, what effect will that have on him to hear constantly He's SO Cute!! Does that mean the other kids in his class aren't as cute? Does it mean his other qualities aren't as important? I mean, I know they're just being nice, but the subtext seems ominous to me.

Of course I've always hated those transformation stories, especially the teen movie versions because they always start with a gorgeous girl. I wish they could make a transformation movie that centred on people's perceptions of beauty transforming rather than the heroine's appearance.

nomotherearth said...

Oh, I've missed your posts.

I am having trouble getting past the fact that your husband is making the costume. Very impressive!

The Boy wants to be all sorts of things for Halloween that I consider way too old for him - like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. He doesn't even know what that is. We compromised on a turtle costume. (AND, if he THINKS it happens to be teenaged and mutant, well...so be it)

painted maypole said...

what? clothes DON'T make the person? when I put on high heels I turn in to a sexy an powerful woman...

oh wait, I was that before.

;)

by the way, this upcoming week's monday mission was inspired by your post about crappy essays you have to grade.

Jaelithe said...

Your child has good taste in Halloween costumes.

I made my kid a Flash costume two years ago. I went as Batgirl that year, too. (Cassandra-Cain-style Batgirl suit. Ask your husband.)

This year he wants to be a wizard. Which is really rather ordinary, but, I'm so busy this October that I'm sort of relieved he wants a costume I can easily buy at Target.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

Oh, I absolutely believe in the power of clothes to transform. A haircut, too. In fact at this stage of my life I'd say the clothes are required for a transformation.

I'm amazed by my daughter, who can transform into a triceratops just by crouching on all fours.

wheelsonthebus said...

I think you may be right. That may be why they obsess over their halloween costumes so much.

Leslie said...

My three-year-old daughter said she wanted to be a bird for Halloween. A black bird. So I told her she could be a crow and her daddy could be a scarecrow. I showed her an illustration of a scarecrow doing its job out in a corn field as the crows circled in the sky above it. She looked at that and said, "I don't want to fly up in the air." She's going to have to choose to be a crow that walks. Because that costume defaults to flight.

kittenpie said...

Halloween already?

I used to dye my hair on occasion in high school too, not so much as to change into a new person as just to change *something,* and it's easier than changing your life...

I do see myself trying to make myself into the more polished person who remembers to reapply lip gloss, though, any time I buy a new tube.

Pumpkinpie, meanwhile, is all about being a doggy, but needs no costume!

Andrea said...

Frances can definitely transform. She puts on her blue bathrobe with the cat ears and tails, and she IS a cat. She doesn't even need the robe--just crouches on all fours and meows and, presto!

I love the sense of magic she has at this age. She talks to things--squirrels, leaves, flowers, trees, etc.--and apparently, they talk back.

Lady M said...

We're waiting for another week or two to see if Q-ster still wants to be Darth Maul, his original request. I've already made the light saber, but that can be used for many characters in his current favorite universe.

I'll admit a fondness for makeover movies myself. I'm curious about "The House Bunny," but I think I will be too embarrassed to even Netflix it.

Beck said...

I remember feeling that way poignantly in high school... also poignant is the realization now that I'm an adult of how uninportant Angela's mother actually was and yet how she still thought decisions were being made because of her. OUCH.

planetnomad said...

My kids have been watching the old 70s Wonder Women show, with Lynda Carter. (It's unbelievably cheesy and awesome, if you like unbelievably cheesy) It's so ridiculous to have this gorgeous woman with glasses and her hair in a bun and have everyone around her going on about how plain and ugly she is! So I guess clothes do make the man/woman! (sarcasm, in case that wasn't coming across)
I love this post. Poor Bub...one of the hardships of maturity is watching our illusions shatter.
And Halloween already? You're organized!

planetnomad said...

P.S. My son Abel loves Green Lantern too!

Merle said...

Great post! Very funny too. Poor Bub!!

the dragonfly said...

I've always loved costumes; one of my favorite things about putting together a play in high school was when we dug through the costume closets. Even better were the shows that required fancy rented costumes (except corset = not fun!). Fairy tales too..The Goose Girl happens to be one of my favorites. :)

Bea said...

I know it's impressive that I'm thinking about Halloween costumes in September, but it's more that I've developed the habit of snapping them up at the same time I'm doing my back-to-school shopping because (a) that's the only time of year I actually shop and (b) the good costumes are all sold out by October. (My approach to Halloween, in case you didn't notice, is to BUY my costumes at Old Navy. If the kids want home-made they're going to have to go to hubby.)

MaggieO said...

There's something about that age -- when I was teaching, there were a few kids every year (especially of Bub's type of temperament) that would get super weirded out by costumes. They were always the ones who hated Pajama Day with a vengeance as well. Maybe his love of Green Lantern will overcome it. :)

Natalie said...

Just a note from your comment on Blog Antagonists site, Brick is by Ben Folds Five from their Forever and Ever Amen album

Sarcasta-Mom said...

I womder where he got the Green Lantern from. Such a random superhero.

Recovering Sociopath said...

I just re-read The Blue Castle this week. I think Valancy's transformation is part of its enduring appeal for me, too.

Well, that and the endless speculation: did they or didn't they?

Bea said...

RS - You didn't ever belong to the Kindred Spirits mailing list, did you? Because we used to discuss the "did they or didn't they" debate ad nauseum. (I was and am a passionate proponent of "they did.")

Recovering Sociopath said...

Yep, I did belong to the KS list. I remember unsubscribing in disgust, but for the life of me I can't remember what it was that had me so disgusted. I've been toying with rejoining-- like I have the time to read any more emails.

Bea said...

The list is very quiet these days. I got resubscribed a couple of years ago and there's never been enough traffic to make it worth my while to unsub again. And every once in awhile someone from the old days like Mrs. Rachel posts something worth reading. My heydey on the list was '95-'98 or so - were you around then?

Recovering Sociopath said...

I was on around 2002-2004.

The reason I was thinking of them lately is my sudden desire to do an LMM read-along via my blog. I've had enough reflective moments over her of late to want to discuss them with some other readers.

kgirl said...

Bea, this post is a perfect example of why I will never stop reading you.

I hope Bub finds a costume that empowers and pleases him. Meanwhile, it is good to have a geek on hand for just such occasions.

Patois said...

I've found that most major projects the kids undertake ultimately end up disappointing them. They really don't become mermaids. They really don't become Indiana Jones. I always find it sad to watch. That said, it never stops us from trying again.

Susanne said...

Oh my. I feel for him. And in the end he might love the costume nonetheless. It's all a bit complicated.

This post of yours resonates with me on many levels. For one, I still hope to change myself through changing clothes. I had a blog post in my head talking about becoming cool through black leather.

Also, I love, love, love the Green Lantern. And maybe it is because there are a lot of Green Lanterns, and all they need is to be without fear, and to get their magic ring.

I won't take over your comment section, only, my son wants me to make a dolphin costume for carnival. Preferably one that he can swim in. With real fins, please. And one that makes him be able to swim which he can't do yet.

I told him I'll try my best but that I don't know if I can do such a thing.

kia (good enough mama) said...

I can totally relate to Bub. I too know about the letdown experienced when a costume change or, in my case, a hairstyle change fails to completely transform me and my life. Poor Bub, making this discovery so early in life...

Chaotic Joy said...

I just read your last two post and Good grief have I missed you. I didn't realize it until now. What a gift you have for words, and what a gift Bub has in you.

lildb said...

heartbreak.

certainly not the last time, right?

big sigh.