Sequential Sartorial: Why Does Fashion Matter In Comics?
Costuming is important in art. Clothing is more immediately communicative than body language, and art communicates. For example, Lana Del Rey’s video for her 2012 release “National Anthem.” It’s all Jackie & JFK pastiche. Towards the very end, there’s that last ride recreated, and Jackie/Lana has on the pink suit. WRONG. She wears goldenrod. Her hat doesn’t even match. This, reader, is brilliant.
It’s brilliant because when Quantum Leap season five opens with an episode about the Kennedy assassination, and time-travelling protagonist Sam approaches Mrs. Kennedy in the hospital after having guaranteed her survival, I laughed. Because she looks ridiculous. It’s like seeing a clown. That pink suit is too damn recognisable, too mythic, too satirised, too pop! If you approached Don Draper, and his suit was designed to emulate the appearance of Batman on a normal work day, you’d laugh, too.
I see The Jackie O. Pink Suit, and I think “It’s an okay Dr. Girlfriend cosplay. Fabric’s a bit dodgy.” Del Rey sidesteps that and loses nothing because the “National Anthem” video uses sky-rise dioramas from modern mythology to give life to a nuanced and personal emotional story; it’s not about being Jackie Onassis. It’s about dying in your heart because your imperfect but deep relationship was cut off before you were ready. If the suit had been pink, the allusion would have been lost. Replaced with illusion.
That’s how costuming can benefit storytelling. On the other side of the scales, skimping on costuming can actively revoke engagement with a property. Case in point: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Character Quiet is a mute, bikini sniper, you know the score.
Except you don’t — something’s missing from that description. The era. This game is set in the 1980s. 1984. Can you tell?
I didn’t begin to care about Quiet until I learnt that she was an 80s babe. Metal Gear burnt its bridges with me a while back, and truthfully I should have listened to the tendrils of unease that began snaking (hurrr) through my heart when the player was given the option to stare at Meryl until she blushed. I don’t have the fortitude to let myself care consciously about sexist character design in three-dimensional video games. But I lost my shit, basically, and I’ve still got my resentment on simmer: I should be able to tell that she’s from 1984. I should be able to tell that she’s from 1984.
I don’t know what the crossover is, regarding my experience of life as a person who derives joy and intellectual stimulation from the consideration of changing fashions and clothing technology, and my life as a girl, then a woman. But I am a woman, and I do dig clothes. And I know that this combination of facts about a female person is expected and encouraged and belittled.
I don’t attempt to argue that it’s impossible that this character design might appear within 1984. I’m sure it was reasonably possible to buy and wear seamed tights, even low-rise ones. Doubtless, black bikinis were available in a variety of cuts. The individual, of course, could choose to apply kohl with no other make-up, and at any point in history, it is possible to find a woman who does not care to do much with her hair. But this amounts to a de-emphasising of fashion. A removal, or avoidance of, recognisable 1984 signifiers. A purposefully designed timelessness.
Pattern Recognition‘s Cayce Pollard, written by William Gibson:
She is, literally, allergic to fashion. She can only tolerate things that could have been worn, to a general lack of comment, during any year between 1945 and 2000. She’s a design-free zone, a one-woman school of anti whose very austerity periodically threatens to spawn its own cult.
Convincing there, sure. But that’s not what it’s all about for Quiet. Recall EVA from Snake Eater. A woman of the sixties, right? Can you tell just from looking?
No! Timeless. Dead. Fashion-negative. A fine look, wearable, but absolutely unanchored.
Okay, as discussed, it’s a personal thing. I like looking at era-specific costuming. I like being given an atmosphere through aesthetics. And that’s part of why I enjoyed Metal Gear to start with; it’s a very stylish franchise. It cares about looks and looking — it cares about the audience’s gaze. It does not care about what I want to look at, and what I want to look at is something that women, as a demographic, are expected to want. Metal Gear repeatedly disregards this desire whilst honouring equivalent masculine visual requirements: Metal Gear disrespects women as a demographic. I look at Quiet, and I can’t even be bothered to open myself to the attacks that will follow public affront re: bikini babes in everyfuckingthing, but I hear that she’s supposed to be a period piece? That’s too much. It’s too much. You’ve hit me twice. Fool me no more, patriarch. Game disk ejected.
This reflexive counter-rejection is the vein I was tapping (but failing to conceptualise) back when I read Marvel on the regular, when I was a teenager, when I was incandescent with — something: rage? injustice? a general feeling of “too proud to cry”? — about how Marvel’s artists just could not get over the idea that all women younger than “hag” wore cropped, tight t-shirts, and bootcut mid-rise jeans. That was the era of the empire-waisted tunic top! Do you own a window? Look out of it! God, I hated that. I hated that so much, and I wasn’t alone; many of us also felt this way, and none of us knew how to say what we were feeling: disrespected. Your version of women’s fashion is inauthentic, and you’re selling it to us.
I started thinking about a feature like Sequential Sartorial back in June when I read Juliet Kahn on Bee & Puppycat and girliness in comics for adults. It almost made me cry tears of joy, that piece, for what it was about. It matters, fashion matters, because girls matter and communication should be truthful.
It would be boring, see, to spend month after month talking about bad character design. I don’t want to explain why x makes me feel unwelcome and y makes me want to spit. Strength based approaches are all the rage for 2015, did you hear? Yeah, they are. And I’m a dedicated follower of fashion. Sequential Sartorial is pro-good costuming, probably generally pro-good street fashion in comics. I hope you’ll be joining me.
All the best-dressed people are.
It occurs to me that some in the audience doubting the communicative nature of clothing choices might benefit from this pre-emptive strike re: anti-fashion, that I’ll recycle from a few years back — Hank Green, for example, distances himself from “fashion” and “style,” but favours the nerdy tee. He prefers to write whatever reference he approves of straight-up on his shirt with bald text and pictures or sly and enigma-like upon his shirt with symbolically constructed in-jokes. That’s quite obviously, quite literally, far less poetically, communication via clothing (fashion).