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Being A Superhero--It's About the Costume?

Why wear a costume? And why a specific costume?

I was at WonderCon--a convention for fans of comic books and related media--this past weekend. While there, I walked the floor of the exhibit hall and interviewed folks dressed in costume. My first question to each superhero was usually "Why dress in costume?" (I've written before about psychological issues related to wearing a costume--see posts here and here for more about research on wearing a mask.)

People reported a range of reasons, though everyone conceded that there was a bit of an "ego boost" or opportunity for attention that they might not otherwise have.

Some folks in costume are altruistic, like the folks above from the Star Wars 501st Legion and other Star Wars groups (see this post about some folks in that group).

These two gentlemen from the San Francisco Fan Force talked about looking up to (super)heroes themselves, and wanting to give kids an opportunity to have a hero to look up to; they also said that they feel like they "can do more" and can do things beyond themselves when dressed as one of their heroes. These men (and others from Star Wars Fan Force and the 501st Legion) dress up at conventions, but they also go to children's hospitals to put "a smile on the face" of sick children who get to see their favorite hero walk into the room. For these people, putting on the costume of a superhero is a way of becoming a best version of themselves. That's a powerful incentive.

In fact, other costumed folks I talked to also mentioned feeling good when kids at the convention want to have their photograph taken with a "superhero." (The Batman in this photo below mentioned that he doesn't particularly like kids, but when in costume he finds himself more interested in being around kids and more patient with them! This difference he experiences speaks to the power of the situation, and how context can override your "personality.")

Vixen, Zatanna, Batman, and Raven

The idea that wearing a costume allows the wearer to become someone else--a different version of themselves--was mentioned by many people. The magician Zatanna (standing next to Batman) said that she was usually a very shy person; when in costume, though, she felt more freedom when talking to people.

People also talked about feeling like a part of a community--that costuming enabled them to feel more deeply engaged in the community of fans at the convention. Of course people also talked about it being fun to dress up in this context.

My second question was typically "Why that particular costume?" Many women in particular talked about wanting a superhero costume because they feel empowered when wearing it. They realize they don't become the superhero, but they feel that they become a different person than their usual selves. Other folks talked about feeling that they were honoring the values and actions of a particular hero. Still other people explained that their choice of character was based on a physical resemblance to the superhero (height, for instance, in the case of Hit Girl, below, or skin color in the case of Vixen, above on the left with Zatanna, Batman, and Raven).

Hit Girl and Rorschach

Another reason for picking a certain costume among those who have multiple costumes: Because of a particular media event (e.g., an upcoming film release), or physical comfort based on the temperature of the venue.

Do you wear a costume to events (beyond Halloween)? If so, why do you wear a costume, and why the specific costume(s) in your closet? Let me know!

Copyright 2011 by Robin S. Rosenberg. All rights reserved.

Robin S. Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist. Her website is

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