Style Icon: Miss America Chavez*
“Being a superhero is amazing. Everyone should try it.”
—Young Avengers #1
Miss America Chavez is amazing.
She’s amazing for a lot of reasons. First of all, she’s smart, passionate, loyal, and brave. You know, good old-fashioned hero stuff, from before every hero had to be “anti,” and before “anti” meant “asshole.” But she’s also amazing for the way she dresses. Except that when you’re talking about Miss A, “dresses” isn’t really the right word. Miss America Chavez doesn’t get dressed: she gets ready. And she doesn’t wear clothes: she lives in them, fights in them, punches, kicks, rescues, protects, and flies in them.
Miss A’s clothes represent her. It’s impossible to overstate how significant this is for a female superhero. The costumes of male superheroes have always been powerful tools for making and owning the self; their colours, contours and crests proudly declare their mission, identity, and powers, transforming them into walking advertisements for themselves, capturing in the sleek simplicity of iconography a snapshot of what the hero can do, where he’s been, and what he aspires to become. Historically, this has been far less true of the costumes of female superheroes. Often derived from the costumes of male superheroes and/or prioritizing skin and cleavage at the expense of character, the costumes of female superheroes tend to lack deep meaning and individuality. Too often, the way female superheroes are dressed (and of course, the way they’re drawn), makes them more of a thing to have than a person to be; too often, female superheroes are vehicles of objectification, rather than identification.
Even though Miss A’s costume and name reference Captain America, it’s only one reference among many. She also references the superhero who originally held the Miss America name, beginning in 1943. The original Miss America was also pretty amazing: as introduced in Marvel Mystery Comics #49, Madeline Joyce is a teenaged “champion of the little fellow” who wants “a man’s strength” so that she can give bullies the “thrashing” they deserve (just a reminder: it was 1943). A combination of “science” and lightning grants Madeline’s wish, giving her super strength, speed, and the power of flight, which she puts to good use punching many Nazis. Both versions of Miss America also, inevitably, reference the beauty pageant, which officially began in 1922.
In different ways, in different situations and in different moments of reading, Miss A works with, incorporates, and rejects these and other references (Wonder Woman and Donna Troy also loom large). Miss A embraces her intertextuality, but tries not to let it overwhelm her. In Miss A’s hands, on Miss A’s body, the stars and stripes are a personal expression, always shifting and changing through a rotating assortment of jackets, shirts, sweaters, blouses, shoes, and even jewelry. But there’s a constancy to her transformations that makes her clothes an emblem of herself, like any great superhero costume should be. Her clothes are arranged around a common theme, colour wise, logo wise, style wise, and otherwise. Miss A favours bold, athletic silhouettes that incorporate the grandiosity of superheroic capes and tights but brings them into our world, into our malls, second-hand shops, and brothers’ and mothers’ closets. Which isn’t to suggest that her clothes—her costumes—aren’t grand. After all, bringing the sky to the mall can also bring the mall to the sky: in Miss A’s hands, on Miss A’s body, an oversized, leather, star-emblazoned letterman jacket is perfect for flying; and the right pair of red, white, and blue high tops can open doors between dimensions.
Miss A’s varying combinations of sneakers, cowboy boots, hot pants, bodysuits, graphic Ts, boxy crop tops, studded jackets, and wrist-length gloves are action-fashion. They’re clothes for doing-a-Jane-Fonda-workout-on-the-back-of-a-motorcycle-inside-a-hardwood-squared-circle-in-a-disco. Which makes sense: Miss A is a dimension jumper, so she has to be ready for anything. Her clothes highlight her body, but her curves are specifically athletic. Her spandex pants and short-shorts expose legs that are long, strong, and powerful; her midriff is taught with abs, not hunger; and when she pushes up her sleeves, her forearms ripple with raw power coursing up through her clenched fists. Her hair even manages to be luxurious and beautiful without becoming a fetishistic spectacle, bunched in thick, natural waves around her square, confident shoulders or tied back in a sensible, stylish ponytail.
And then there’s her shoes. Miss A wears a wonderful assortment of flats, another rarity for female superheroes. They may not be outrageous shoes, but they are believable shoes, appealing (to me) because they’re real: because you can buy them from Amazon on a student budget and step into and wear them. In the real world, I don’t hate heels; they can be fun, sexy, and exhilarating, whether you’re giving a lecture or dancing ‘till dawn. But when I try to picture myself as a superhero, when I close my eyes and roll my own slouching, narrow shoulders and try to imagine what it might feel like, inside all of my muscles, bones, and heart, to have the power to heal the world with my body, I cannot make a place in that dream for heels; every time I try to add heels to the equation, the well-remembered sensation of twitching, exhausted calves, over-stretched plantar tendons, and throbbing foot pads destroys the fantasy before it can even begin. For me, being a superhero means being able to feel powerful, sexy, monumental, and glorious without wearing heels. Because if I could fly, run faster than light, or crush steel in my bare hands, I can’t imagine why I would ever need the boost I sometimes crave in real life.
Miss A exists. I feel like I see her, have seen her, everywhere: on the subway, earbuds in, one eye on an old paperback, balancing without the bar; in a movie theatre, corner-back seat, watching the patrons more than the screen; downtown, knifing through the urban jungle on an electric blue vintage Honda; or at a comic book shop, leaning in the doorway, chewing gum beneath a towering, faded of poster Wonder Woman plunged forward in a metal bustier, baring her diamond-white teeth between glistening, scarlet, bee-stung lips. Sometimes, I think I see a flicker of recognition when our eyes meet, and I walk a little taller, fingers tingling with a strange energy. I haven’t seen her in the sky yet, but I know it’s only a matter of time.
For so many of us, clothes are a battle. But Miss A’s superheroicly individual spandex and shorts and sneakers and sweaters and shirts in stars and stripes chart a path toward liberation, into another world which is like ours, but different, a parallel reality with new opportunities to meet new challenges. Miss A doesn’t wear the flashiest clothes, or even the most original clothes. But she does wear what she wants, how she wants. Which is what really matters, and makes her fabulous.
Ultimately, Miss America Chavez dresses like a superhero. And that is amazing.
*Please note: the words above apply specifically to Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s rendition of Miss America Chavez in Young Avengers, Volume 2, #1-15.
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