From paintings and photographs to film and fashion, art is a fully sensory form of storytelling — and the best of it doesn’t just make us feel something; it says something. Like anything that’s been around for millennia, art continually changes, grows, and takes on new shapes and forms. In this series, Shondaland steps into today’s world of art and gets a taste for the trends, themes, and people who are making contemporary art what it is — now and for centuries to come.
There are people who like clothes, people who are stylish, and then people who make getting dressed a kind of art. On the most basic level, clothes are a necessity. We need shirts and pants to protect us from the elements (and, depending on where you live, protection from violating laws about public nudity). We also need clothes to show respect for an occasion — which is why you wouldn’t wear a tracksuit to a funeral — to show rank, or to show belonging, as we do when we put on our favorite band T-shirt or sports jersey.
But it’s one thing to look nice, or even pluck a designer outfit off a rack at a fancy department store; it’s something else entirely to use clothes to make a grand, unmistakable statement that no one else can. You’ve seen these people: that one “kooky” lady in your community who wears a feather boa to the grocery store, the man who wears a crisp shirt and impeccably knotted tie when everyone else around him is fine in jeans. As part of a series focused on art and how we view art today, Shondaland spoke with three people who elevate getting dressed into a sacred, almost spiritual experience — people who make getting dressed into a type of art. Check them out, and be inspired!
Mecca Williams, Richmond, Virginia
Somewhat ironically, it took Mecca Williams’ own struggles with anxiety and depression to see the healing power of clothes. A licensed therapist in Richmond, Virginia, Williams counsels people with mental-health, substance-abuse, depression, anxiety, and relationship issues by day, but, about four years ago, she was quietly suffering herself.
“I was experiencing a lot of death around me, and departures from relationships,” she tells Shondaland. “I would be on the floor in my closet crying, telling myself, ‘Snap out of it; you have to get dressed to be somewhere.’”
She’d always had an affinity for clothes and style — a passion sparked as a kid growing up in the small, mostly Black Southern Baptist town of Petersburg, Virginia. Her mom is Muslim and stood out in her traditional Islamic clothing when most people wore the standard stuff you’d find at the mall. Even though her mom wore stylish prints and colors, Williams knew early on how clothes can make people stick out, or feel restricted. She got associations about clothes from her dad too.
“My dad wore a lot of Americana, a lot of Ralph Lauren. He was inconsistent, in and out of my life, but he would buy me sneakers, and that’s how I would bond with boys.”
Flash forward a few decades, and Williams’ approach to getting dressed had become eclectic, to say the least. Named the most stylish Richmonder in the city by Richmond Magazine in 2018, Williams was known around town for wearing 1960s-style getups one day, an homage to grunge the next, bold prints and patterns that betray influences from India and Africa on a different occasion, and poofy tulle skirts for no occasion at all. Richmond is a fairly conservative town, and people tend to segregate socially — all the more reason Williams often turns heads wherever she goes. “I got a lot of compliments during the pandemic,” she says. “I intentionally would go to the grocery store in sequins and a big coat like, ‘I’m going to give a f–k when most people are just wearing leggings.’”
It was after those aforementioned hard moments, when Williams would pull herself together to get dressed, that an epiphany arrived. “For me, getting dressed is a form of mindfulness — a way of doing things with intention and awareness that takes me out of the past and into the present moment.” She started to wonder: If getting dressed could make her feel better and act as a form of therapy for her, couldn’t it do the same for other people?
She started incorporating clothing and style expression into her sessions with clients, and when that showed positive results, she took it a step further. Two years ago, she launched Style Affect — a mental-health project that aims to eliminate barriers and increase access to mental-health resources, increase African-American participation in mental-health treatment, and decrease stigma about mental health using style and clothes as a conduit. Funded by a grant from a local hospital, Williams’ Style Affect hosts panels and events around town. A recent one about sneaker culture sparked a conversation about how sneakers can impact self-esteem or lead to addiction or violence. One of the powerful insights to come from it, she says, was the idea that “When I don’t like myself, I don’t like you, and I am willing to take your life over a pair of sneakers.” Style Affect — the “affect” is an allusion to the psychological term referring to an underlying feeling or mood — has been so successful, it pushed Williams to help create a more comprehensive Black Mental Health Week.
She’s not sure where this work will lead her, but she is sure it’s a road she’ll travel down dressed like nobody else. “I look at my body, my soul, my self as a work of art,” she says. “When I get dressed, the intention is for me to say something without talking, and I want to make someone else feel. People say I make them happy or inspired, and that makes me feel great. But whether I get a compliment or not, I can’t be a slave to others’ opinions. Getting dressed makes me feel great. It can be healing if you allow it to be.”
“Legendary” Damon Peruzzi, Los Angeles/New York
“When I was a teenager, there was a Black mall and a white mall,” says Damon Peruzzi, the Detroit native better known as Legendary Damon to his nearly 40,000 followers and countless people who’ve attended one of his epic parties. “I always wanted to go to the Black mall. My mom said, ‘Why?’ and I’d say, ‘Because the clothes are better.’”
Legendary Damon is a man without limits or easy descriptors. You could call him a party promoter — he’s hosted rocking events in New York City for decades before bringing his special talents to Los Angeles in recent years — but that would overlook his work mentoring kids and volunteering for the homeless. You could call him a muse to celebrities (he’s been best friends with Kelis for more than 20 years and threw Jennifer Hudson a surprise birthday party in September), but that would overlook his activism, his content creation, and his history in the New York nightlife scene and his hand in helping shape it. Many of his outfits are attached to stories: the suit he wore while entering a club atop a white horse in an homage to Bianca Jagger. The purple suit he had made for a Prince concert, which impressed the late artist so much, he called Damon onstage to dance with him. The suit made of a disco ball for Kelis’ birthday. They don’t call him Legendary for nothing.
Yet there is always one way to define Damon Peruzzi, one descriptor that will always be appropriate: dressed to impress. We’re not talking designer labels here, per se, although he does have an affinity for Gucci, Versace, and Moschino — as evidenced by this show-stopping see-through lace romper the brand made custom for him. Every look Damon steps out in makes a huge statement: blasts of color, shape, texture, pattern, and over-the-top accessories that literally nobody else in the world could ever copy. “I always say my style is Liberace meets Prince with a little Elton John, but bigger,” he says. “You know that Coco Chanel quote that says before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off? I always say look in the mirror and add one more thing.”
If the maxim “More is more” were a person, it would be Damon, known for piling on sequins, fur, lots and lots of jewelry, and statement shades — sometimes in the same ensemble. He takes a lot of inspiration from music, particularly the flash and panache of old-school hip-hop, which celebrates excess and an in-your-face style of expression that some (read: boring) people might deem tacky. “If my house was burning down,” he says, “I’d grab my gold teeth.”
For Damon, looks are not about labels or even “fashion” the way most of us think about it now. When he first moved to New York, he started doing the door at the now-iconic Limelight, where celebrities and club kids partied until the early morning. To get in, you had to prove you belonged by flexing creativity and personality with your clothes. Who designed the look is never the point. “I love clothing,” he says. “Fashion is different. Fashion is expensive; style is free. Fashion is elitist, and it’s sometimes not creative.” He knows firsthand, having worked as a stylist for magazines in the late ’90s and early 2000s. “I didn’t love it. I realized quickly, ‘This is not what I want to do.’ It’s not that creative. It’s 15 corporate people saying, ‘It’s not blue enough.’ I cared more about how I looked than the people I was supposed to be styling. I’d pick something out and think, ‘This is cute for me.’”
He finds clothes everywhere, from the flea market near his place in Harlem to thrift stores and, yes, the occasional piece from friends.“Kehinde Wiley made me a couple African print suits,” he says. He’s had some clothes for decades, like the jumpsuit from high school he can still fit in or the silk Jean Paul Gaultier shirt he’s had since the designer became popular for outfitting Madonna. “I went to the McQueen exhibit at the Met and saw something, and I thought, ‘I have that.’” As you can imagine, his closets in New York and L.A. are packed to the brim, and though his collection is not cataloged, he knows where everything is in his head.
There is no formal process for choosing an ensemble, only instinct. “I just go with my first thing. No one believes me, but I get ready pretty quickly. I dress how I feel. I’m pretty much always overdressed, and I’m okay with that.” There are times when he tones it down, though. “When I’m volunteering, I try not to wear things that are too flashy. It’s gauche in that context.”
Legendary Damon doesn’t have ambitions to start a clothing line, although if the opportunity to work with an established designer arrived, he’d do it. Getting dressed for him is part of a comprehensive way of life –– a life of nonconformity, a life of music and fun, and a rejection of the complacent drudgery many of us accept as normal. “Clothes are like a second skin for me. People call me an artist. They say, ‘You speak through the way you dress,’ and that’s true. Not long ago, I realized I designed my life 100 percent. I am one of one.”
Shanelle Adams, Brooklyn
“I don’t say it to be arrogant,” says Shanelle Adams, a Brooklynite who moved to the U.S. at age 4, “but Trinidad is the blueprint.”
She’s speaking of the island’s Carnival tradition, which historians believe goes back to the late 18th century when French settlers brought the Fat Tuesday masquerade tradition to Trinidad and Tobago. By then, the dual-island nation had a populace of free Blacks, Spanish, French, and British settlers, resulting in a mix of traditions and cultures that helped mold Carnival into a unique spectacle — one that caught on in other nations and spread around the world. Most days of the year, Adams is an unassuming manager of an optical store. But once a year (give or take a few missed years, including 2020 for obvious reasons), Adams transforms into an eye-catching creation of her own design, resplendent in colors, feathers, beads, and wearable art meant to celebrate heritage and hedonistic delights. “It’s very pretty,” she says. “Everyone is there to have a good time; the music is wonderful. Everything is catered to giving you freedom.”
When she adorns her body with her Carnival costume, Adams is “playing mas” — short for masquerade. Outfits are created to be part of a band’s performance, an all-day, music-filled trek through the city (she’s played mas in Brooklyn, Trinidad, Miami, and Long Island). There’s a theme every year too. It might be “Zodiac,” say, or “Superheroes,” a jumping-off point for participants to ignite creativity and express it through fabric, jewels, makeup, and more.
Adams usually prepares two costumes for two separate days: the Monday costume and the Tuesday look. Monday is a more relaxed day — sort of a dress rehearsal for the big day. It’s not quite the full shebang but still an incredible party, with music and drinks flowing all day. For that, Adams will wear a T-shirt and shorts perhaps, but even that in recent years has started to evolve as part of a costume. And since one unmistakable theme of Carnival is sensuality and sexuality, some people will wear a swimsuit. Fat Tuesday, the day before Lent, is showtime. “It’s from morning to night,” Adams says.
On this day, she’ll wear boots with feathers and beads, elaborate makeup, and then a costume that varies depending on where she is in the band’s orbit. (Costumes are “front line” and “back line”; front-line people are the most extravagant, while back-line people are sort of supporting actors.) If she’s front line, as she often is, a costume might have a bra piece, wrist piece, neck piece, a bikini, and a backpack with massive feathers. It takes about an hour and a half to get ready and strap herself in, with elements stapled in place so they don’t fall off as she’s marching and winding to the music all day. A back-line piece can cost up to $900 or so; a front-line piece, $1,500 or higher. Recycling them for use another year is out of the question.
Carnival bands aren’t just for fun and show, either. It’s a real competition, with big prizes awarded to the band with the best overall presentation. As such, people who dance with the band — very often a soca band (a style of music derived from calypso that emerged in Trinidad and Tobago in the ’70s) — have to absolutely come correct; there’s even a screening beforehand and a vetting process to ensure the people playing mas are worthy to join the band. So, to say Adams takes playing mas seriously is an understatement. “It’s a competition,” she says. “Everybody can’t win. If I play, I’m going to go all out.”
Malcolm Venable is a staff writer at Shondaland. Follow him on Twitter @malcolmvenable.
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