Sophia Wang emerges from the side of the runway crawling on all fours. With her dark hair creepily combed over her face, her body is completely obscured by a draped, black garment. As she sluggishly traverses the runway, the packed crowd applauds.
At this fashion show -- plotted by artist Julz Hale Mary -- the lights are low, the music is bumping, and the ensembles are meant to visualize various states of mental health, translating feelings into fashion. Here, the outfit worn by Wang represents familiar feelings for many.
Julz Hale Mary, a Bay Area multimedia and performance artist who traffics in satire, hyperbole, and drag -- and uses the pronoun “they” -- named the night Trauma is a Party (of One). The concept: an attempt to de-stigmatize and de-pathologize mental health conditions by expressing them artistically as something you wear, then strutting them down a runway — mainly for fun.
“Femme people and queers tend to be the ones that are most enmeshed in pathologies of various kinds,” says Mary. “They were heavily stigmatized throughout history, and still to this day, just for being gender variant or not agreeing with the patriarchy -- so this is a very deep rich history.
“‘Crazy’ is the present-day pathology or stigma, and I wanted to do a show that queered that and celebrated it -- since that’s what being queer is all about… and basically I just wanted to look fabulous while doing it.”
Mary has worked at a mental health nonprofit for the past six years, and has been personally engaging in somatic therapy for just as long. Meanwhile, they’ve become a practicing performance artist, both in queer clubs like Aunt Charlie’s and more “fine art spaces” such as the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. With an assortment of wigs and a saccharine giggle, Mary typically puts live caricatures in comical narratives to bust open heavy subject matter and break down binaries of understanding. In this instance, that’s the dichotomy of “sick” and “sane.”
Somatic therapy, too, breaks down the binary between mind and body, treating them as one interconnected system. As Mary describes it from their own experience, patients are encouraged to understand their mental states in terms of the physical symptoms that they feel (rather than simply a diagnosis). “You’re like: ‘[Anxiety] feels really light and airy in my chest, but weighted down at the same time,’” Mary explains. “So the word kind of loses meaning.”
Inspired by that technique, Mary imagined what various mental health conditions would look like as ensembles. “I’ve experienced these things in some form or another,” says Mary, “so it was really just like, well, let me just do a little session with myself -- dive right into my body and see what’s going on.” Seamstress Bobbi Rohs then actualized the sketches.
For models, Mary chose artists that they admire: Wang, Craig Calderwood, Persia, and Titania Kumeh. On the night of the show, though, they're barely recognizable. Calderwood stalks the stage in a slinky, pink dress surrounded by a see-through plastic box constructed by artist Rik Lee Leipold. Another model emerges in a draped coat made up of a wrapped duvet, then drops it halfway through to reveal a flamboyant spandex outfit and manic dance moves. In another look, the model is covered head to toe (without eyeholes, even) in a long, fitted dress made of fabric covered in cut-outs of what look to be Mary’s anxiously clenched teeth.
Rather than announcing which outfits are inspired by which pathologies, Mary left those connections intentionally vague in order to eliminate the boxes in which people are placed by mental health professionals. “All of a sudden, it doesn’t look like, maybe, a bipolar person,” says Mary, “it just looks like someone is going through something.”
The fashion show was also framed as having been put on by a fictional mental health nonprofit. To that end, Amber Fargano and Vishinna Turner played “Cisters to the Cistem,” a kind of trans-exclusionary girl gang within the workforce that attempted to make all the models “jump through their hoops” — literally, hula hoops. The institutional jab also included a condescending executive director named “Dean Ile” and a villainous head clinician.
“There is such a dark reality of this supposedly feel-good nonprofit industrial complex and how it masks power imbalances through messages of equality,” says Mary. “So, I just really wanted to bring this darkness to the screen: The state doesn’t care about you as a client or as a counselor.”
The almost absurd dissonance between the subject matter that Mary chooses and their bubbly hilarious approach is a constant within their body of work -- and a strategy, they say, to help people acknowledge and process content that might otherwise just shut them down emotionally or simply push them away.
“I don’t think fun is bad, it just is another way of coping,” says Mary. “Kids do it all the time, and I was one of those kids, and I think it actually brought me a lot of joy and strength to tap into that playful childlike quality of role play.
“I’m not for everyone, but I’m for the people that want a site to process their anger and want to do it in a way that keeps them buoyant and that helps them spiral up rather than spiral down.”
For arts stories you won't read anywhere else, come to KQED's Arts and Culture desk.