Fancy Dress Without Limits

My husband is preparing to attend a fancy dress party. He will be going as Ace Rimmer, an alternate-reality space pilot from the TV series, Red Dwarf. I won’t reveal how much he has spent on the costume except to say that it is more than I would spend on a party dress. He has spent several weeks sourcing the various components of the costume. It’s crowning glory is a genuine military bomber jacket. 
It is not unusual for my husband’s colleagues to go overboard with their fancy dress, but their wardrobes pale in comparison to the attire on parade at Comic-con. Pop-culture fans come together annually in San Diego to share their passions, and to express them in part through costume. Exclusivity is a central theme of the event. Memorabilia manufacturers and publishers make goods exclusively available to attendees; production companies reveal new, previously unseen footage from upcoming films and shows; fans display their custom or limited-edition costumes. An authentic, branded costume is comparable in price to an haute-couture dress. It is not unusual for a costume to set a fan back hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Even in Britain, where we have no equivalent event on the scale of Comic-Con, a replica Judge Dredd costume retails for close to £2000[1]. These excessive price tags quantify a fan’s devotion to their favourite fictional character, and turn fandom in to exclusive club that invites only members who can demonstrate tangible commitment.

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The cultural artefacts on display at Comic-Con typically originate from twentieth- and twenty-first century media. Extravagant cosplay, however, has a longer history. Late 19th century masquerade balls and costume parties were notorious for their excess. In the 1880s New York, W. K. Vanderbilt’s annual fancy dress balls were the talk of the town. Her 1,200 guests explored their fantasies of aristocratic heritage in costumes modelled on historical dress of the French court and British monarchy, and were so concerned with authenticity that the balls became a kind of window on history. Every minute detail of the attendees’ costumes was copied from historical portraits. Guests masqueraded as Henry VII, Elizabeth I, and Marie Antoinette, among a parade of other memorable (or notorious) figures from the European past. Mrs. Vanderbilt herself dressed in imitation of a Venetian Princess, as depicted in a painting by Alexander Cabanel [2]. At least twenty of her guests suffered the unfortunate faux-pas of coming as the same character, Louis XVI.

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What was most remarkable about these costumes was the extent of authenticity. In many cases the garments and accessories they wore were not merely copies, but genuine historical artefacts. Alva Vanderbilt’s costume was adorned with pearls that had once belonged to Catherine the Great. At her own ball, Cornelia Bradley decorated her dress with jewels worn by Marie Antoinette [3]. Even where the costumes were copies, no expense was spared in recreating garments in their minutest detail.

It is noteworthy that these parties took place in New York, not Paris or London. New York society was populated by people with a very short family history. The guests were people with no genuine claim to aristocratic ancestry. Emilia Müller proposes that their costumes were an attempt to justify their status. The guests sought to erase the negative connotations of a nouveau riche lifestyle, replacing them with a more respectable suggestion of lineage. By emulating European nobility, they aligned themselves with acquired status, rather than achieved status. They sought to “legitimize themselves as the economic ruling class” by “buying history”[3].

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These closed worlds of New York society and comic-book fandom take opportunities to reinforce internal social bonds, while emphasizing difference from the outside world. Costumes are indicators that they are members of an exclusive club. By making those costumes rare or expensive, they reduce the possibility of interlopers: those without the money or passion to acquire ‘genuine’ artefacts.

References
[1] Complete Judge Dredd outfit, for sale at £1995 at Planet Replica, http://webshop.planetreplicas.com/epages/es140885.sf/en_GB/?ObjectPath=/Shops/es140885/Products/PR_REPLICA_FULL01/SubProducts/PR_REPLICA_FULL01-0003
[2] W. A. Croffut, The Vanderbilts and The Story of Their Fortune, Kessinger, 2003.
[3] Emilia Müller, ‘Fashion & Fancy in New York: The American Monarchs,’ paper presented at Fashion: Exploring Critical Issues, Oxford, September 2011. http://www.inter-disciplinary.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/muellerfapaper.pdf
See also: http://thehistorybox.com/ny_city/society/articles/nycity_society_balls_dances_article00238.htm

Images:
Comic-Con costumes: http://funkyforyou.wordpress.com/2012/07/18/coolest-comic-con-costumes/ and http://www.columbusalive.com/content/blogs/sensory-overload/2011/10/a-newbies-first-comic-con.html
Alva Vanderbilt in costume: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Alva_Vanderbilt_1883_Costume_Ball.jpg
House of Worth costumes: http://flickrhivemind.net/Tags/houseofworth/Interesting

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