Sochi Winter Olympics in Costume: Figure Skating

Olympic costumes are often tediously predictable. Costumes highlight nationality and athleticism, with skin-tight blues and reds typically dominating the Olympic wardrobe. Nationality is typically reduced to the colours of the flag, with perhaps only token acknowledgement of other aspects of … Continue reading

Cosplay, Spectacle and Spectatorship

The numerous cosplay photography archives that litter the web have provided the world with images of some fantastic costumes. ‘Participatory fandom’ is becoming increasingly mainstream [1], and nowhere is fandom more overtly expressed than in costume.

These online archives are not only evidence of the act of costuming, but also of the importance of recording costume events. Attendees at events like Comic Con may take the role of cosplayer or spectator, and both are equally as important to the fan community. Rauch and Bolton argues that ‘the cosplayer is really only half the equation: the other half is the cameraman (or woman), and there is a strong sense that the photograph is the privileged end product of the entire enterprise’ [2]. The spectator is a voyeur, and a record-keeper, enjoying and preserving the spectacle.

As in fashion photography, there is an ‘underlying assumption that the clothes exist to be photographed as much as to be worn’ [3]. Cosplayers have invested time, money and effort on their costumes, and are keen to preserve this demonstration of their devotion to a source text.

A cosplayer dressed as Black Widow poses for the camera.

A cosplayer dressed as Black Widow poses for the camera.

The term ‘cosplay’ does not solely refer to the wearing of a costume. The ‘costume’ is only one half of the story – ‘play’ (or ‘role-play’) being the other. Photographs can preserve both the costume and the role-play, often in the form of a complete recreation of a frame from a comic or film.  This act becomes a collaboration between cosplayer and photographer, as they stage a replica of a fictional scene.

superman shirt cosplay

Cosplayers pose ‘in character’, recreating a narrative from source texts. This demonstration of fandom is a collaboration between photographer and cosplayer, who must both have accurate knowledge of the source text to achieve authenticity.

Posing for pictures in this way grants fans closer involvement with the source text. It provides opportunities to demonstrate familiarity with minute details of the object of their fandom, thereby enhancing their status in the fan community, and also for the fan too more deeply embody his favourite character. In collaboration, the photographer and cosplayer work to ‘erase difference’ between the posed and original scene [4].

The desire to recreate perhaps stems from the origins of cosplay. Nicolle Lamerichs identifies it as a convergence of 1960s/70s Sci-fi fandom practices and ‘the tradition of Renaissance fairs and historical reenactment, as well as later practices such as live-action role-playing’ [5]. In all of these related practices, participation is a combination of costume and action, in which participants aim to remain ‘in character’.

Even when not directly replicating a source text, cosplayers can continue to play their role, inventing new narratives that are in-keeping with their chosen character's personality.

Even when not directly replicating a frame from a film or comic, cosplayers can continue to play their role, inventing new narratives that are in-keeping with their chosen character’s personality.

References:
[1] McCudden, Michelle, Degrees of Fandom: Authenticity and Hierarchy in the Age of Media Covergence, PhD thesis, University of Kansas, 2011, p. 2.
[2] Rauch, Eron, and Bolton, Christopher, ‘A Cosplay Photography Sampler’, Mechademia 5, 2010, pp. 176-190, p. 176, doi: 10.1353/mec.2010.0027
[3] Ibid.
[4] Jenkins, Henry, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, New York: Routledge, 1992, as cited in Josh, Stenger, ‘The Clothes Make the Fan: Fashion and Online Fandom when Buffy the Vampire Slayer Goes to eBay’, Cinema Journal, Vol. 45, No. 4 (Summer 2006), pp. 26-44
[5] Lamerichs, Nicolle, ‘Stranger than fiction: Fan identity in Cosplay’, Transformative Works and Cultures, Vol. 7, 2011, p. 2, doi:10.3983/twc.2011.0246

Images:
Black Widow cosplayer: http://geekxgirls.com/images/blackwidow2/blackwidow_cosplay_01.jpg
Supermen (left to right): http://www.fortressofbaileytude.com/supermanpodcastnetwork/?p=3197 ; http://www.organiconcrete.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/superman-alex-ross-2.jpg ; http://www.acparadise.com/ace/picview.php?p=s3422_355042&s=751#.UWW8K473C_E ; http://www.acparadise.com/ace/picview.php?p=s4515_667846&s=751#.UWW5rY73C_E
Superman v. Scoprion cosplay: http://cosplayquest.deviantart.com/art/Cosplay-Scorpion-and-Superman-293912338

Red Shoes and Riding Hood: Fairy Tale Costume and Identity

In fiction, a costume so often becomes inseparable from a character. Any visual medium (illustration, film, etc.) has the potential to permanently etch a connection between a character and her costume. When that vision is pervasive, as with Disney, the character and costume become so inseparable that other, existing depictions seem somehow inauthentic. Disney’s Snow White, in her puffed sleeves and yellow skirt, is now the overarching vision of the character, and contemporary illustrations are often forced to retain some features of that garment in order to maintain faithful to audience’s expectations.

Disney's pervasive vision of Snow White is the model on which numerous others are based. Any images which avoid this inspiration are perceived as being inaccurate.

Disney’s pervasive vision of Snow White is the model on which numerous others are based. Any images which avoid this inspiration are perceived as being inaccurate.

But it is not just in images that fairy-tale characters have been defined by their clothes. Fairy tales have a habit of reducing characters to stereotypes, identifying one or two core features, visual or otherwise, to mark characters apart. Female characters are sometimes reduced to item of clothing. In some tales, the costume either defines (Red Riding Hood) or overtakes (Red Shoes) the identity of the girl who wears them.

Red Riding Hood's real name is never revealed in Grimm's version of the tale. She is defined entirely by her clothes.

Red Riding Hood’s real name is never revealed in Grimm’s version of the tale. She is defined entirely by her clothes.

Red Riding Hood’s identity is so bound up in her clothes that we never learn her real name:

Once [the grandmother] made her a little hood of red velvet. It was so becoming to her that the girl wanted to wear it all the time, and so she came to be called Little Red Riding Hood. [1]

Her identity is so bound up in her costume that the cape has become the sole signifier of the character

Her identity is so bound up in her costume that the cape has become the sole signifier of the character.

Clothes play a central role in this fairy tale, and identities (real or apparent) are bound up in clothes throughout. When the wolf adopts the identity of the grandmother, he does so by dressing up in her bedclothes. Although the grandmother is given an identity beyond her clothes, it is this part of her that the wolf uses to apparently become her. The disguise is so convincing that Red Riding Hood does not recognise the figure as a wolf.

The wolf adopts the identity of Red Riding Hood's grandmother by dressing in her bedclothes.

The wolf adopts the identity of Red Riding Hood’s grandmother by dressing in her bedclothes.

In a version of the tale recorded in 19th century France, Little Red Riding Hood performs a striptease in front of the wolf [2]. Red Riding Hood is depicted as a seductress, and even where this incident is missing from the tale, much has been made of the connotations of the red hood, equating it with sin and passion [3]. To reduce the character’s identity to that of her clothes, is to deny her all other aspects of character that are not signified by the red cloth. She is primarily, and completely, the sinner or seductress that is implied by her garment.

In a lesser-known story of the brothers Grimm, Furrypelts, a princess is named for the cloak of “thousands of kinds of pelts and furs” that she uses to conceal her beauty [4]. In the more familiar tale of Red Shoes, a girl becomes possessed by her shoes in punishment for her vanity. Both of these tales begin with the assumption that young women have a frivolous desire for extravagant fashion, and the connection between clothes and femininity is central to many other tales, including Cinderella. This is a theme that I will investigate in a further post, so watch this space!

Furrypelts is named after her coat, sewn from all the furs of every animal in the world.

Furrypelts is named after her coat, sewn from all the furs of every animal in the world.

In Hans Christian Andersen's tale, a pair of Red Shoes possess a girl's feet until she is forced to cut them off with an axe.

In Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, a pair of Red Shoes possess a girl’s feet until she is forced to cut them off with an axe.

References:
[1] Brothers Grimm, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, reproduced in Tatar, Maria, The Annotated Brothers Grimm, New York: Norton, 2004.
[2] Tatar, Maria, The Annotated Brothers Grimm, New York: Norton, 2004, p. 141
[3] Bettleheim, Bruno, ‘Little Red Cap and the Pubertal Girl,’ in Dundes, Alan (ed.), Little Red Riding Hood: a Casebook, London: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989, p. 286

Images:
Disney’s Snow White: http://g-ecx.images-amazon.com/images/G/01/dvd/Disney/Images/SnowWhite6.gif
Red Riding Hood: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_FvmCyKhrGrg/TCrNxbQZy3I/AAAAAAAAAac/RsQQHDBAu0c/s1600/411px-Little_Red_Riding_Hood_-_Project_Gutenberg_etext_19993.jpg
The wolf dressed in grandmother’s bedclothes: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-9r0C2oxNj3U/Ty42FhxoKGI/AAAAAAAAD84/R4ZZuzGCiMY/s1600/Doré+Little+Red+Riding+Hood.jpg
Furrypelts: http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_ma7lynnC2g1qkevp7o1_500.jpg and http://a4.ec-images.myspacecdn.com/images01/109/2f30a03e2527e3e040cd8a8276e514d7/l.png
The Red Shoes: http://www.johnpatience.co/hans-andersen/

The Masculinisation of Dressing Up

Perhaps because it is seen as an extension of the frivolities and vanity of fashion, or perhaps because it is associated with children, dressing-up is a niche activity for men. Very few adult men engage in dressing-up, even on sanctioned occasions such as Halloween. However, a new generation of men are becoming more engaged with costume. ‘Costume play’ is seeing an increase in popularity, largely in the virtual world.

In multiplayer online games (RPGs such as World of Warcraft) the dressing and preparation of the avatar is a significant part of the player’s gaming experience. Janine Fron et. al observe that male gamers devote a lot of time and effort into developing their costume, justified by their use of terminology such as ‘gear’ rather than ‘costume’. Such terminology suggests that the avatar’s wardrobe is primarily a matter of function rather than style. Moreover, it is quantifiable. One choice of armour may offer more effective defence than another, enabling players to “treat the costume as a statistic more than a decoration or form of personal expression”[1].

dungeontwofivethunders

These gaming experiences “may also serve as an entry-point for men into dress-up, for whom its convergence with technology may dispel some of its more feminine  connotations”[2]. If costume can be justified as a functional object, particularly in that is associated with the very masculine act of combat, it can be distanced from feminine acts of vanity, and childish acts of play.

The notion of costume as functional object has also made the practice of dressing-up more acceptable to mainstream cinema audiences. Contemporary audiences find that the lycra unitard of Adam West’s TV Batman lacks masculinity (to the extent that articles point to homosexual overtones)[3]. Christopher Nolan took great pains to justify Bruce Wayne’s costume in his more recent cinema incarnation. The Dark Knight (2008) depicts the Batman costume as “pseudo-utilitarian”[4]. Lucius Fox, Batman’s equivalent to Bond’s ‘Q’, is employed in technical development. His role as innovator and curator of Wayne Enterprises’ vast collection of military technologies ensures the feasibility of an endless supply of new gadgets, many of which form part of the costume.

The Dark Knight Rises

In the real-world too, association with battle gives dressing up a masculine purpose. Battle re-enactment provides men with the freedom to dress-up, combined with the restrictions imposed by authenticity[5]. Such strictly regulated scenarios avoid the free improvisation of childsplay. There are sets of rules governing how the costume may be worn, dictated by the demand for historical accuracy. The act of dressing-up takes on mature and masculine associations with war and rule-making.

battle reenactment

References:
[1] Fron, Janine, Fullerton, Tracy, Ford Morie, Jaquelyn, and Pearce, Celia, Playing Dress-Up: Costumes, roleplay and imagination, paper presented at Philosophy of Computer Games’, University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, 24-27 January 2004, http://egg.lmc.gatech.edu/publications/LudicaDress_Up.pdf (accessed 10 February 2013)
[2] Ibid.
[3] Daniels, Les, Batman: The Complete History. Chronicle Books, 1999, p. 84.
[4] Chabon, Michael, ‘Secret Skin: An Essay in Unitard Theory,’ in Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy, New York: Yale University Press, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010, p.18.
[5] Fron et al., Op. Cit.

Images:
World of Warcraft armour: http://www.blogcdn.com/wow.joystiq.com/media/2010/09/dungeontwofivethunders.jpg
Batman costume from The Dark Knight Rises: http://clothesonfilm.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/The-Dark-Knight-Rises_Christian-Bale-suit-light-mid_Image-credit-Warner-Bros.-Pictures-001.jpg
Battle re-enactment: http://cache.boston.com/bonzai-fba/Globe_Photo/2008/04/21/1208780080_9801-1.jpg