Spider-Man Sews: How the hyper-masculine superhero emerges from the feminine and domestic act of costuming

Superheroes represent a hyper-masculinised stereotype. They are characterised by masculine traits of physical strength and muscular physiques, along with aggressive tendencies (manifested in their physical, combative engagement with villains). An equally important aspect of the superhero genre is the costume. … Continue reading

Halloween Costumes: An excuse for mischief

Trick or treaters at Halloween temporarily replace their identities with those of monsters or demons. These costumes absolve them of responsibility for acts of vandalism.


Trick or treating is an ostensibly innocent act. The occasion of Halloween seems to permit behaviour that would otherwise be unacceptable. This is the only time of the year when it is acceptable for children to accept sweets from strangers, and to play pranks on those who do not oblige. It is not just the date that makes this behaviour permissible, but the costumes.

Clothes define a persons’ role, and invite expectations about their behaviour. In everyday clothes, we are retrained by a social contract that only permits polite and courteous behaviour. A costume, however, is an “open proclamation of departures in behaviour”. A Halloween costume “announces that the wearer is stepping out of character and into a new constellation of imagery or unusual social relationships”[1]. Dressed as a wicked witch or whimsical skeleton, we are permitted to do things that might otherwise be unacceptable.

Screen shot 2013-10-27 at 16.35.18

Halloween costume is a licence to act outside the law, by transforming acts that might otherwise be perceived as vandalism into apparently harmless pranks. Trick or treaters might throw eggs at cars and windows, coat lawns in flour, or drape toilet paper over hedgerows. Since these ‘tricks’ are performed in costume, they are not perceived as criminal damage, but merely as a mild nuisance.

This happens because a costume is a tool of deindividuation. By “removing personal identification” costumes also remove “personal responsibility”, and provides a “shield from one’s own morality”[2]. This is particularly the case when someone is part of a costumed group. At hen parties, for example, a bride-to-be and her friends will dress up according to a set theme. These costumes create a bond between the members of the group, much like a uniform. This deindividualises the members of the group, and they are seen as acting as a single drunken mob, entitled to be more rowdy than if they were partying in their usual clothes.

Likewise, in the notorious masquerade balls of the eighteenth century, the mask enabled escape from moral integrity. At a masquerade ball, party-goers would engage in sexual liaisons that would otherwise be forbidden, as if the masks had given them licence for deviance[3].

What differentiates Halloween costumes from these other decorative masks is that they are ghoulish; the scarier the better. This aligns them less with other fancy dress, and more with the ritual wearing of masks in religious and shamanistic traditions. It is the case in ritual, including common festival practice such as Halloween, that demon masks are used to ward off evil rather than invoke it. Ghoulish masks are seen “to provide protection from unseen evil”[4]. On All-hallows night, when demons and spirits were thought to roam the earth, costumes were originally worn to protect the wearer from possession.

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It is vital to note that the wearer of a Halloween costume is never perceived as having entirely transformed into the demon or monster that the costume represents. Rather, he or she is viewed as a kind of human/beast hybrid. Images depicting animals or mosters with human characteristics, and hybrid animal-human beasts, were a staple of ancient religion and mythology. Sometimes, they were deities, like Bastet, the feline goddess of Ancient Egypt, and at other times they were the monstrous product of animal/human coupling, like Ancient Crete’s Minotaur. The duality of this fusion of “human and the non-human” can be frightening, or at least unsettling, drawing attention to humans’ desire to perceive themselves as distinct from the animal kingdom, and discomfort at anything that spans that divide [5].

These historical animal-human hybrids had a special power and allure. Often, worshipers would present offerings to placate the beast, and to prevent its animalistic nature taking over from its more civilised human side. Offering food to trick-or-treaters has much the same effect. We appease the human side to prevent the mischievous alter-ego from taking over.


Although the presence of a real demon, ghost or ghoul on our doorstep would be enough to make us bolt the doors and barricade the windows, the human/monster hybrid is far less threatening. In treating these visitors, we seek to please the human who is hidden underneath the costume. This human seems worthy of our kindness, and by keeping him or her fed we prevent the emergence of the demonic alter-ego that might perform a ‘trick’. It is as if the treats are for the human, but the tricks are performed by the demon.

By presenting themselves as a human/monster hybrid, trick or treaters appear to have the potential to give in to evil urges, but also to be retrained by human culture. They have the potential ferocity of a beast, but also the civility of a human. This reassures those who provide treats that they will not be the target of a trick, provided they appease their costumed visitors.

[1] Joseph, N., Uniforms and Nonuniforms: Communicating through clothing, New York: Greenwood, 1986, p. 184.
[2] Tseelon, Efrat, ‘Reflections of Mask and Carnival’, in Masquerade and Identities: Essays on Gender, Sexuality and Marginality, London: Routledge, 2001, 31.
[3] Castle, Terry, Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century English Culture and Fiction (London: Methuen, 1986), 2.
[4] Bedeian, Ruth, Ritual, Symbolism and Imagery in African Masks, 2.
[5] Bahun-Radunovic, Sanja, ‘The Ethics of Animal-Human Existence: Marie Darrieussecq’s Truismes’, in Myth and Violence in the Contemporary Female Text: New Cassandras, Sanja Bahun-Radunović, V. G. Julie Rajan (eds), Farnham: ashgate, 2011, 69.

Skeleton costumes: http://finleyandoliver.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/diy-skeleton-costume.html
Ghost and Witch, photographed by Mandy Lynne: http://media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/15/88/aa/1588aaea725a6d20ad80f0f59177b651.jpg
Family of monsters: http://www.indiannewsandtimes.com/2013/10/19/kidville-india-hosts-spook-tacular-halloween-bash/
Brooke Shields family costume: http://www.vogue.co.uk/spy/celebrity-photos/2011/10/19/halloween-costume-inspiration

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.

[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

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