Freedom as a Fried Egg

My interest in Costume & Culture arose as an extension of my research at the University of Hertfordshire, where I have been a contextual studies lecturer since 2004. A key source of interest for me is that studies in fashion frequently draw upon issues of identity. Identity is fluid, and dressing is a matter of identity construction. Clothing is the means by which we create and express our sense of self. The wearing of clothes provides us with an opportunity to transform ourselves: to appear smarter, thinner, cuter, richer, more mysterious.

While many clothes announce our identity, others replace it with one that is false or incomplete [1]. This separation of costume and self is a theme that runs throughout this blog. As my previous posts have shown, clothing can be viewed as a mask and a fiction. It conceals the reality of the body beneath.

Catherine Davies proposes that costume can provide a ‘shield from one’s own morality’. It becomes a vital tool in deindividuation by ‘removing personal identification’, and consequently also removes ‘personal responsibility’ [2]. In the notorious masquerade balls of the eighteenth century, the mask enabled escape from moral integrity [3]. For children in Halloween costume, it absolves them of responsibility for their mischief.

There are costumes that move beyond deindividuation to dehumanization, removing not only personal identity but also its most basic components – those that make us human. These are costumes modelled on inanimate objects, which strip the wearer of any aspect of ‘humanness’. Dressed as inanimate objects, couples in white interlock in imitation of a plug and socket; teenage friends wrapped in rainbow colours line up like a row of Crayola crayons; Katy Perry presents herself onstage as a fried egg.

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We can also find references to inanimate objects in surrealist fashion. However, there is an important distinction to be made between garments that feature objects as ornamentation, and those that fully adopt an inanimate identity. Alexander McQueen’s skull-print scarf did not present the wearer as a skeleton. Agatha Ruiz de la Prada comes closer to objectifying her catwalk models. Her F/W 2009 collection featured a garment in the shape of a durian.

Agatha Ruiz de la Prada F/W 2009 Durian

In these costumes, wearers are dehumanised; apparently stripped of elements of human identity. Inanimate objects have no self-awareness or self-expression. This is perhaps what makes such costumes liberating. Humanity carries with it huge risks and responsibilities. If we have personality, we are at risk of being disliked. If we have free will, we risk making the wrong choices. By temporarily escaping our human identity we also escape the burden of responsibility that being human entails. While we are in costume, we are unaccountable for our actions. Dressed as an egg, Kerry Perry can be as silly as she likes. She is free to defy expectations.

References:
[1] Miller, Kimerlya, Jasper, Cynthia R, and Hill, Donald R. ‘Costume and the Perception of Identity and Role,’ Perceptual and Motor Skills Vol.72, Issue 3 (1991), pp. 807-813, 808.
[2] Davies, Christie (2001), ‘Stigma, uncertain identity and skill in disguise,’ in Tseëlon, Efrat (ed.) ‪Masquerade and Identities‬: ‪Essays on Gender, Sexuality, and Marginality‬, London: Routledge, p. 31‬‬‬‬
[3] Castle, Terry, Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century English Culture and Fiction (London: Methuen, 1986), p. 2.

Images:
Katy Perry in egg costume: http://fashionisstupid.com/2010/08/22/katy-perry-as-fried-egg-the-hams-in-her-nether-regions/
Agatha Ruiz de la Prada, Durian dress: http://www.zimbio.com/pictures/trkLicgY14M/Agatha+Ruiz+De+La+Prada+Milan+Fashion+Week/04o7aspvlTz

Bat costumes – How derivative is Batman’s suit?

I do not intend to accuse anyone of plagiarism. However, I do feel that it is necessary to observe the similarities between this Victorian fancy dress costume (c. 1887), and the various versions of Batman’s suit.

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This costume, produced more than 50 years before the first appearance of ‘The Batman’, shares much in common with the Victorian costume. The position of the cape, and arguably even the headpiece with protruding ears, are intuitive. It would seem reasonable for any designer to independently interpret the bat as a costume with these features. The chest insignia, however, bears more similarity than coincidence could excuse. Both of these costumes bear a small, reductionist silhouette of a bat displayed on the chest.

When Bob Kane created Batman, it is likely that he would have been inspired in-part by Superman, who had appeared a year earlier. Superman’s costumes shared equivalent elements, including the cape and chest insignia. It therefore seems reasonable to assume that the Batman costume is an amalgamation of drawings of Superman and observations of bats.

Even if Kane’s costume design was directly informed by previously existing fancy-dress costumes, we must consider that Kane operated in pop culture, where ownership is fluid. Originality is about context and meaning, and less about appearance. If a costume was copied, at least it was recontextualised. In Detective comics, it acquired new audiences, and new meaning.

Images:
Victorian Bat Costume: http://mamamuerte.tumblr.com/post/25012162526/vintagegal-victorian-bat-costume-based-on
Batman: http://images2.fanpop.com/images/photos/5100000/Batman-Adam-West-batman-5193248-1024-768.jpg

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