Dressing to Impress
“No costume is no costume.”
WorldCon 42, 1984
Dressing up like a favorite character from a favorite novel, movie, television show, or video game is a popular and common event at conventions these days. People spend hours, days, even weeks creating intricate and amazing outfits to wear. Some are creating screen or book accurate versions, while others take a more artistic approach, sometimes even mashing together two separate and distinct looks, into one. But where and how did the trend start?
Costuming itself has a long history. Men and women have dressed up throughout time for ceremonies, especially religious acts where they may don clothing and makeup to look closer to their deities, or fearsome to scare away evil spirits. The act of dressing up in costume for non-religious reasons seems to have started on the Greek stage, with actors donning simple colored cloth and holding plaster masks to portray themselves as specific characters. Starting as early as the 1400s, masquerade parties and balls became popular, with the participants dressing in the manner described on the invitation. Jules Verne hosted several parties where he encouraged his guests to dress as characters from his books.
The first record of anyone dressing as speculative fiction characters besides at specific invitation is Mr. and Mrs. William Fell. They were a couple from Cincinnati, Ohio attending a masquerade ball in 1908 The pair were dressed as Mr. Skygack and Miss Pickles, Martians from a newspaper comic running in the Chicago Day Book at the time. They won first place at the ball. The first WorldCon (Nycon, New York, 1939) is the first convention to have people dress in costume. Forrest J. Ackerman and Myrtle R. Douglas (also known as Morojo) dressed in what they termed “futuristicostume” based on art from the movie Things to Come (United Artists, 1936).
Though they were the only ones in costume, the next year Worldcon held their first official masquerade. David Kyle took the first place trophy with his Ming the Merciless costume. The event also included the guest of honor, E. E. “Doc” Smith dressed as Northwest Smith from a series of short stories written by C. L. Moore. By the next year, the costumes were getting more elaborate, with Ackerman wearing a mask designed and created by Ray Harryhausen. The masquerades continued to grow with WorldCon. By 1944, the term used most often for the programming event was “costume party” among fans.
Rules were put into place and written down. They changed slowly, based on events and specific situations. Rules like “no real fire-producing props” and “no food as costume elements” were due to events. In 1952, the first nude contestant appeared at the masquerade. The trend grew in popularity through the 1970s and into the early 1980s, when the rules changed, banning full nudity around 1984. Partial nudity was still allowed, though it had to be a legitimate representation of the character.
Costuming wasn’t limited to just the convention space though. The Rocky Horror Picture Show premiered September 26, 1975, at the Westwood Theater on Los Angeles. A year later in September of 1976, a few people dressed as characters for a midnight showing of the movie in New York at the Waverly Theater. The idea of dressing as characters for the movie would catch on and a new subculture of people dressing as characters outside of conventions was born. The campy musical now holds the record for the longest continuously running film in history.
In January 1983, Costume-Con held its first event. It was the first event of its kind. At the 3rd Costume-Con (1985), the Greater Columbia Fantasy Costumer’s Guild was formed. This group would eventually become the International Costumers Guild, Inc. (ICG), one of the leading groups in both promoting cosplay and costuming as well as setting up rules for groups, anti-harassment policies, and workshops.
Japan would also become one of the founding areas for costuming. Starting in the early 1970s, Japanese students would begin dressing as favorite manga and anime characters. They dressed not only for conventions but for school and university festivals, bringing the experience to a wider audience. People searched for a word to describe what they were doing. The first word popularly used was kasou (仮想). Unfortunately, the word had negative nuances of disguise and hiding. WorldCon 42 would be a turning point for costuming. Nobuyuki Takahashi was attending the convention and was shocked by how many people were dressed as characters. He returned home and wrote an article in the June 1983 issue of My Anime titled “Hero Costume Operation.” In the article, he coined the terms kosuehuumu puree (costume play, コスチュームプレー) and kosupure (cosplay, コスプレ) to describe costuming as fictional characters. Thus, the word cosplay was born. “The term,” he said, “was a portmanteau of 'costume' and 'play'. It was perfect.”
As manga and anime became more popular and accessible in the West, cosplay also grew. By the mid-1990s, cosplayers had become not only an acceptable part of conventions but had begun spawning events of their own. The largest event to host cosplay features is the Comiket (Comic Market), held each summer and winter in Japan. San Diego Comic-Con and New York Comic-Con are two of the largest fan events in the United States. Each Labor Day, DragonCon hosts a huge cosplay parade in downtown Atlanta, Georgia. The parade draws a crowd of well over ten thousand people, lining the streets along the one-mile route to cheer on the participants.
The masquerades of old have changed as well, inviting both amateurs and professionals. Divisions have been created to ensure both fair judging and a way for everyone to participate. Groupings are divided by age, level of costuming experience (amateur to professional), type of costuming (historical, fanciful, media accurate), and presentation, Some of the masquerades include professional judging and the winners may go on to be invited to further competitions.
Unfortunately, there have been issues around cosplay and costuming. One of the most common has been harassment of people in the costumes. In 2013, a group started the “Cosplay Is Not Consent” movement to bring awareness of the situation into the mainstream. Harassment has included things from photographs without permission all the way up to groping and touching without consent. Conventions and competitions have continued to make people aware of the situations and created anti-harassment policies to ensure the safety and enjoyment of their members.
The amazing costumes cosplayers create, and wear continue to awe audiences as the years pass. In 2022, LibertyCon hosted our first masquerade in over ten years, much to the delight of both costumers and the audience. Cosplay and costuming continue to be an amazing and important part of fandom. We look forward to hosting even more participants in the LibertyCon 35/DeepSouthCon 61 masquerade in 2023.