Cosplay And The Glamour Of Dressing Up

Princess tutu Princess tutu backs

Anime Expo, the largest anime and manga fan convention in the U.S., took place in L.A over the long holiday weekend. As TV trucks from seemingly every network in the world staked out spots across the street, anticipating Michael Jackson's memorial service, anime enthusiasts played out a different sort of celebrity inside the L.A. Convention Center.

In Japan cosplay, or dressing up in costume as characters from anime and manga, is a form of acting. Cosplayers interact in character. At American gatherings, the rules are more flexible, with cosplayers dropping in and out of character, depending on circumstances (a good thing for reporters who want to interview the players, not the characters). According to the Wikipedia entry for cosplay, “By the late 1980s, rather than cosplay being a chance to roleplay as a favourite character, it was a chance to be seen. A new kind of cosplayer emerged — a cosplayer who attended events not to participate, but to be photographed.”


Posing for and taking photos is indeed a big part of the appeal of cosplay. Interviewing a group of friends dressed as Vocaloids, characters who represent voice synthesis software components, I was constantly interrupted as they posed for group photos. “It’s like you’re a celebrity for a day,” said one. “You get to be special,” said another. The promise of feeling special is one of the most powerful appeals of glamour. (Here's a video of a Vocaloid character. Here's a video using Vocaloid software to create the soundtrack for original characters.)

Demon butler undertaker “Participation” versus “being photographed” is a false dichotomy, however. Making, wearing, and being seen in special clothes is an important form of participation in fan culture, and in culture in general. As Anne Hollander observed in Seeing Through Clothes:

Since the seventeenth century most theater has been produced by professionals for nonparticipating spectators, but the ritual origins of theater have never been lost. The theatrical impulse to dress up and participate in special occasions has deeply affected people’s lives. The wearing of special clothing in the sight of other people has in fact often been arranged to constitute a complete theatrical event in itself. To make a show with clothes, without the demands of song or dance or spoken text, is a way of permitting ordinary citizens to be spectacular performers without any talent whatsoever. Physical beauty is not necessary, either. A simple public procession of specially dressed-up ordinary people is one of the oldest kinds of shows in the world; it has probably continued to exist because it never fails to satisfy both those who watch and those who walk.

With fewer and fewer places to wear special clothes—even Sunday best has largely disappeared—it’s no wonder that so many young cosplayers have eagerly adopted elaborate fantasy fashions that are the antithesis of regular streetwear. Cosplay does demand talent, however, though not necessarily of the singing-dancing-acting type. Cosplayers take pride in the creativity and precision of their costumes, which are mostly do-it-yourself affairs. The hobby can lead to formal training in costume or fashion design, as it has for Renata Lindroos and Sarah Franchello, shown above as the Black Butler and Undertaker of the Kuroshisuji (Black Butler) series. Even cosplayers with no intention of pursuing design careers often enroll in fashion design courses. One young woman I spoke with had even taken a course in wig design.

Stephanie as Ciel Like Renata, many cosplayers are women dressed as men or boys. “A lot of male anime characters are just too pretty to be played by men,” says Stephanie, 20, shown here dressed as the Black Butler’s master, the 12-year-old orphan and business whiz Ciel Phantomhive, who lives in Victorian England. Ciel’s costume includes a dramatic bustle and train, which are appropriate for the period but not for a young boy. No matter. Stephanie, like many cosplayers, finds these exotic styles irresistible. She would, she says, wear them every day, comfort be damned.

L.A. photographer Ejen Chuang is documenting cosplay in America, with an eye toward a book to supplement the existing ones on cosplay in Japan. (Attention publishers: This is a great project with an enthusiastic built-in-audience and obvious promotion and distribution system.) He has a show of his cosplay photos opening at the Annex L.A. on July 14.

Dance Week: Ballet And The Distant Capital

Bolshoi ballet poster Moscow
This is a Soviet-era poster, auctioned by Swann in February. (It sold for $600.)  The caption reads, “You can only see this in Moscow,” and the building in the upper right is the Bolshoi Theater.

The poster seems less like an ad for the Bolshoi, however, than for Moscow—propaganda presenting the ideal of a cosmopolitan capital of grace, beauty, and high culture. For whom was it intended? Not foreign tourists, certainly, since they wouldn’t have understood the Russian. Yet to a provincial Russian, the poster’s glamour would have presented a cruelly tantalizing prospect. Under Soviet rule, movement to Moscow was strictly limited, and even today internal passports restrict free migration to the capital. “You can only see this in Moscow” is the promise of life somewhere over the rainbow, ideal but unattainable.

Dolls For Grown-Ups: Escape, Transformation, And Desire

_2story_pair_v2 I've long been fascinated by the culture of dolls for adults: Who collects them, and why? What longings does their obvious glamour appeal to?

Little girls may like dolls because they yearn to grow up, but adults are wishing for something else. Some of the appeal is not that different from that of fashion magazines--beautiful faces and beautiful clothes and the pleasures of imagining yourself in them. (Jason Wu, who designed Michelle Obama's inaugural gown, is best known as a doll designer.) Some comes from having the doll you always dreamed of as a child. Some comes from having the child you always dreamed of in a doll.

But the appeal is not always that simple. Take Delilah Noir, whose website describes her as "Honor Student by Day, Shadowy Siren by Night." Here's a bit of her backstory:

Sometimes, I would just like to forget about the future and dream. A world without rules, structure, and pressure...

Yeah, freedom to be me....just for a little while.

The night excites me. There is something about the darkness that stirs my soul. I can't explain it. The street lights are lit, the stars peek out and the rays of the moon glow through a cloudy sky. I find comfort in the embrace of a buzzing city night.

The cool air that bites at my heels makes me want to dance. Stiletto lace ups are my passion. Corsets and coattails are only some of the clothes stashed away in the back of my closet. Red velvet, black lace, purple silk take my breath away....

I admit to finding this Gothic Lolita positioning a little kinky and assuming that she'd appeal to the sexual fantasies of those turned on by school uniforms. But, as is so often the case, the desire she appeals to is not the desire to possess her but the desire to (momentarily at least) be her. Her glamour, like glamour in general, is all about escape and transformation--made quite explicit in her self-description.

Collectors identify with her dual nature. This banker-by-day-jewelry-designer-by night says she reminds him of himself, while this doll collector comments:

She makes me think of that side of me I never explored as a young person, because I was just too scared to. But it was always there. It’s still there, that darker side, but I know where it inevitably leads, and I don’t want to go there. So, I chose the light and the Lord where I know I’ll always be safe. But I admire young Delilah for exploring the freedom and excitement of the night - if only for a little while. She seems to be a girl who knows her time there will be limited, which is a good thing, for to linger in the night too long would mean eventually getting sucked into it to the point of no return. And that’s just some thoughts about the duality of man this doll brings to mind.

This post on dolls as therapy picks up the idea of projection in another way. For adults (and possibly for children as well), playing with dolls can take you out of yourself, allowing you to escape the troubles of the moment by focusing on an imagined other person whose desires you can fulfill. It's an escapism based on empathy.

The Glamour Of Star Trek

FuturebeginsParamount recently released the poster for the new Star Trek movie, opening May 8. The black and white composition and almost abstract suggestion of speed make an interesting contrast to the clear forms and primary colors of the original show.

Long-time DG readers may remember this quotation, comparing James Bond and Mr. Spock, from Jeff Greenwald's 1999 book Future Perfect: How Star Trek Conquered Planet Earth. Like Ayn Rand's novels, Star Trek traffics in glamour that appeals to people who generally think they're immune to such frivolous nonsense (and, conversely, whose obsessions seem decidedly unglamorous to most of the fashion crowd). Greenwald's book has a number of good passages that deal with Star Trek's glamour, without using the word. Here's one of the best, which follows his girlfriend's insight that the book "is about longing," the subject of all glamour:

When I began this book, I naively imagined that everyone I spoke to would echo my own intuition: that Star Trek has become successful because it awakens a collective human yearning to get out into space and explore the “final frontier” in earnest. A number of people on my list did indeed feel this way—but they were in the minority. Star Trek, I learned, inspires longings of many kinds. It’s a mirror that people tune like a radio, focusing on the aspects that attract them most.

Star Trek invokes an almost primal wanderlust—a hardwired compulsion to break away from the familiar, and plumb the depths of outer and inner space. It inspires a desire to build a society where technology is partnered with conscience. It evokes a yearning for family and friendship, which is played out in a thousand different fan clubs and Web sites around the world. And it fulfills a deep and eternal need for something to believe in: something vast and powerful, yet rational and contemporary. Something that makes sense.

One of the trailers for the new Star Trek movie features someone’s voice telling young Jim Kirk, “You’ve always had a hard time finding a place in this world, haven’t you? Never knowing your true worth. You can settle for something less, an ordinary life. Or do you feel like you were meant for something better? Something special.” In the trailer, that enticing suggestion accompanies this evocative shot, which beautifully captures both the centrality of the individual and the longing to belong to something larger than oneself:


The promise of becoming someone special is at the heart of much glamour, from the allure of beautiful dresses to the appeal of the U.S. Marine Corps. Particularly for people who feel out of place in their surrounding community, the idea of belonging to an ideal fellowship (Camelot's Round Table, Ayn Rand's Galt's Gulch, the Enterprise crew) is particularly powerful—and, as Greenwald documents, able to sustain real-world fellowship among devotees who share the same enthusiasm.

ADDENDUM: "What most appeals to me about Barack Obama is his Spock-like quality."

Selling The Tuscan Dream

I saw this ad on Italian television, in a restaurant without the sound, and was struck by its weird glamour. Judging from the YouTube comments, some Italians worry that it's reinforcing stereotypes, but I think it acknowledges traditional imagery in an exuberant and contemporary style. It's like a fashion spread in motion. What do you think?

Glamorous Places: Tuscany Or Paris?

PonteVecchio I often say that I wasted my youth learning French. What I usually mean is that I should have studied Spanish, a language I could use nearly every day in my Southern California life. But, given the opportunity to learn another language, Spanish isn't the one I chose.

I'm in Florence, spending the next month taking Italian four hours a day. It's a post-cancer adventure, and a retreat in hopes of getting a bunch of book writing done.

The contrast between my youthful devotion to French and my current interest in Italian (an interest that actually dates to my college studies of the Renaissance) tracks with a shift in U.S. culture. Sometime during my adult life, Paris stopped being Americans' ideal of glamour and was replaced by Tuscany. Look at all these Tuscan makeovers on HGTV, 476 to be exact, (here's the Parisian competition, only 29), or these 56 features on French style, compared to 100 on Mediterranean style, mostly Tuscan. Paris still has its fans, of course, but when the typical middle-class American envisions the perfect escape, Tuscany, not Paris, comes to mind.

Hence, before I left, everyone asked me the same question, Have you read Eat, Pray, Love?

Glamour supplies something people feel is missing in their regular lives. In the era when Paris was the epitome of glamour, Americans were longing for cosmopolitanism and style. Now America is arguably more cosmopolitan than Paris--certainly Los Angeles is--and la mode is as easily found in Italy (or rising from U.S. streets.) as in Paris. What is glamorous today is a life of enjoyment and simplicity: good, fresh food in a beautiful place. Tuscany.

Of course, as anyone who has read Under the Tuscan Sun knows, the ideal of Tuscany as the good, simple life leaves out a few things--notably the way things have a tendency to break down and the difficulty of getting those things repaired efficiently. Glamour always omits the blemishes.

I'm not, in fact, attracted to the good, simple, rural life. Preferisco la città. (I prefer the city.) My glamorous Firenze is the one that drove the Futurists crazy--the museum Florence of past greatness, not present life, a Tuscany of striving and strife. I haven't read Eat, Pray, Love. I've read Macchiavelli, Castiglione, Galileo, Vasari, and Petrarch. I'm here for the art and the history. But the food is definitely a plus.

Fan Glam: MTV Seeks Comic Con CosPlayers

Glamour means different things to different people, which might account for this opportunity of a lifetime:  New York Comic Con and MTV want to cast a fanboy or girl for a segment in the True Life docu-series.
Applicants, who must appear to be 16 to 28 years old, can express their love for comic books, anime, fantasy or manga by dressing up as a favorite character at New York Comic Con and letting themselves be stalked by an MTV True Life production crew. (Emphasis on appear--as well as appearing normal, but not over muchly so.)  Apply here

CC_2008_0961 Applicants need to think long and hard about the effects this appearance might have upon future employment and romantic relationships. Dressing up as Hellboy or King Leonaidas could do wonders for even the biggest geek; parading around as the cancer patient from Fanboys will ensure a lifetime of misery.

Speaking of Hellboy--you know what they say--big hands, big gloves.

Glamour's Origin: Hope Or Despair?


Glamour carries with it the promise of escape and transformation. What does that imply about its audience? Does glamour appeal to the optimistic or the desperate? You can make a case for either--and people do.

"I've always felt there was an aspect of glamour that contained a moral element. I can't explain it exactly but it's something to do with optimism, cheer and celebration, glamour being a language that denotes great faith in life," writes the FT's Susie Boyt in a recent column.

By contrast, in the comments on my earlier post on terror and glamour, reader grvsmth (a.k.a. Angus "Andrea" Grieve-Smith, who blogs here) suggests that glamour's appeal originates in despair: “If you’re trying to escape through a fantasy you have to be pretty desperate, right? That's the sense of ‘despair’ that I mean - a feeling of being trapped and having no options left.”

Glamour is an illusion, but that doesn't mean it's entirely untrue. It reveals something true about what we desire and, in doing so, may point us in the direction of what we might become. It may open up some imaginative space in which we can consider new options, rather than feeling entirely trapped. Sometimes escape and transformation are real possibilities, if only we can find ways to act realistically on the suggestions contained in our fantasies. At other times, imaginative escape is better than no escape at all. Anne Frank posted glamour shots of movie stars on the walls of her hidden room.

Quotable: Salman Rushdie On The Wizard Of Oz


“Anybody who has swallowed the scriptwriters’ notion that this is a film about the superiority of “home” over “away,” that the “moral” of The Wizard of Oz is as sickly-sweet as an embroidered sampler—“East, West, home’s best”—would do well to listen to the yearning in Judy Garland’s voice as her face tilts up toward the skies. What she expresses here, what she embodies with the purity of an archetype, is the human dream of leaving, a dream at least as powerful as its countervailing dream of roots. At the heart of The Wizard of Oz is the tension between these two dreams; but as the music swells and that big, clean voice flies into the anguished longings of the song, can anyone doubt which message is the stronger? In its most potent emotional moment, this is unarguably a film about the joys of going away, of leaving the grayness and entering the color, of making a new life in the “place where there isn’t any trouble.” “Over the Rainbow” is, or ought to be, the anthem of all the world’s migrants, all those who go in search of the place where “the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.” It is a celebration of Escape, a grand paean to the uprooted self, a hymn—the hymn—to Elsewhere.”

—Salman Rushdie, “Out of Kansas,” in Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002