Dressing up funny is bigger than just Halloween or Comic-Con. It's about who we are.
There’s a scene in Mobius’ acid-tinged graphic novel Airtight Garage where one character, bundled up in an extravagant coat of purple fur, turns to his companion, The Archer, and asks, “Why do you wear that mask?” The Archer, who’s decked out in a dream-logic version of a superhero costume, complete with underwear on the outside, responds simply: “So that I can be recognized.”
It seems counterintuitive. Especially in this age of online handles and anonymous comments, when we’re constantly hearing about trolls and identity thieves hiding behind false facades. Surely masks and costumes are not meant to reveal ; they exist to hide, to obscure, to transform.
And yet, when we select our Halloween costumes, we are consciously choosing how we wish to be seen. We want to be recognized, not as schoolchildren or underpaid interns or office workers living lives of quiet desperation, but as the scary, sexy, colorful people we know we are on the inside. We don’t want to disguise ourselves—our very selves—we want to unveil them.
For example: When I was 6 years old, I wanted to have a tail. I discovered this because my mother made me a devil costume for Halloween, with an attached forked tail, and I loved it. The costume also had soft, felt horns, which were nowhere near as cool as the tail. I liked having a tail so much I asked for a dragon costume the next year, which I wore long after Halloween ended. It was an adapted dinosaur pattern, with a full jumpsuit and upright scales down the back. And the tail! The tail on that costume was thick with polyfil stuffing, and wagged like a tail ought to when I moved my hips. It was a proper tail. I grew too tall for the costume that summer, my shoulders no longer slipping into the scaly sleeves. Just as well, really; the next Halloween, I wanted to be Robin Hood.
But for that short period of time, it felt right to be a boy with a tail.
Halloween, as we celebrate it, is perhaps the most American of holidays, cobbled together from the autumn festivities of a variety of cultures, all gussied up with bombast and a sympathetically egalitarian message: You can be whoever you like for Halloween. While the holiday itself remains identified with a ghoulish tint, your Halloween finery need not be limited to ghosts and goblins. With costumes, at least, everything is permitted.
This pick-your-persona spirit has spilled out from the holiday into the year-round hobby of cosplay. Cosplay enthusiasts enjoy dressing and inhabiting characters; think of it as Halloween without having to wait until Oct. 31. It’s motivated by that impulse to be recognized—not just as fans of the characters whose clothes they wear, but as people who share something deeply spiritual with those characters’ essences. Something that’s important to them. It has to be; cosplay is a hobby that requires a great deal of time, money and attention to detail. Anything that motivates a person to go through all that effort has got to affect them personally.
I speak from experience. I don’t even want to think about the hours I’ve spent on my ever-evolving Batman costume, much less the huge amount of cash I’ve sunk unto it. Since its first iteration back in 2004, the Batman suit has gone through five masks, four pairs of boots, three pairs of gloves and two capes. I have sewn and resewn spandex unitards; hand-stitched pleather glove-fins; and glued with various adhesives an array of bat-silhouettes on my chest. I paid dearly for a top-of-the line, hand-sculpted and -cast urethane cowl that was simultaneously a work of art and a torture device, turning out to be such a poor fit for my oddly-shaped melon that I was unable to breathe properly.
While I have worn this costume to Halloween parties and science-fiction conventions, I didn’t make it for any one specific event. I made it because I want a Batman suit. Which of course really means this: I want to be seen as Batman. Sure, I’m not a vigilante champion of justice—but I do help the people I meet, in my own small way. Giving $10 to someone on the street or helping a friend get a job is not the same as saving the city from deadly laughing gas, I realize. Which is why I don’t don the cape and cowl every day.
RuPaul once said, “We are born naked. Everything else is drag.” We are all the costumers of our own wardrobe, but we’re hampered by the dictates of our daily lives. The oft unspoken yet unarguable rules about what is “appropriate” attire for school, for work, for public, suppresses our individuality in our dress. It can be hard to be recognized when you’re dressed like everyone else. Which is why Halloween and cosplay are such a release—why these costumes, frivolous and insubstantial as they may be, are so important. They allow us, if just for one night a year, to be ourselves.
Jared Axelrod is a Philadelphia-based author, illustrator, graphic designer, sculptor, costume designer, podcaster and quite a few other things. His graphic novel The Battle of Blood and Ink was published by Tor Books in 2012.
A Haunted Hoedown, Witches & Woofs and Seventy Scenes of Halloween: What to do, who to see and where to be this week.
Calendar: Aug. 26-Sept. 2