Learned #30: Costumed

In which we learn about cosplay.

I remember dressing up for Halloween exactly five times. There was my plastic He-Man costume in third grade. My cowboy costume assembled from spare horse-riding kit I had in my closet in ninth grade. My “Professor Wolfman” costume made out of a stick-on beard and a necktie when I was in college. And a photographer, twice in one year at two different Halloween parties a couple of years after graduation.

In other words, I didn’t really dress up a lot; it's just not my thing. Which is fine. I never really had to. There was not a lot of pressure to fit in. If I had shown up at any of the parties I mentioned above sans costume, people would have been disappointed, maybe, but they would not have kicked me out.

That seems to be changing. Cutting a pair of eye-holes in a bedsheet is no longer enough. These days, costumes are a thing, and they have to reflect a certain level of effort and dedication. I'm not sure when this changed, but I pretty sure it's got something to do with the rise of cosplay.

In this issue:

  • What We're Learning: Costuming 101

  • What We're Reading: Fashion Climbing: A Memoir with Photographs

  • Down the Rabbit Hole: Personas

Let's get to it.

What We're Learning:

Costuming 101

Cosplay is one of those odd, modern, neologisms that stems from an English phrase borrowed into Japanese, converted into Japanese slang via phonetic shortcuts, and then re-adopted into English.

"Costume Play" ==> コスプレ ==> "cosplay"

In it's Japanese form, the phrase is used as a general category for anyone and anything indulging in the creative art of creating and wearing costumes based on media properties to conventions and fan events.

Wikipedia takes it a step further:

[cosplay] is a performance art in which participants called cosplayers wear self-made costumes and fashion accessories to represent a specific character. Cosplayers often interact to create a subculture, and a broader use of the term "cosplay" applies to any costumed role-playing in venues apart from the stage.

And, while cosplay as an art-form is rapidly becoming mainstream, the creation and celebration of costumes has been around for centuries.

Masquerades & Costume Parties

For many of us, our first experience with costumes comes with playing dress-up as a child. Developmental psychologists believe that playing make-believe, or dress-up, or whatever you want to call it, helps children figure things out. It lets them walk in someone else's shoes, which helps them both develop empathy and begin to discover who they are.

And, for a lot of people, that feeling of wanting to experience life from another point of view never really goes away. We displace it with books and movies and when we play dress-up, we call it acting:

In the meantime, we limit our costume wearing to culturally acceptable events.

These events vary from country to country and decade to decade. In 15th century Venice, elaborate masks and gowns were created and word during Carnival season (otherwise known as the Masquerade). In the U.S. in the 19th century, the wealthy elite would have costume parties where they dressed up as notable European aristocrats.

Which brings us back to the 20th and 21st centuries. The simultaneous development of cheaper and easier-to-work-with crafting supplies and social media sites like Pinterest, which can double as a place to find inspiration and a place to show off your own creations, has prompted a rise in costuming in fandom leading to a greater resurgence in costuming at other events, like Halloween.

Personally, I have a lot of respect for cosplay and the people who do it. The number of incredible costumes and displays being put on by people for - usually* - no other reward than the sheer joy of doing it is astounding. And the recognition of their art is growing, from t.v. shows (one, two) to impressive videos like this one from MineralBlu featuring the cosplayers at New York Comic Con 2018.

(Video slightly NSFW - many of the cosplayers’ costumes lean towards the scanty side of revealing.)

Of course, none of this means that the cheap, off-the-shelf, somewhat identifiable as a witch or devil or ghost, store-bought costume is going anywhere. If anything, the current ascendance of cosplay will only mean more and more mass-produced product will be hurled at us for Halloween, Gatsby Parties, and, probably, Easter. Do with that what you will.


*Anytime you bring up the idea of cosplay as a fan-centered art with no real monetary gain for the participants, someone has to chime in with snide commentary about the number of (primarily) young women who are making money on Instagram and other social platforms by doing sexy cosplay.

Honestly, more power to them. Many of these young women make their own costumes and do their own make-up or work with professional stylists and photographers to make their art. Their success, or attempts at monetizing their art, does not detract from the fact that most participants do it for damn near no recognition and often more than a little-undeserved mockery. Anyone who is doing cosplay, whether for money or love of art, deserves enormous respect. Full stop.

What We’re Reading:

Fashion Climbing: A Memoir with Photographs

by Bill Cunningham

Fashion, for me, is one of the great unexplored pathways. I’ve done a lot of work with photography over the years and that includes more than a few shoots with models, hairstylists, and costumers. Er, fashion experts. I enjoyed the work but found it exhausting mainly because what constitutes good and bad fashion has always eluded me.

But I know photography. And I know Bill Cunningham’s photography. And it is…not great. He tended to shoot with a single lens and from an intermediate distance and a lot of his compositional work looked maddeningly similar. But man, he was persistent and constant. He shot everyday. Rain or shine, good health or ill, the man was out on his bicycle getting the shot.

Frankly, the stunningly powerful documentary, Bill Cunningham New York, does a better job of explaining the man and his process than I ever could. If you’ve never seen it, do yourself a favor and do so soon.

In the meantime, I’m going to be here reading the secret memoir that Cunningham wrote and then left to be discovered in his effects long after he was gone.


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Down the Rabbit Hole:


As I write this, the fourth or fifth iteration of A Star is Born is wowing critics and audiences alike. The film is anchored by performances from Bradley Cooper and Stefani Germanotta in the lead roles. And, if that second name is not familiar to you, it’s because you might know her better as her noms de persona, Lady Gaga.

Of course, performing under a stage name is nothing new. There’s Meat Loaf in The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Madonnain A League of Their Own. But it’s a fine line between a stage name and a persona. The former is often a nickname (Meat Loaf) or a variation on their given name (Madonna) but a persona usually brings with it a character. Something not entirely an act, but not entirely the performer’s day to day personality either.

We see these best in theatrical acts like Alice Cooper, Kiss, and Gwar, but we also see them appear for single albums, often with a wink and a nod, e.g. Garth Brooks performing as Chris Gains or Beyonce performing as Sasha Fierce with no effort made to hide the originating performers behind the characters. But, other times, we see personas so finely crafted we lose the originator and begin to refer to the character as the performer: David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and Eminem’s Slim Shady, to name just two.

And then there are the personas like Ms. Gaga herself, in which the person behind the mask rarely, if ever, appears. The persona becomes the public face of the ordinary person behind the antics and the make-up. We wonder if Prince was still Prince after the stage lights went off, or if Marilyn Manson’s friends call him Brian once all the fans have gone home.

The answer is, of course, that we’ll never know. Pop is an endless circle eating itself and the more we wonder about the personas driving our favorite performers, the more we ensure that those same performers and being subsumed by their personas until there’s nothing left but the stage and the fans demanding even more.

One Last (Unrelated) Bit of Awesome:

One of World War II’s most enduring images is that of Rosie the Riveter, the strong woman who entered the factory while the men were off fighting, and built the tanks and planes needed at the front. It’s a powerful image. But a recent post on Flashbak by Karen Strike, shows that Rosie was not alone: Jenny was on the job.

That’s it. Stay strong, stay healthy. Learn something.