Emily S. Whitten: Women and Costuming
I came at fandom costuming (or cosplay, or whatever term you want to go by) from a pretty sideways angle. The entire purpose of the first set of convention costumes I ever wore was to advertise, for three days straight, the first North American Discworld Convention, of which I was a co-founder, and which took place back in 2009.
(Side note: registration for NADWCon2013 is now open. Discworld fans: come to Baltimore next year and join the fun!)
All three of us co-founders were attending the 2008 UK Discworld Con, both to get an idea of how they ran their con (for the two of us who hadn’t been to a Discworld Con before) and to spread the word about our new con. The one co-founder who had been to the UK Con before happened to be a talented costumer – I mean the kind who can actually sew together outfits from scratch – and she convinced me that I should costume too, to call attention to our con and encourage UK attendees.
In the Discworld there’s a character named Moist von Lipwig (pronounced LipVIG, of course, for any ignorant heathens out there), and he wears a brilliant cloth-of-gold suit, both to look flash and get attention, and to represent, in the minds of the people of Ankh-Morpork (main city of Discworld) the avatar of the failing post office as he tries to pull it from the ruins of neglect and make it successful again. Therefore, my co-founder had decided that for maximum attention she should do a female version of this – an amazing cloth-of-gold-looking Victorian walking suit, patterned with the turtles I had designed for our convention symbol. She looked freakin’ amazing. As for me, I was, well, shall we say, a bit more lazy.
Nevertheless, at her prompting I decided to do something in gold to match her and garner us more attention as we walked around together, but to stay a little more within my costuming skill set (which was almost zero at that point). Think of something I could cobble together by just buying a bunch of stuff that somehow coordinated into a “costume.” Between the two of us we came up with the idea of me going around as a flashy “Band With Rocks In” groupie (a band featured in Soul Music, the first Discworld book I ever read); with a t-shirt of the Band that advertised their “North American Discworld Convention” world tour. This is how I ended up wearing gold go-go boots, gold fishnets, and a ridiculously short and tight gold miniskirt all over a convention for three days. Also gold leather jewelry. And a gold bag shaped like a guitar. Rock!
So, you know: the first time I ever costumed at a con I was flashy and I wore a tiny miniskirt and that was solely to get attention. For a convention, not for myself, but still. Why am I talking about this now? Because there have been, and continue to be, a lot of interesting discussions about women and costuming at comic cons and related geeky cons, and why we wear what we wear, and whether it’s for the love of the fandom, or the love of putting together awesome outfits, or to get attention for our skills, or to get attention as sex objects (the most prominent theory and/or wish fulfillment thought in circulation). And after reading this blog post and a number of related ones that discuss primarily the “sex object” angle, I feel this merits further discussion.
That so many people seem to think women have only one motivation for wearing convention costumes that happen to be “skimpy” or “sexy” or whatever bothers me and implies some pretty negative things about the way women are viewed in comics and geek fandom. Women are more complex than that, y’all. Really we are. We have many motivations for what we do, and they don’t all boil down to “trying to get some dude’s attention.” Assuming that the purpose of a woman wearing an attractive costume is solely to garner attention as a sex object also removes those women, in the minds of those making the assumption, from the general group of fans who are at the convention to geek out with other fans and have fun, and places them in another, dehumanizing category – things there just to be looked at. And sometimes, as geek gals just wanting to have awesome geek conversations with other fans, that really spoils our fun.
While I certainly don’t take issue with women who do wear skimpy outfits for male attention, or deny that as one motivation for such convention wear, I have great concern about the attitude, particularly in the already heavily male-centric comics fandom, that the purpose and/or function of women in costume is just to look hot for all the random dudes in the crowd.
I’m not pulling this attitude out of thin air. I’ve encountered it personally, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. For example, after telling a very nice guy friend (i.e. not a sexist jerk or something) that I was working on some costumes for the next con I attend, I was reminded that “sexy is popular.” When I joked that just for that comment, I was going to go dressed as a down comforter, he responded that this would be a waste for “all those guys looking at” me. But…see, awesome as my friend is, he was missing the point. I am not primarily costuming for “all those guys looking at me” (at least, not in that sense. I always like people appreciating the effort I put into a costume, of course). Nor is that something I should be required to do for my costume to be admired at a comic/fandom con. I mean, sure, I like my costumes to look attractive – I always like to look nice. And I’m not going to faint in shock if I’m walking around in a miniskirt and guys happen to approve. It’s a miniskirt. They’re guys. There’s a Pavlovian response at work there, and I’m not naïve about it.
Obviously I don’t want people to think I’m unattractive – who would? But my point is that when I sit down to create a costume, I’m not thinking, “…and then I’ll wear the short skirt, because guys think that’s hot.” No, if I wear the short skirt, it’s because, say, the skirt is authentic to the costume. Or it calls to mind the stereotype of a band groupie at a rock concert. Or it’s floofy, and I just love wearing floofy things. And that’s as it should be.
I can’t speak for the motivations of every female costumer out there, but just for kicks and education, let’s look briefly at the motivations behind a few of the costumes I’ve worn or will be wearing to cons that someone out there might assume I’m just wearing to get a guy’s attention. In numbered list format, because Deadpool approves of numbered lists.
1) Black Canary: I’ve worn a Black Canary costume for Halloween and Dragon*Con. If you’re somehow not familiar with Black Canary, her costume could certainly be stereotyped as something worn to get attention. I mean, for one thing, she doesn’t wear pants. Add to that a leotard, high-heeled black boots, and fishnets, and, yeah, I’d guess this counts as a “sexy” outfit. Why did I wear it? Simply put, I had two weeks to come up with something to wear for Halloween and I like Black Canary and suddenly realized I already owned 90% of what I’d need to be her. I’m lazy and cheap but I still like to costume Geek, even for Halloween. So I rounded up the stuff I already owned, bought a cheap cropped leather jacket and, voila! Instant costume.
2) The Absinthe Fairy: This isn’t a comics costume, but I’ve worn it for Discworld and Dragon*Con, and I love it to death. It features a lacy corset, a short floofy skirt, and bright green five inch platform heels. It’s inspired in vague part by the absinthe fairy in Moulin Rouge. Why did I wear it? Because I love that color of bright green, which prompted me to buy the bright green corset (curse my magpie reaction to pretty things!), which inspired me to come up with a costume for it, which had to be of the right period to fit with Discworld (think burlesque, not proper parlors). And I like fairy wings, because who doesn’t like fairy wings? Even the five inch heels were motivated by something other than wanting attention – they match the corset perfectly, and nothing else looked even remotely right.
3) Deadpool Cheerleader: This is one I’m putting together for an upcoming con. It will feature a very short cheerleading dress, because that is what cheerleaders wear. Not to wear something like that would negate the point of the costume. Why am I wearing it? A large number of people have suggested to me at various times that I costume as Deadpool, but I have zero desire to actually dress as the character. I’ve never wanted to be Deadpool – I just like to write him. However, after the umpteenth time someone suggested this to me, I thought about how I spend a lot of my comics-discussion-time as Deadpool’s unofficial cheerleader, and, well – sometimes I have a pretty simple sense of humor. So. Yeah.
4) Arkham City Harley Quinn: I’ve seen a lot of women complain that this version of Harley was designed solely to pander to the fanboys. She’s wearing leather pants, you can see her bra, she wears a belly-baring corset, etc., etc. I’m currently working on putting this costume together for a con. Why am I wearing it? Because Arkham City Harley Quinn looks like a badass punk who just doesn’t give a damn, yo. She looks pissed at the world and ready to do something about it. And if I could dress however I wanted to with no consequences (like totally getting fired), not gonna lie, sometimes I’d want to get up in the morning, put on studded wrist-cuffs and leather pants, and go out into the world angry and ready to kick some ass. Wouldn’t you?
Like I said, I don’t know what every costuming woman’s motivations might be. But take a look at the above, and I think you get my point. Behind every woman in costume, there could be any number of motivations for what she’s wearing, and they’re probably much more interesting than “looking hot.” So let’s discard the assumption that women in costume are just there to be ogled or looking for male attention and move on to the part where we’re all well-rounded personalities with many facets who like to have geek fun together, shall we? I think that’s an excellent plan.
And until next time, Servo Lectio!
WEDNESDAY MORNING: Mike Gold Goes Beyond!