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Costume as Iconography: Essentialism, Interpretation, and Accuracy in Cosplay

The image that comprises the marriage between hero and costume is an iconic expression of power and personhood. This iconography is what makes the hero recognizable to us. Clark Kent is different from Superman by one factor alone — his costume. The same could be said for Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark, Peter Parker, and countless others. The link between a hero’s costume and his power is something intuitive for fans of genre fiction. It signifies the commencement of action; the beginning of struggles; a time to start kicking ass. Whether this is Superman’s phone booth or Batman’s batcave, the transformation from the mundane to extraordinary takes its cue from the costume. The costume establishes the identity, personality, and abilities of a character.

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The creation of a superhero’s costume is a trope often associated with the character’s origin story. It draws a separation between the protected and the protector. It indicates the moment an individual decides to make a difference. It brands the manner in which that difference is made. Significant transitions in character development or the addition of new powers can also be accompanied by costume changes. One of the best known story arcs in comic books is the acquisition of the symbiote/living-costume by Spiderman and the subsequent origin story of Venom. This is a temporal separation of before-and-after for the character’s story. The costume may also provide the trope of anonymity which conceptually carries separation by disconnecting the hero from his loved ones. Anonymity is commonly employed by the hero to protect his relationships and prevent them from being exploited by villains. The true/uncostumed identity suggests a vulnerability in the hero and is sometimes exploited by villains. In this way, the villain reinforces the importance of costume. The costume serves as the sanctioned lightning rod for action between hero and nemesis. Without its presence, the game is often far from being afoot.

Despite the heavy lifting in narrative that costume accomplishes, other icons can be just as representative of a character’s power. Objects can also anchor context and identity to a character. Charles Xavier’s wheelchair is an essential reminder of his character and backstory. Thor’s hammer, Green Lantern’s ring, Batman’s utility belt, and many others signify an elemental expression of character. Would Wolverine really be Wolverine without his claws, hair, and cigar? This begs the question from the cosplayer, what are the bare bones essentials of making a character recognizable? This question is of particular importance for cosplayers that engage in crossplay, franchise/genre mashups, and personal interpretations in design.

StarFire, Sue Storm, PowerGirl

StarFire, Sue Storm, PowerGirl

At a certain point, however, interpretative innovation corrupts the icon beyond recognition. The costume or object becomes too far removed from the orthodox symbol to be accessible by the fan. This usually doesn’t require deep analysis; the sense of a character through icon is intuitive. A fan’s interpretation of a character can be altered by a change in costume.

Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit comes in a variety of different types and each for specific purposes. However, each of those iterations are still identifiably Iron Man. We would have no problem recognizing Stark’s handiwork. Normally, the Waynes, Starks, and Kents of the comic world do not each have multiple costumes that are uniquely distinct from one another. Would Batman still be Batman to us in a totally different suit? At the very least, we wouldn’t be able to recognize him from appearance alone. At some point the ability to accurately guage the pairing of hero and costume becomes impossible. For the cosplayer, the unintelligible costume is a rare species. Even when the quality of the coscraft is virtually nonexistent, the cosplayer is still recognizably attempting a character. This is possible because they have replicated the essential elements of the costume though with varying degrees of expertise. These essential elements are those things that are required to be present for us to accurately recognize the character.

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The indistinct costume also plays with our understanding of accuracy. Depending on your perspective, a character with an indistinct costume becomes either very difficult or very easy to cosplay. I could cosplay Lex Luthor or Agent Mulder but short of wearing a name tag it may be difficult for others to recognize the guy in the suit. The essential elements of these types of characters are expressed almost solely within the context of the souce material. Translating this to cosplay outside of that context is a challenge. It is too difficult to get the distinctness of the characters across with costume and prop alone. That liminal point that constitutes recognition can be very subjective and often informs our understanding of good and bad cosplay.

Many cosplay enthusiasts regard the abstract notion of accuracy as the holy grail of quality. I feel that this is a somewhat questionable aesthetic standard. Allow me to illustrate by way of example. If I wanted to cosplay Storm, then ‘accuracy’ could take on very different meanings. The literalist would say it is impossible because I am neither black nor a woman. But even this kind of literalism is problematic. Let’s say that I attempt a literal type of accuracy and paint my skin dark brown, shave my everything twice, don a white wig, put in some contacts, wear a corset and some makeup, get some chicken cutlets, and nervously eye a roll of duct tape. Even if I wouldn’t make an atrociously ugly Storm, would this be accurate? Would I be accurate as the flesh-and-blood Storm portrayed by Halle Berry? What about the stylized 90s cartoon? The comic book versions? Think about the difference between Cloud from FFVII and from Advent Children. The original blocky Cloud and the more photorealistic one are both ‘accurate’ but only by choice and interpretation of source material. There are no clear lines describing where the propriety of that interpretation begins and ends. If I cosplayed a masc-Storm and decided to keep my olive complexion, is there enough of the icon remaining to make me identifiable as Storm? I think it really depends on the allowance you give to interpretation and how well the essential elements of that character’s iconography are expressed. In other words, solid costume design leads to clear recognition regardless of interpretation.

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All of the stories, events, words and actions that define the characters we love are summed in the iconography of their appearance. The costume-as-symbol is a container that holds all of this information. The cosplay-costumers understand this (at least implicitly). Their eyes are honed to capture the essence of a character. The effort of accuracy isn’t only about the cosplayer’s craft skills or affection for that hero. It is also about the personal desire to conjure up a shared interpretation of that character. I think one of the reasons cosplayers enjoy having their characters recognized by fans is for this shared experience. The feeling that someone else sees what you see in someone — even an imaginary someone — is gratifying. The fan gets to enjoy the living animation of a character he’s only known from the page or screen. This may also explain the inappropriate desire to touch the cosplayer’s props and costume. It amounts to a rude need to verify the extent of an illusion; it is simultaneously participating in an individual understanding of a character and a collective one. All of the people that create and recreate the experience of a character are staking their claim to ownership over accuracy. There is power in assuming the costume of heroes and heroines. This power is born from the willingness to usher icon into reality. This feat is equally accomplished by both a writer’s pen and by a cosplayer’s sewing machine.

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“All worthy work is open to interpretations the author did not intend. Art isn’t your pet — it’s your kid. It grows up and talks back to you.” — Joss Whedon

What are your thoughts on iconography in costume design? What are the elements that make a character recognizable? Is accuracy the ultimate definition of quality within cosplay? Leave a comment below!

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