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Russell Smith: On Culture

When being a fan requires dressing up Add to ...

I remember being very excited about being taken to see the film 101 Dalmatians, in a real cinema - a film I had seen bits of on TV and imagined and reimagined for years with fear and delight - and how devastated I was, on that rainy Halifax day, to see that the line of anxious parents waiting for tickets stretched around two blocks. My mother found out that not everybody in line would get in and decided it wasn't worth it.

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I feel the disappointment keenly, even now, on remembering this, but I grasp only wispily, in memory, the reasons for my anticipation, the promise of the lush cruel world of spiky ladies trailing green smoke and elongated swooshy cars and the throat-grabbing fear for the cute puppies. So, even though I haven't felt this passionate yearning for a movie since I was 6, I can say I have felt it and understand the competition of children around the world to be the first in line for the most recent Harry Potter movie, and their desire to experience the fantasy world fully by imagining themselves as characters in it.

I don't remember, though, anyone dressing up in Cruella or puppy outfits during the parent-supported Dalmatian frenzy that lasted from the movie's debut in 1961 till at least the mid-eighties. The original film was released in cinemas four times, the last in 1991, meaning it was already well-known enough by the time of my childhood to be possibly emulated by trick-or-treaters or fans, but I don't remember any dress-up that accompanied the love. Nor do I remember any costuming or role-playing that accompanied the Narnia obsession of Grades 5 and 6, or the Tolkien obsession of high school (we did play Dungeons-and-Dragons style games and drew our elaborate castle plans but not even the geekiest of us would have dared appear in public in medieval clothes; the social retribution would have been terrible, unthinkable).

Now it's not just children but adults who dress in careful reproductions of costumes worn by their favourite heroes of science fiction and fantasy. They have clubs and conferences and competitions. Their costumes, unoriginal though they are, are art projects. You could say that it's not these adult role-players who are behaving like children at Halloween, but children who are now, because of the Potter movies, entering the very adult world of cosplay. (It's mildly creepy to think too hard about that, as it's of course quite a sexualized world. At anime conventions, "Slave Leia" - Princess Leia as a harem girl - is a notoriously popular role for teenage girls.)

The new Canadian TV show about this phenomenon, Fanboy Confessional, is on the Space network and airs on Wednesday nights. It interviews those obsessed with making themselves into their favourite characters - anime princesses, robots, zombies, steampunk adventurers - and shows them hard at work sewing and pasting their (largely cardboard-based) outfits, or play-fighting in their live-action role-playing games. It's a show about crafts as much as it is about subcultures. It doesn't delve very far into the motivations or social concerns of the teenagers who live for costume competitions (I would like to know if they're good at school, have boyfriends, that other stuff), but it's still a rather charming world to enter for an hour. The steampunk one, which aired a couple of weeks ago and is now online at the Space site, is particularly interesting.

Why, though, is it only fantasy and science fiction that inspire fanboy costumes? Many millions more people have read The Great Gatsby and Anna Karenina than have read the latest obscure manga, and those novels both could be inspirations for the sartorially obsessed. Sure, we may have the occasional Gatsby-themed summer party, but there are no worldwide Gatsby costume clubs, no AnnaCon outfit tournaments. There are some English country-dancing groups that do Jane Austen evenings with historic dress, but it's not quite the same. To command an army of obsessed fans slavishly duplicating costumes you have invented, those costumes have to be represented in pictures, and the stories have to be fantastical or speculative.

I don't know why dressing up has become such an important part of appreciating fantasy now, but I do know I am a little bit grateful I had no such childhood pressure to sew and pose after being told of a new movie, and relieved there are no extant pictures of me dressed as a Dalmatian.

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