Unmasking is a hero's greatest desire, but once he removes his fetish costume, he's a stay-at-home dad trapped in domesticated retirement," writes Chris Galaver in his cultural biography On the Origin of Superheroes (out next week).
Consider the Earthly identities Kal-El constructs, the outsize persona of the superhero (Superman), who in turn aspires to physically contain his powers and be an ordinary civilian (Clark Kent). Even the more boring heroes with mere superskills – Hawkeye, say – long to be more boringly normal than they already are.
But for the actual normals – the rest of us – the opposite is true and seldom more so than at Halloween. Not that the pretext of an annual masquerade holiday is required any more; the comic book and sci-fi convention circuits generate enough cosplay photo opportunities to have taken costume expression of fandom mainstream.
That merging of traditional spooky and ghoulish occasion with everyday cosplay and fancy-dress fandom has altered the average adult Halloween house party. Gone is the need for disguises and masks: The point of a costume is no longer to provide an emboldening replacement identity – the challenge now is to get just the right degree of recognition and approval (if not outright envy) of cleverness. And the visual wit had better be good.
Save for children's costumes, and with the possible exception of a new $60,000 robotic suit of polycarbonate, EVA foam and aluminum called the Hulkbuster (weight: 38 kilograms, 2.9 metres tall), it's not about sewing skills or craft construction ingenuity. The point of a Halloween costume is now to preen, like the dress-up version of a perfectly crafted mashup Tweet that smugly parades its pop-culture awareness cachet.
Where that success is found is in the details, whether the fandom one belongs to is that of Doctor Who, Harry Potter and Star Trek. Few have given more thought to the latter's costumes than Robert Blackman, the Emmy-winning costume designer on every Star Trek series, spinoff and film from The Next Generation to Insurrection. In the five decades that the new book Star Trek: Costumes examines, Blackman and others from the wardrobe department point out how the crucial vagaries of tiny telltale costume details were as much the result of budget and accident as intention.
For masquerade season, thrift-store chain Value Village goes big on Halloween to the point of staffing costume consultants (costume whisperers?) in store. Creating just the right costume can be a ghoulish amount of work. (This may be why my circle of friends has for years opted for a pumpkin-carving contest instead of playing dressup.)
At conventions, the reward for this investment is a trophy in the formal, organized costume competition; at house parties, prizes play out around the punch bowl via an acknowledging nod, and more importantly, in photos the next day via the ultimate approval playground of Facebook, et al. A quick costume-whispering primer can ensure that achievement's unlocked.
Generic cowboys, vampires, pirates, clowns and doctors (or indeed any of The Village People, except the Indian) and SpongeBobs are fine. For children. But the only adult vampire costumes permitted this year are sailor-striped T-shirts worn under a caped hijab accessorized with kohl-rimmed eyes and skateboard, like in the indie hit A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.
A winning Halloween costume means boldly going beyond the painfully obvious culture nod – the more specific and lightly obscure the better – but only just. Consider going as Jason Segel's shlumpy version of David Foster Wallace. But do not consider The Lobster, a movie so insider exclusionary it's still making film festival rounds (e.g. hardly gratifying when nobody at the party gets the reference, even though banal grey flannels worn with a hardware store belt lock is ingenious).
Take as a caution the season Halloween house parties were lousy with Juno couples in gym shorts, sweatbands, stripes and tube socks; the year of candycoloured gaggles from Spring Breakers and of Orange is the New Black scrubs; any woman wielding a giant wine glass prop this year should be prepared to be taken for Olivia Pope (still), never Amy Schumer. Expect wrong guesses to be met with resting witch face.
Instead of Sherlock or the Doctor, Inspector Spacetime. A Furiosa manquée is also easy maquillage (just cover a fresh buzzcut in smoky eyeshadow), or for the more daring, any one of Miley's VMA getups (may we suggest: grocery aisle cling wrap). Or at the very least a cunning pun, something half-assed and lastminute but nonetheless high concept that does not need to be repeatedly explained, all night long ("I'm Mr Movember, get it?" said the mustachioed hipster, wearily). Better the canny zeitgeist as visual pun – this year's meta meme will surely be Netflix and chill: a DIY logo-adorned red T-shirt and a glass of crushed ice. And strictly no Sexy Whatevers or cat ear headbands, because if that's what passes for creativity why bother going out at all?