The moment the woman I was interviewing started taking off her clothes, I should have known it was a set-up.
It was May 1986, and I had just been informed by Starlog Press Assistant Publisher Milburn Smith that we were conducting job interviews that day. For several years, Smith and I (as Editor of Starlog) hired the entire company’s assistant editors. But this, Smith announced, was to be for a new position, editorial secretary—someone to aid the beleaguered editors with out-of-control paperwork and correspondence.
The first candidate showed up and we adjourned to the conference room. Smith was soon called away and told me to continue without him. I explained the position further. And the woman I was interviewing took a boombox out of her oversize purse, removed her glasses and shook out her hair. I blathered on, not getting it. She rose, turned on the boombox and, as music played, began to sing and (partially) undress. Now, I got it. The conference room door opened and Smith and my co-workers poured in. Everyone began singing "Happy Birthday." To me.
Crimson-faced, I thanked my NYC colleagues who set this "gift" up and later the LA contingent who helped finance it. Perversely, I was disappointed, realizing that the "job interview" had been but a ploy to get me alone for the singing semi-stripogram (30 years later, a societal and corporate no-no that would never be planned or permitted). We weren’t really going to hire a much-needed editorial secretary. And never did. Sigh.
With clothing on my mind, let me address that most unusual aspect of science fiction conventions: Dressing up in costume! That’s been part of the ongoing festivities since the beginning—when young fan Forrest J Ackerman (later Founding Editor of the pioneering publication Famous Monsters of Filmland and the guy who coined the term "sci-fi") came all dressed up to the very first get-together, the 1939 World Science Fiction Convention in New York City. My pal Ackerman is popularly remembered as showing up as Buck Rogers (what I was told by others who attended in ’39), but he was really in homemade futuristic togs based on an SF pulp magazine cover painting (Forry’s story).
And so began a tradition of "hall costumes" at SF cons and their comic book con off-shoots as fans wore an outfit throughout the day as if it was their normal attire. That still happens today, though particularly revealing (or flamboyantly colorful) costumes can certainly stop pedestrian traffic in convention aisles and hotel hallways as pictures get snapped of Seven of Nine, Catwoman and Red Sonja. Or Tarzan, Princess Leia and Trinity. Also, the Incredible Hulk, Gollum and SpongeBob SquarePants. And, now, Rocket Raccoon.
In recent years, this hall costume idea has been increasingly subsumed by the culture of "Cosplay" (literally Costume play). The "cosplay" term is decades old, devised by a fan from Japan to describe American costuming. That’s an arena which also includes cartoon characters on regular walkabouts around Disneyland and other amusement parks, Renaissance Fair faux medievalists, Society for Creative Anachronism tournament players, Civil War/Wild West/Victorian historical re-enactors and real-life "superheroes," those quasi-vigilantes who dress in cape & cowl and patrol cities while acting as pseudo-police. Then, there’s the "Furry Fandom" phenomena, a real subculture of aficionados (separate from science fiction but definitely fantasy) who dress as assorted critters and indulge in animal antics, reportedly grooming each other’s suits of black, blue, brown and purple hair. I didn’t quite believe in furries and plushies when CSI did a 2003 episode exploring their world ("Fur and Loathing"). But then, people in giant yellow feather outfits shouldn’t throw stones.
Cosplay caught on ever more strongly in Japan with fans portraying their favorite anime, manga and gaming characters. In Japan, there were conventions solely devoted to cosplay, magazines, too. Here, in America, costuming has surged at conventions—as you can see at such mega-events as the San Diego Comic-Con, Worldcon (i.e. the venerable World Science Fiction Con), Gen Con and New York Comic Con and at any number of Star Trek and SF cons. There’s even a TV show on Syfy: Heroes of Cosplay. Meanwhile in major cities like New York and Los Angeles, you can find superheroes and Sesame Street refugees on daily public display. In Times Square and on Hollywood Boulevard, freelance entrepreneurs disguised as Superman, Spider-Man, Elmo, Wonder Woman, Wolverine, Cookie Monster, Chewbacca, the Joker, Big Bird and their friends gladly take pictures with tourists (for a small honorarium). That’s co-pay for cosplay.
Similarly, cosplayers amble about cons and their surrounding sidewalks and parking lots while dressed up all day, solo or in groups stopping to pose for free photos by onlookers or even perform in character to the crowd’s delight (role-playing as improvised performance art). This is "let’s pretend" on a grander scale—and makes wearing costumes a greater, more visible and substantially significant part of conventions. You don’t have to come in costume, but more and more people are doing exactly that (especially at comics and gaming events). I can envision a tomorrow when a majority of attendees will show up outfitted as their faves, and it’ll be the costume-less (me and my ilk) who’ll be ogled as unusual. And, incidentally, cosplay now normally refers to not only performing and posing, but all types of convention costuming experiences, new and old (like costume contests). Simply dress up and you’re a cosplayer!
Wearing a costume is like Halloween all the time anyhow, just without tricks or treats. Trek-wise, I’ve seen countless costumed Trek fans—all suited out in Starfleet uniforms, in Romulan finery, in Borg Collective dark leather. Some come as Vulcans of all ages; others, Bajorans, Cardassians, Ferengi and even Cylons and Daleks (imported in from other science fiction universes). And there are, of course, Spock, Data, Jadzia Dax, Uhura, Q, Kes, Neelix, Major Kira, T’Pol, Harcourt Fenton Mudd, Guinan, Dr. Phlox, the Squire of Gothos, Khan, Gul Dukat and the Doctor. The Klingons are, as always, legion. They saunter in with style, foreheads sharply ridged, ready to declaim Shakespeare in the original Klingon or wield a handy bat’leth.
Now, I haven’t even mentioned makeup. Starfleet humans are easy. To play some alien characters (like Odo, Quark, Morn, Kor, Bele and Lokai), fans have to think beyond the clothing and channel the makeup genius of Michael Westmore, Fred B. Phillips and colleagues. Hey, good luck with that! Well, you can try—or maybe find talented friends who can (sort of) replicate the appropriate makeup looks. Comparatively, sharpening pointy ears for those who want to be Sarek, Tuvok or Saavik seems somehow less difficult. In some cases, of course, you can buy a plastic latex mask of the alien face you need (though that may affect your masquerade eligibility).
I’ve judged numerous costume contests (a.k.a. masquerades) alongside celebrities of all kinds (not only Majel Barrett Roddenberry, Walter Koenig and John de Lancie but Mira Furlan, Richard Hatch and Tim Burton). At certain conventions, expert costumers (who have won past honors themselves and know their way around fabric and spandex) serve as judges, bringing real knowledge to the proceedings. Some cons have pre-judging sessions several hours before the main event so that each entrant can be quizzed about workmanship and design by the judges and their garb more closely examined. I’ve been part of such expert sessions, and it’s fascinating to watch those who truly know costuming deliberate on an outfit’s facets and flaws.
From a judge’s perspective, let me note two occasions that can be troublesome for costume contestants on stage. First, when it’s announced that they "have a tape" (or CD or MP3) that provides, uh-oh, musical accompaniment! A soundtrack instrumental, a power ballad, a "filksong," whatever the entrants play—it probably isn’t gonna work as well as anticipated. Secondly, when masqueraders approach the lectern in costume or palm a microphone, uh-oh, judges like myself mutter, "They’re going to talk! Please, don’t talk! Please!" It takes gumption to get up on stage to begin with but adding audio (music, dialogue or memorized speeches) to the visual is often a bridge too far. Tip #1 for costumers: Trust to silence! Obviously, this rule doesn’t apply when you’re channeling Vic Fontaine, because then you gotta sing or, better yet, lip-sync.
Judging has its unexpected dangers. Many cons have rules about carrying dangerous (though plastic) weaponry like spears, whips and blades. Over the years, we contest judges have dodged samurai swords (and martial arts kicks), had Tribbles thrown in our general direction (glitter, too), and blushed red as green-skinned Orion slave girls flirted with us. I’ve seen pon farr up close on stage, and, you know, it isn’t pretty. Tip #2: Interact with judges (if allowed)! It won’t (necessarily) win you points, but it amuses the audience, judges and (maybe) you, too.
Tip #3: Make sure your costume is comfortable and not too heavy or awkward (since it’ll have to be worn for a while). You’ll need to be able to walk in it, too, on stage and off, perhaps up and down stairs, without, say, tripping over giant Hobbit feet or Cthulhuesque tentacles. You’ll want to hear through those Ferengi ears and see past your Bajoran nose while wearing a Geordi La Forge VISOR, too. Children will certainly be present all over the place (some also in costume), and you’re out in public, so ensure that your outfit strategically covers any naughty bits. Especially if you are clothed as a magazine editorial secretary interviewing for a new position.
And Tip #4: Yes, you can (usually) wear purchased, already manufactured Starfleet togs and various pre-made alien fashions, but do realize that it’s actually costumes which were designed and made by hand (by you, a spouse, parents or pals) that deserve to win awards. Effort, creativity and fidelity in re-creating outfits certainly count more than just donning anything available for purchase off-the-rack from that simple tailor (and costumer to the stars), Garak.
If you’ve never been to an SF or comics con of any type, well, who are you? What are you doing here? No, just kidding. Welcome! Hey, join us! There are ample opportunities to attend cons (Trek, SF, comics, gaming, horror, anime, etc.) every year. They’re held all over the U.S. and in other countries (especially Canada, England, Australia, Germany, Japan). Official Star Trek conventions are regularly reported about here on StarTrek.com (look for updates). Most cons host costume contests—frequently on Saturday evening—and those events are often weekend highlights. It’s great fun for the audiences, judges and contestants. Why not consider entering? Masquerading is not all that different from being outfitted as Worf, Batman or Indiana Jones for Halloween escapades. Well, except nobody gives you candy.
Yes, it does take guts to get all dressed up. My brave ex-girl friend entered convention contests as a youngish fan many years before I ever met her. She has told me all about it. I’ve even seen pictures. Me? I wouldn’t have the chutzpah. I haven’t suited up for Halloween since I was 13 (and Count Dracula, complete with bloody fangs, black cape and Christopher Lee haircut). Some Cosplayer me! The only other Halloween outfit I recall was a homemade (by my Mom) Jolly Green Giant costume (complete, she says, with asparagus spear, leafy tunic and green hair) worn when I was six. But there was that time many years later, in 1978, when I dressed up as a Giant Yellow Canary—just not for Halloween or a convention.
David McDonnell, "the maitre’d of the science fiction universe," has dished up coverage of pop culture for more than three decades. Beginning his professional career in 1975 with the weekly "Media Report" news column in The Comic Buyers’ Guide, he joined Jim Steranko’s Mediascene Prevue in 1980. After 31 months as Starlog’s Managing Editor (beginning in October 1982), he became that pioneering SF magazine’s longtime Editor (1985-2009). He also served as Editor of its sister publications Comics Scene, Fangoria and Fantasy Worlds. At the same time, he edited numerous licensed movie one-shots (Star Trek and James Bond films, Aliens, Willow, etc.) and three ongoing official magazine series devoted to Trek TV sagas (The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager). He apparently still holds this galaxy’s record for editing more magazine pieces about Star Trek in total than any other individual, human or alien.
Copyright 2014 David McDonnell