Dressing the part, living the dream
Spring has arrived and it’s coming up to play time. I’ve been invited to three fancy dress events in the next few weeks. Why so many? It’s about a world trend called cosplay, as in costume play, that is steadily gaining momentum in Australia. In Japan, where it all started, there have been restaurants and places that cater for these dress-ups since the 1980s.
Cosplay and dress-ups are not just for nerdy Trekkies any more. There are sexy fetish events and countless conventions popping up everywhere so people can go to clubs, parties, festivals, expos or a night of live action roleplaying games dressed as their favourite film, television or literature character or anime, cartoon or video game hero. Anything or anybody, and they play that role all night or for days in the case of the Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert.
Harking back to the days of the masquerade balls, my first party will be gothic — and in shopping for a costume I decide to try my luck at a venue for period clothing called Gallery Serpentine, based in Sydney and online. While I’m being helped into an elaborate corset, and looking very Stevie Nicks or Kate Bush, owner Stephanie starts telling me about what happy people her clients seem to be, and that dressups lead to a strong sense of wellbeing.
‘His whole posture changed, he lit up and was so excited. He saw that in that moment he could create himself’ STEPHANIE GALLERY SERPENTINE OWNER
“Basically I have noticed that when my clients and customers dress up, it allows them to express something that’s been repressed; a light switches on for them and they are suddenly 10 times happier,” she says. “You can feel it in their energy.”
Stephanie says costume play connects us to those times when we were allowed to be free in our imagination as kids, dressing up, creating characters. “It taps into happy memories of being truly alive. I just see people transformed when they do this,” she says, handing me a purple velvet cloak.
US psychiatrist Stuart Brown, who has conducted extensive research on play, agrees. He says humour, games, rough-housing, flirtation, dress-ups and acting out fantasy are more than just fun. They foster intelligence and reconfigure the brain in myriad positive ways that lead to success and wellbeing. We are biologically wired to play and when couples stop playing they often break up. From a neuroscience standpoint, without play and make-believe we shrivel inside and out.
Stephanie says costume play is good for teenagers, too, to break them out of their peerpressure mould. She tells me of an adolescent boy who was brought in by his parents to get something for their wedding. He was sitting with his mobile, uninterested and slouching.
“For fun I chose the loudest baroque red and white vest and a top hat,” she says. “He put them on and went, ‘ OMG!’ His whole posture changed, he lit up and was so excited. His body language transformed. He saw that in that moment he could create himself.
“I have older, bigger women, too, who panic and say, ‘ Help me. I’ve got to go to a themed wedding. It’s a rare chance to look sexy. But you’ll have nothing in my size.’ I just corset them and they can’t believe they have a waist after all. It lifts their posture and their self-esteem.”
I know how these women feel. I watched my oestrogen belt rise up to become breasts. Men get fascinated in here too, very flamboyant in their cloaks and hats. Couples who come together often get turned on watching partners get dressed up. It’s part of the playfulness.
Stephanie says anyone interested in dressing up should type key words into Google or Facebook, or check out festivals such as Supanova Expo and Ironfest (great medieval re-enactments). “Age doesn’t matter in this subculture,” she says. “It’s about creating from imagination, firing up the joy, delight and fun that you want to embody.” For those who like it hotter, there are clubs for S&M, crossdressing and fetish-wear (this week there is the Oz Kink Fest in Melbourne).
My spring has suddenly become very Game of Thrones, and I may just come flying in to one of my parties on a dragon.