I’m an outgoing, functioning, 27-year-old adult with a full time job and my own apartment. I’m also a cosplayer.
That disclaimer is a reflex, even as the pop culture landscape tilts increasingly towards the side of the comic book nerd. Having grown up a Star Trek fan before J.J. Abrams made it cool again, I’m used to having to justify my hobbies to just about everyone – family, coworkers, and even friends. Cosplaying – the act of attending comic conventions or other themed events dressed as a character from (usually) a fantasy, science-fiction, or other piece of genre media – can be a lot harder to explain than a love of Harry Potter, or enjoying the guilty pleasure of a CW vampire drama. Cosplaying is sometimes seen as childish, as it involves dressing up in costume on a day that is not Halloween, and, if you’re a woman who cosplays, wearing a costume that didn’t come from Ricky’s in a vinyl package labeled “sexy pirate.” It also makes no sense to most people to put such an extreme amount of effort into participating in a fan subculture with no obvious benefit in return.
I’m a lot better at explaining the amount of devotion I pour into supporting the Chicago Cubs than I am at explaining why I cosplay. Similarly, it’s always been easier for me to talk about my actual experiences cosplaying. Discussing the construction process, or the common problem of facing harassment at conventions, is easier and frankly less embarrassing, than diving into the question of why I do it.
I didn’t start cosplaying to honor the end of Joss Whedon’s Firefly, or to show the world how much I loved Gail Simone’s writing for Birds of Prey, or because I thought that the world needed one more nerd who owned a 1960s Star Trek uniform dress. I started cosplaying because I thought I looked horrible from middle school through the beginning of my sophomore year of college, and even today have trouble looking back at pictures from that era. I started cosplaying because I considered myself wildly unattractive and had no sense of personal style or idea of where to begin developing one. Basing my wardrobe on a fictional character’s seemed like the easiest way to make a hard left to correct years of unflattering jeans, unnecessary relaxers, and too many pairs of combat boots to count.
If you’re going to discover for the first time, at the age of 19, that you have an actual waist (and where to find it), I highly suggest that you do it in a vintage romper.
Somehow I looked past Star Trek, past the pile of comics delivered weekly to my campus mailbox, past my other odd obsessions like the growing stack of Jesse James biographies strewn about my dorm room. The year was 2007, I was 19, and the fictional character I chose to cosplay as was Betty Draper.
Yes, AMCs Mad Men is my cosplay origin story and costume designer Janie Bryant was my Edna Mode.
There was no rhyme or reason for this choice other than the fact that I enjoyed Mad Men. This was early on in season 1, and Betty’s stoney, ice-queen of a character wasn’t winning me over personality-wise just yet. The only interest in vintage clothing I’d expressed to that point was a collection of eight American Girl Dolls and a foot-stomping insistence on being Josephine Baker for Halloween in the 5th grade. Betty was white, cold -looking, blonde, and blue eyed. I was Black, awkward, red-headed and wild haired while I grew out the effects of a consistent 15 year relaxer and recent dye job, and an all around mess. In both style and appearance, Betty and I had a very “she’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers” dynamic. We were polar opposites, but, in a media landscape lacking diverse representation, I chose the woman who matched the ideal of western beauty standards and ran with it.
I spent the rest of my time at Oberlin cultivating a wardrobe that I hoped Betty, a fellow liberal arts anthropology major, would be proud of. And when I started showing up for classes in the winter of ‘07-’08 wearing almost exclusively vintage dresses from the ’50s and ’60s and pearls? Well, it was a decided improvement on my prior wardrobe. I enjoyed a campus reputation as “the black girl in the petticoats” (though I would never become as ubiquitous as “Gilbert and Sullivan admiral guy,” “Bathrobe dude,” or “the kid who vomited beets on the library stairs and called it art”). I scoured the web on a daily basis and made weekly trips to the single thrift store in our Ohio college town to find clothing that looked like it would fit seamlessly into Betty’s life.
I didn’t know enough at the time to call what I was doing cosplaying, but looking back I realize that’s exactly what it was. Betty wasn’t a costume I would wear to a comic convention – she was more of a self-correction for my previous fashion incompetence. She wasn’t some organic expression of my own developed personal style, just a great jumping-off point.
The money I made working in the library cafe went almost exclusively towards vintage dresses and alcohol – they went hand and hand on Mad Men, and it was college, after all. The closet I built based on imitating designer Janie Bryant’s careful choices of shirtwaist dresses and tailored swing coats marked the first time I consistently chose clothing not just because it did the job of covering my body, but because it genuinely flattered me. I began shopping with the specific intent of finding something similar to Betty’s black and gray plaid dress and pearls from the first season. With a newly found confidence I expanded from simple house dresses to Alfred Shaheen Hawaiian sundresses, tailored winter coats (the first was a 1950s wool camel colored swing coat lined in fox fur), cocktail dresses by Emma Domb that were wasted on a college campus (but have served me well as an adult), and the amazing discovery of vintage and modern-day high-waisted denim.
My junior year would be the first time in my life where, on consecutive mornings, I would get dressed and actually like what I saw reflected in the mirror. If you’re going to discover for the first time, at the age of 19, that you have an actual waist (and where to find it), I highly suggest that you do it in a vintage romper.
A lot of this was simply me using Mad Men to discover relatively late in life that the privilege of my size and height meant that many vintage dresses were going to fit me in a pleasing way. As I started moving away from the costume of Betty to a personal style inspired by Betty, I quickly realized that the same applied to modern clothing as well. Getting dressed every day, I discovered, was actually kind of fun. As much as we tell ourselves that it doesn’t matter what other people think, receiving compliments from complete strangers was kind of awesome. It still is.
Eventually I would attend the San Diego and New York Comic Cons, and get to the “traditional” form of cosplaying, but that wouldn’t have happened without this first costume. The me-before-Betty didn’t appreciate clothing in general, and certainly didn’t know the difference between what flattered and what did the basic job of covering extremities. My mother (a seamstress in her own right) had tried to teach me to sew throughout middle and high school, but I’d ignored her with all the indifference and angst a teenage girl shows to anything her mother gives the slightest bit of interest. I only started sewing again once fixing hems and repairing seams in my fragile vintage wardrobe became a necessary chore, and a love of actual costume design and complex construction soon followed. I wouldn’t have had the confidence to start cosplaying at conventions, but I also wouldn’t have had the skill to create the costumes I eventually wanted to wear. The dresses from Game of Thrones are exactly as complicated to make as you think they are.
I started cosplaying when I was 19 because I had a terrible self-image, lacked confidence in myself, and needed a drastic wardrobe correction. Embarrassing, but true, and it did work. The intention was never to become Betty Draper; there were no blonde wigs, no desires to actually be a white woman, and as my appreciation for costume design grew I moved away from using Betty as my sole source of wardrobe inspiration. Designer Ruth E. Carter made Black women look equally beautiful in period films like Malcolm X and What’s Love Got To Do With It. Taking Black cinema studies classes during the height of my Mad Men phase meant I was in the perfect frame of mind to appreciate that Carter is unmatched in her ability to envision what my past would have actually looked like. When I splurge on vintage now it’s not Betty Draper I’m thinking of, but Carter’s interpretations of Diane Nash and Coretta Scott King from Selma.
Sometimes I wonder who would have snapped me out of my funk if it hadn’t been Betty. If it had to be TV, I like to think that eventually Olivia Pope on Scandal or Jessica Pearson on Suits would have provided a similar come-to-Jesus moment. Maybe I would have still recognized the beauty of a different Betty’s wardrobe in Malcolm X without Mad Men’s influence. I’ve taken quite a few cues from those women, stylistically, but I’m no longer in that place of questionable self-esteem where they would have had to become costumes.
I laid my dependence on Betty Draper to rest before Mad Men did. By the time she succumbed to lung cancer during the final season I’d mostly moved on, but her final words to daughter, Sally Draper, rang eerily familiar. “I always worried about you because you marched to the beat of your own drum,” She writes to Sally. “But now I know that’s good.” The beat of my drum was erratic and doubtful through much of high school and that first year of college.
Betty steadied the beat of my drum to an even keel. As someone who always preferred to be on the stage crew rather than actually on stage performing, I’m still surprised that I enjoy the attention cosplay inevitably brings at cons. Enjoying attention from strangers of any kind was very much a post-Betty development, and from that confidence came the ability to perform and produce. I wouldn’t have had the confidence to jump on top of a prop speeder dressed as a Rey from The Force Awakens while literally being blinded by camera flashes at Comic-Con last summer without Betty. As cold, sad, and occasionally cruel as Betty Draper could be, she was to me a comforting cocoon in an otherwise challenging time in my life. I needed her so that I could become Rey from The Force Awakens, Margaery from Game of Thrones, Gwendolyn from Saga, Peggy Carter and a USO Girl from Captain America, Maxine from Batman Beyond, Misty Knight from Heroes for Hire, and – most importantly – myself.