- Out of the Closet:The Fancy Phenomenon
It's not that I become a different person when I wear different clothes, I just like participating in different styles. When you wear a certain style, you enter a community . . . it's like speaking another language.—Shien Lee
On a crisp evening in early March, I stood with Rio Saito outside the Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn, to photograph and interview a growing costumed crowd of spellbinding beauty and eccentricity, all chattering and glittering by the door. This was the night of the Dances of Vice Wonderland in Spring Ball; the next night we would be attending another Dances of Vice affair, Mood Indigo: A Harlem Renaissance Retrospective. Both events were part of an emerging costume-play movement that has its roots in reenactment and character cosplay, but which has exploded into a panoply of costume genres, periods, and styles performed globally in off-beat public places. Hosting the evening was the beautiful and exotic Shien Lee, the young Taiwanese impresario who creates the Dances of Vice events, each themed after different historical moments and cultures, all redolent with a romantic sense of the demimonde. It was a jewel box opening to reveal a satin-lined theatrical display of color, [End Page 139] skirt-swirling movement, and vogueing frivolity. Costumes may be apropos of the theme or not: everyone is welcomed into this fantasy.
In all the interviews I conducted, participants attested to a disgust and impatience with the banal sartorial culture of the dumpy middle-aged adolescent: the baggy T-shirt, frumpy jeans, and dirty flip-flops of the American public, who wear this dreadful uniform all over the world: to the theater, museums, restaurants, and even to church. It is a style no one looks good in, yet it afflicts all classes, all ages, and all genders. One porcelain-skinned Lolita, Crystal, lovely in a vintage white linen dress, poignantly told me that she adopted the Lolita style to regain a never-experienced girlhood of innocence. She had found a group of like-minded people in the Lolita community, a global band drawn to the ultrafeminine child-like styles of the Victorian era, whose complex aesthetics have become sundered into many different genres. Her gallant escort, John, told me of his group of gamer men who had become transformed into cosplayers in response to the increasing number of co-splaying female gamers joining the group.
While Rio reeled around the room, snapping her amazing photographs from peculiar positions, I marveled at the diversity of people involved in this fantasia. Usually at popular cultural events—my academic beat—I am the oldest person in the room. Yet here there were participants of all ages and all races, men, women, and people of indeterminate gender all arrayed wonderfully, performing in a masquerade that followed its own meandering course through the evening, gently guided by the exquisite Ms. Lee. They were enacting a cultural masque of time, pulling forward into our own diminished era a snippet of an early spring evening from a more elegant period. The awestruck celebration of visual richness involves and integrates the members of this community. And I felt I belonged.
New York is not the only site for this art; in my own Minneapolis, the remarkable Samantha Rei, a well-known Lolita designer and emerging impresario, has worked with others to create the Libertine Asylum, and has been steadily building the "Fancy Movement"—as she has titled it—through similar events in local venues. Rio and I joined Samm at the Libertine Asylum's [End Page 140] Communist Party, in a small bar with a tortured but amazing DJ playing sounds from a clearly imagined Cold War. I dressed as Louise Bryant, John Reed's lover. No one knew of her, but it did not matter. I was joined in my anonymity by a flurry of Lolitas, some quaint steampunks, and other utterly unidentifiable souls, all having a wonderful time.
As I write this we are coming up on the tenth anniversary of Schoolgirls and Mobilesuits—the weekend workshop on culture and creation in manga and anime that spawned the Mechademia...