They’re lined up five, six, seven deep on the streets of downtown Atlanta. Parents with small children on their shoulders, older folks in lawn chairs, pretty girls with their skinny boyfriends with cool haircuts. Tapping on their phones, posting photos.
Then there are sirens. The police clear the streets. They make room for the army. Storm Troopers, pirates, Doctors Who, and masses of other science fiction/fantasy/comic book characters march through the heart of the city in an unembarrassed display of the kind of nerdery that, years ago in most places and to this day in some, would have led to ostracism at best and being beaten up at worst.
It’s the Dragon Con parade, the annual public showing of what happens inside five downtown hotels every Labor Day weekend in Atlanta. And the normies love it.
Leah D’Andrea was in the parade. She’s been coming to Dragon Con for over a decade. She pronounces her first name with a long a, like Leia. Like Princess Leia. She also looks like Carrie Fisher. A lot like Carrie Fisher. And she used to dislike Star Wars.
“I grew up hating it,” she says. “Because of my name and because I was a brunette.”
Then she saw the trench run from A New Hope on TV at a friend’s house.1 “I asked my friend’s dad, ‘What was that?’ He said, ‘Star Wars.’ I said, ‘Seriously?! That’s really cool.’” Two years later, D’Andrea, who already had an interest in theater and costumes, dressed as Leia on Halloween.
“I was kicked out of my history class that day,” she says. “My teacher had a huge crush on Carrie Fisher because of Star Wars. When he saw me, he tried to sit down and missed his chair.” A few years later, her now-husband, Chris Lee, proposed to her at a different convention with a replica of Leia’s necklace from the movie. (It was even made by the same craftsman.) She was dressed as Leia; he was dressed as Luke Skywalker.2
At their home in Nashville, Lee is building components of a full-scale replica of the Millennium Falcon; D’Andrea makes costumes.3 She’s on her sixth version of the classic white “Leia dress.” She has a Deanna Troi outfit. (In the appropriate wig, D’Andrea also looks a bit like Marina Sirtis, who played Troi on Star Trek: The Next Generation.) She has steampunk gear. She has comic book outfits. She can be a lot of people.
Make it sew
Wearing a costume is the ultimate expression of fandom, personally and publicly. Personally, you project yourself into a character in a way you can’t through reading or watching. Publicly, it’s a declaration that you relate to this fictional individual enough to embody him or her (or it).
“I think that’s how most costumers get started,” says D’Andrea. “They have a character they really, really admire.” For D’Andrea, it was Princess Leia. For many of the attendees at Dragon Con, it appears to be Deadpool, from various Marvel Comics, or Finn from Adventure Time.4
Some in the community differentiate between costuming and cosplay, a term derived from “costume play.” Cosplay, they say, involves pretending to be a character, while costuming is dressing as that character but taking on no other traits.5 But all of it falls on the same spectrum, as does the quality of the costumes. There are costumers and cosplayers who buy their gear from Halloween supply shops or the higher-quality fantasy outfitters, and there are those who, like D’Andrea, make their own.
A month before Dragon Con, I met D’Andrea in Nashville at the home of fellow costumers Steven and Gena Henderson. They and several others were preparing to craft and fine-tune the outfits and props they planned to take to the con. And it’s not just about appearances. This stuff has to work.
“Leia’s boots in Return of the Jedi looked like shoes with fabric stapled on them,” says Steven. (“They were,” D’andrea adds.) “We realized when we got into this, we’re going to be walking through a crowd. We’re going to have children tugging at it. It has to be perfect.”
In movies, props and costumes are designed to look good on camera. The folks at LucasFilm didn’t have to worry about making something Leia could move around in for hours while holding on to her convention badge. “We have to be able to move in it,” adds Gena. “And to pee in it,” says D’Andrea.
So they make it better. It’s a tribute and a challenge. And it’s a thrill to gather with other costumers to compare techniques and details, of which there are many. D’Andrea’s Leia Hoth suit is also an actual snowsuit. It’s as warm as a freshly killed tauntaun. She has spent hours embroidering details into costumes that were never seen in the movies. And there’s no disappointment in discovering the faults in movie props and costumes. Steven says it enhances the original: “I know things they don’t know.”
D’Andrea is an actress, but no one in this group is costuming for profit. (Steven runs a software company; Gena works in medicine.) They’re driven by fandom. They spend hours spinning fiction into fact with their costumes.6 And it extends to characters that don’t exist in popular fiction. D’Andrea won the 2012 Dragon Con masquerade, a costume contest, with a pair of steampunk wings designed by Lee that open and close with the aid of an app. Previously, any costume’s wings had to be manually controlled. And who wants to imagine a future in which someone spends two minutes tightening bolts before taking flight?
Masters of the Universe
On my commuter-rail ride downtown on the Saturday of Dragon Con, I saw Jasmine from Aladdin taking a selfie. I saw a trio dressed as the heroes from Final Fantasy VI buying fare cards. I saw Hunter S. Thompson holding a piccolo (he was in a marching band in the parade). There they were, riding uneventfully alongside commuters headed to jobs, school, or sporting events.7 And I felt out of place. I was dressed as me.
Outside of the convention, the costume and the attendee badge are signals. They say “we’re alike” the same way inside jokes on T-shirts have long communicated nerd status without shouting. It’s a club.8 “You don’t have to get to know somebody, because you already know something about them,” says D’Andrea.
This makes the con a ridiculously positive place. Spartans drink with Starfleet commanders. Marvel heroes and DC villains chat politely in lines for panel discussions. Everyone is excited, and no amount of geeking out is deemed excessive.
“People say, ‘I finally get to wear my nerdy T-shirts, I’m going to a con.’ I’m like, ‘I get to wear my costumes and people know what they are,’” says Katrina Lynn, who was dressed as Carl Sagan (and not “sexy Carl Sagan”) on the Sunday of Dragon Con.9
When I arrive at the con, I find D’Andrea walking through the Marriott lobby with over a dozen friends, all dressed in painstakingly detailed Masters of the Universe costumes. She dressed as Angella, with seven-foot wide wings (non-motorized); Steven Henderson was He Man, complete with fur briefs.
They moved slowly. Every few feet, a conventioneer asked for a photo and the group obliged, drawing more photo seekers, larger crowds, and longer delays. With a group this big, stopping and posing isn’t easy. The costumes can be bulky or fragile, and the hotel’s air conditioning isn’t powerful enough to keep a crowd this size cool. Some fans are costumers, looking to see how Sorceress made her cape.
“There’s two schools of thought. There’s pitch to the crowd and make them happy, and then there’s hard-core costumers who try to impress each other,” Chris Lee says as crowds rush past us to grab photos.
The con is spread out over five hotels. Every lobby, elevator, meeting room, and skywalk is packed with superheroes. So are the streets. Even in the frustrating southern summer sun, costumers pose on the sidewalks and order food at hip downtown restaurants. This is their world, but the normies inhabit it now too.
“I went [to Dragon Con] 26 years ago. It was a bunch of guys playing Dungeons and Dragons and reading comics,” says Miller Heath, who brought his two daughters to Dragon Con, all dressed in homemade costumes. “It’s become much more accepted.”
Many fans point to the 1939 World Science Fiction Convention as the first real convention for nerd culture. Time reported that 200 people came to the New York conference “for three days of speeches, pseudo-scientific movies, and discussion of stories with their authors.” Some were in costume. About 130,000 people went to the San Diego Comic-Con in 2012 for similar purposes. Officials estimate that up to 60,000 came to Dragon Con this year. Many were in costume. (In contrast, at the PAX Prime event in Seattle in August 2013, only a handful of the 70,000-plus attendees came in costume. They were mostly there to play games.)
No one points to any single cause for the rising interest, but it’s there. If nerdery, even in private, were fringe behavior, then it would be difficult to explain why out of the 10 highest-grossing movies of all time (not adjusted for inflation), all but two are centered on superheroes, science fiction, or fantasy.10
It’s likely that many of the contributors to the billion-dollar gross of a superhero movie are only casually interested. But if they want to know more about, let’s say, Tony Stark, they can fall down a very deep, very interesting rabbit hole on Wikipedia. They can learn more about characters with decades-long histories. They can discover that many more people are also interested in these characters. They can form relationships with those characters. They can take this interest into meatspace at a convention. And, as their interest develops, they can decide to embody a beloved character; they can costume at a con.
“There’s an atmosphere of no judgment,” says Neil Gibson, a comic book author promoting his work at the convention. “Some people like the characters and want to dress up as them. Some people see it as a day out. Some people take it very competitively and want to have the best costume there is. Whatever you’re into is great.”
I asked many conventioneers why they think the popularity has grown, and none of them knew. They were all just happy it was happening. “All these things I didn’t like before — parties, socializing, clubs — turns out I just didn’t like the people at them,” says Steven Henderson.
There are lots of children, some in strollers and some in spandex, on the convention floor.11 Parents are bringing their kids into geek culture. There are many, many people in costume, and many, many more not in costume, taking it all in. It can be overwhelming to see how popular geek culture has become.
Not everyone who wears costumes and reads comics books is teased growing up, but for many, it’s hard to fit in as a geek, and it’s not easy to see your thing become everyone’s thing. But now that the levitation boot is on the other foot, the nerds aren’t exactly taking revenge.
“At some point I grew out of [rejecting new geeks],” says Lynn. “If you have that attitude, it’s like you’re saying to everybody that they can’t belong to this little club. That this club is for people who have gone through bad things. But it’s not. What it is, is, a club for people who like stuff, for people who are happy and passionate. It should be a positive club.” (Comedian Patton Oswalt had a slightly different take on the matter in a Wired essay in 2010, arguing that geeks should fight against mainstream appropriation of the symbols of their obsessions — “Boba Fett’s helmet emblazoned on sleeveless T-shirts worn by gym douches” — but not against appreciation of those things.)
D’Andrea says there’s been a slight shift in tone at conventions over the years, but it’s stamped out rather quickly. “It’s not so much jocks versus nerds. It’s the people who come just to party versus the people who come to panels,” she says. “You get your standard shit-talkers. It’s like any crowd of people, you’re going to get your jackasses. But we’re all here for the same thing.”
And who can say costuming is so unusual anyway? Every day, people put on sports jerseys without ever getting onto a field. “It’s acceptable to paint your face and stand at a football game,” says Gena Henderson. “So why not paint your face and stand around at a hotel?” asks D’Andrea. “Everyone has that category of nerd,” says Steven Henderson. “And yours might just be universally accepted.”
“And ours is becoming universally accepted,” says D’Andrea.
There are risks to making the unreal real, and there are risks to outsiders flooding in. They’re called creepers. The first time D’Andrea dressed as Leia, it distracted her history teacher. She was in the white dress from A New Hope. But while the bun hairdo has certainly appeared in many fantasies, it kneels before the Zod of Star Wars sexiness: the gold bikini.
D’Andrea has worn the Leia slave outfit at conventions. She knows what it can represent to some male fans. “Whenever you put something on like that, you’re the center of attention,” she says, admitting that she’s been inappropriately approached and touched while in costume. “But the appropriateness with how people react is a lot better at a convention than it is in the real world. I’ve been leched on in public more than I ever have at a con in costume.”
“The people who don’t get it are newer to fandom, newer to conventions,” says longtime costumer Katrina Lynn. “They don’t understand the women that are in these costumes — mostly it’s women — are there for themselves. They’re not getting paid to be there and be touched on. That’s been their experience with scantily clad women. They work at Hooters. They’re strippers. I think people don’t realize there’s a disconnect.”
Many female characters were conceived of and drawn by men. They serve as objects of fantasy for men. They wear costumes that are impossibly skimpy. They stand in ridiculous poses that show off rear ends and breasts at the same time. They are characters that are born objectified. But that doesn’t mean women can’t relate to other characteristics.
“There’s an effort to obtain the impossible in cosplay,” says Hannah Burnett, who runs the Cosplay Safety Project. “I don’t see why unrealistic proportions and gravity-defying things should keep anyone away from a character design. If that’s the character you want to embody, if that’s how you want to express yourself, more power to you. Just understand you might want a bodyguard with you sometimes.”
Women who wear the more revealing costumes turn the original objectivity on its ear. But at every convention, there are creepers turning it right back by copping feels and taking photos exclusively of bikini-clad bottoms.
“There are people who, for whatever reason, can’t conceptualize what is so wrong about it,” says Burnett. She was on a Dragon Con panel on ethics in cosplay, and she recommended directly addressing creepers if they try anything on a convention floor. She also referenced a group called Cosplay is not Consent, which fights objectification of female costumers.
D’Andrea, Lynn, and Burnett agree that creeping is an issue, but that it happens to them outside of conventions when they’re wearing street clothes, too. That it happens in regular life doesn’t make it something anyone wants to live with. Burnett is hopeful. She says there’s progress in the convention world, because in the mutual-appreciation atmosphere of the con, the conversation can happen.
“Even if we can’t get it down to zero, I think we can push forward. But with the issue of society at large feeding into the greater convention culture…it’s a big idea to fight. The more we talk about it and the more we have each others’ backs and the more we politely explain to the creepers that what they do is not OK, I think we’re going to move forward,” she says.
Doctor, nothing will stop it!
There’s a hat that’s ever-present at Dragon Con. It’s a knitted stocking cap with earflaps and a puff at the top. It’s colored in yellow and orange stripes. It’s a coded message to fans of the TV show Firefly. A character named Jayne Cobb briefly wears a similar hat in one popular scene.
“The fact that [nerd culture] is mainstream means you can get a Jayne hat on ThinkGeek,” says D’Andrea. “We can get [things like] that now rather than having to silkscreen our own shirts with math equations on them.”
There’s a reward to understanding the meaning behind someone’s hat. There’s a small thrill that happens a thousand times a second at Dragon Con whenever someone recognizes a reference or figures out that the guy with a blaster wearing a red plastic cylinder is Han Solo Cup. And as newbies and former normies fill the convention space, the veterans work harder to show their experience.
As her husband, dressed as He Man, guides a dozen Masters of the Universe through the Marriott lobby, Gena Henderson, in a Supergirl costume, says it’s hard to pull off big-group excursions like this, because it’s difficult to find something new. And some costumes have become so easy to put together, they’re everywhere (I lost count of the number of Finn hats I saw).
“We have to keep raising the bar,” says D’Andrea. Her costume is impressive; it’s one of many fantastic outfits put together for no reason other than to show off to others. There’s no money for this, though D’Andrea did win cash and an iPad for her wings at last year’s masquerade costume contest. There’s no greater fame that comes from being the most realistic Hulk or the cutest Pikachu. But for the costumed folks surrounding me in the Marriott, it’s what they like.
As I watched Henderson and D’Andrea pose in their costumes, facing camera flashes more reminiscent of an LA paparazzi scrum than a He Man cartoon, I felt an infectious, overwhelmingly positive feeling wash over me. I’d always liked Nightcrawler. Maybe I could find some blue face paint and a plush tail at the gift shop. Then I was pulled back into reality by a tired Eternian.
“Even the backs of my legs are sweaty.”
It’s not always easy being a hero.
Correction: Atlanta has an extensive “heavy” rail system for commuter routes; we called it light rail in the original version, which Atlanta lacks altogether. Sorry, trainspotters!
This is the climactic flight scene near the end of the movie when, spoiler alert, Luke Skywalker blows up the Death Star. ↩
Someone in the crowd pointed out that the two were playing characters who are, spoiler alert, siblings. ↩
Nathan Meuiner wrote about Lee’s project in “Full Scale” in issue #18 (June 6, 2013). ↩
And this doesn’t mean you have to look like the character you play. There are many costumers who play opposite their gender, body type, skin color, and so on. It’s called crossplaying. ↩
And there were people I talked to at Dragon Con who refused to break character. One man, dressed as Xerxes from the movie 300 frequently said, “Why doesn’t anyone like me?” ↩
This extends to their bodies, too. The Hendersons and D’Andrea diet and exercise to maintain the proper proportions for costumes. “The best thing you can do to keep yourself in shape is wear spandex on a regular basis,” says Steven. ↩
There is a football game of significance in Atlanta on Labor Day weekend, too. ↩
Another spoiler alert: I’m going to use the words “nerd” and “geek” in the remainder of this article. I don’t do it pejoratively. I use them interchangeably to mean enthusiasts, experts, and general lovers of this stuff. The community has embraced the terms. They’re compliments, not insults. ↩
This might be a redundant phrase to many. ↩
If you count James Bond as a superhero, then nine of the top 10 are about superheroes, science fiction, or fantasy. They would all fall into one of these categories if you count Titanic as fantasy, but that’s a bit of a stretch. ↩
As the evening wears on, children are advised to leave the main convention spaces. The people I talked to agree that Dragon Con is the hardest-partying con, and the alcohol and sexy costumes are hard to avoid after dark. ↩
Gabe Bullard is the program and news director of public radio station WFPL. The rest of the time, he edits Toothpick Swords, a cocktail blog. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky.