I got into a couple of fascinating conversations the last couple of days about the importance of costuming on a character. I, for one, love dressing up in costumes. But it’s a lot more than just playing dress up. When you watch a movie or TV show, how a character dresses can tell you a lot: their wealth, their standing, their strange alien origins, whatever. A similar weight on a character goes into wearing a costume, which is what I actually want to talk about.
Easily my favorite element of role playing games is the characters, and when it comes to LARP (live action role play), costuming is a huge part of that. I don’t do fantasy LARPs, which means for the most part my characters can be costumed from things right in my closet. Okay, maybe it helps to be a crazy costumer and have a really eclectic closet anyway, but with the choice of a couple of signature items a character’s wardrobe and sense of style (or lack thereof) is formed. After a couple of games, donning a particular item from the costume becomes a psychological signal to get “into character.”
The first character I really saw this with was my very first LARP character. Liliana was a medical researcher, and very early on I bought a lab coat for her. I even went all out with my crafty side and hand embroidered her name on the pocket. But the costume piece that ended up being her signature item happened completely by chance. I came to game straight from work, and was still wearing slacks and short dress boots. The game site was tiled, and the boot heels made an authoritative clop as I walked. I discovered that my entire way of walking as that character changed, my posture and body language shifted. As time went on, I could play that character without her lab coat, but never without those shoes.
This photo is my longest running LARP character, and current: Carrie de Silva, vampire. (Yeah, awfully sunny in the photo, hmm?) As I’ve played her for over a year, her costume has gotten rather elaborate. This is her full costume right now, from head to toe:
- Short brown wig. Someday, I’ll write something on the value of good wigs.
- Stretch necklace of wooden beads
- Long black coat
- Silly girly, baby doll T-shirts. (The one in this photo is Tweety bird saying “No No Absolutely Not!”)
- Cargo pants
- Ridiculous stompy boots
As this character has been around for a while, her costume has gone through a few changes. The wig was the only item specifically bought for this character, for about $30. It replaced a previous, cheap Halloween wig that did not look or fit nearly as nicely. My actual hair is a couple of inches past my shoulder, and yes, it all fits comfortably under there. The wooden necklace was given to me by a friend as a vacation souvenir. Baby doll shirts? Straight out of my drawers, if rarely worn on a day to day basis. The stompy boots are the most expensive part of this costume, but they’re part of my sci-fi convention booth wear. I’ve definitely gotten the full value out of them.
The black coat is actually a weird button dress, found on a clearance rack for $14. Originally, I really did not want to wear a black coat for the character. It was too stereotypical, too old Highlander fan. So, for over a year she wore a beaten up, military surplus jacket. Well, plot has gotten that jacket shredded (in character, not in real life), and character development meant replacing it with something else. But here I ran into an interesting costuming problem. The jacket had become part of this character. How could I make sure I held on to the persona without it? Answer – by making sure, for the next couple of games, I wore every other part. Sometimes, I can wear other shoes for Carrie. Not now – or at least, not until the black coat becomes truly hers.
When I create a character now, one of the things I’m sure to figure out before they’re ever played is their costume. One recent character (Margaret) actually required purchasing clothes, because I wanted a horribly tacky dress that would look like it had been dragged through the mud, and rain boots. Thrift store for dress: $9. Brown and green dye: $15. Boots: $12. Total cost: $36 for full outfit.
Even some of my table top characters have had a little costuming and prop help as a character trigger. My tough Hunter character wore a small gold vial necklace. I almost always wear a skirt to play my D&D druid. Sometimes, just that little bit helps with the switch between the every day and the imaginary person.
Costuming becomes a trigger for me, activating a little in character switch that brings with it all sorts of mannerisms, body language, and even speech patterns. Liliana had an authoritative stride and a stiff backed way of standing. Carrie normally stands with a wide legged stance, hands on hips or crossed over her chest. Margaret slumps forward and hides behind her hair. Not all of these things came about intentionally. But the costuming makes each character distinct, and I… well, I get to be an adult and play dress up.