EARLY COSPLAY: 1930s to 1950s
In these days when costuming at conventions has become
'cosplay' and is more visible than ever (and more respected)
this seems a good time to take a look back at cosplay at
conventions in times past. (Note: this is not a major article
but an excuse to post those old photos I have access to. If others
come to light I may well expand this section. Most of the pre-1970
photos were supplied by Peter Weston.).
My first convention was SEACON 75, the 1975 UK National SF convention, held that year in Coventry. Among the many items on the programme was the Fancy Dress which - as that name implies - was largely an excuse for attendees both pro and fan to dress up more as a bit of fun than anything more serious. (It was either that year or the one after that editor Don Wollheim entered as author Isaac Asimov and female fan Lee Montgomerie as author Christopher Priest.) In the US they had the convention Masquerade and a group of fans had emerged who took costuming very seriously and whose elaborate costumes involved the investment of a lot of time, money, and effort. It would be a while longer before that level of investment showed up at UK conventions, imported at least in part by those who had started out in Star Trek fandom. When it did there was initially a degree of animosity towards these costumers from more traditional fans of SF literature since reporters inevitably focussed on those in costume to the extent that as far as those getting their view of SF fandom from TV and newspaper reports were concerned the costumers were the face of SF fandom, and it was not a face those who wanted SF to be accorded some respect thought helped in that quest. Over time, as press coverage improved and conventions were accorded more respect, that resentment faded, but for a while it was very real.
The first SF convention was held in Leeds, England in January 1937 and was a very serious and sober affair. The 14 or so attendees were all male and the closest they came to costuming was that one of them - Ted Carnell - didn't wear a tie. The first Worldcon was held in New York in July 1939 and, so far as I'm aware, was the first occasion on which someone wore a costume at an SF convention. That person was Forrest J Ackerman, who was one of three Los Angeles fans - the others being Morojo and a young Ray Bradbury - who attended. And as it happens a photo of that costume has survived.
For other contemporary photos of that L.A. trio see here.
I don't have too many costuming photos from the 1940s, but here's one from the 1949 Worldcon. There was no Masquerade at the convention, Lois Miles being a model who had been brought along by Dave Kyle as part of a PR attempt. (For other photos from the 1949 Worldcon see here):
Earl Kemp recently supplied me with a bunch of photos from his albums from 1950s Worldcons. Here are some from the 1952 Worldcon. As can be seen from the label, the Masquerade was clearly part of the convention by this point, having presumably been added at some point between 1949 and 1952. (Photos by Karen Anderson):
The earliest costuming at UK conventions appears to have been at CORONCON, the 1953 UK National Convention. This was not for a Fancy Dress event but as part of a play, and involved several male fans donning drag.:
The 1954 Worldcon, and the quality of the costuming has improved noticeably since the 1952 Worldcon. (Earl Kemp collection. Photos by Karen Anderson except where noted):
CYTRICON was the 1955 UK National Convention, the first of a run of four CYTICONs that would be run in the town of Kettering over the next four years. The Liverpool Group had decided beforehand to make their party a Fancy Dress party and had prepared costumes accordingly (they were the only ones in costume). All photos Norman Shorrock collection:
The Liverpool Group must have enjoyed wearing costumes at CYTRICON because the following year, at CYTRICON II, they really went to town. According to notes, Renee McKay was Cleopatra, Stan Nuttall was Mark Fanthony; Ina Shorrock was a Krishnan woman (in green paint); Dave Newman as Attila the Fan; Don McKay was Erik the Bent, and in the BEM suit was Eric Jones:
In 1957 the Worldcon came to London for the first time. Here's a link to a gallery of Masquerade photos on the part of this site devoted to that convention: