Way back in the wooden age of SF fandom, when if you'd mentioned cosplay they'd have thought you meant trigonometry, British conventions didn't have a lavish Masquerade but a tatty Fancy Dress event. People wore hi-tech cardboard boxes over their heads. Aye, those were tough times when fandom were no soft option and we had to read Battlefield Earth three times every day, walking barefoot through the snow, uphill both ways ... sorry, where was I?
Costumes of yore tended to be improvised and minimal. One ingenious fellow donned a single black glove, transforming himself into Ursula K Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness. A group of seven announced themselves as various bodies of water from Windermere to Lake Titicaca, thus almost effortlessly representing the TV SF classic Lakes Seven. On a still larger scale, Lionel Fanthorpe's novel March of the Robots inspired a twenty-strong protest march with aluminium foil costumes, angry placards ("More Oil Less Toil") and miles of cutting-edge computer tape strewn in all directions. The hotel complained.
Women, in those unreconstructed days, tended to show a great deal of leg; surviving photos from 1950s conventions cast a fascinating, nostalgic light on what was once terribly daring. At the 1979 Worldcon in Brighton, a brave young lady set new standards for British daringness by displaying a huge pair of wings that hardly anyone noticed thanks to the distracting breasts which she also bared to a large audience and, as it turned out, the BBC crew filming the event.
Cheapskate costume gimmicks got several chaps into trouble. I refuse to say anything whatever about my youthful attempt to portray Roger Zelazny's Creatures of Light and Darkness, except that black greasepaint takes too much painful scrubbing to remove. My cartoonist pal Jim Barker (www.jimbarker.net), inspired by Harlan Ellison's Outer Limits episode "Demon with a Glass Hand", made his own glass-hand prop from transparent resin. Because this stuff gets very hot and smelly when setting, he put it outdoors for the night in a clearly labelled cardboard box ... which a panicky cleaner proceeded to report as a bomb. Enter the highly unamused police.... Less tragic, though, than the American who qualified for the Darwin Awards with his Dracula outfit's finishing touch: a stake, actually a (steak) knife, hammered into a pine board under his shirt. The board split; the blade went into his heart. Allegedly.
At the 1972 Worldcon, US comics artist Scott Shaw created the all-time low in bad costumes. The principal ingredients were a pair of tights and three full jars of peanut butter, faithfully reproducing the unique, dripping appearance of the comics character Shaw himself had created: The Turd. Awed eye-witnesses would later brag, "I was there when The Turd came out." Under the hot lights of the Masquerade event, it became evident that this one would run and run. The hotel complained. Everyone complained. The debacle was later enshrined in the semi-official Rotsler's Rules for Masquerades:
"7. Parts of your costume should not be edible or smell. Parts of your costume should not fall off accidentally, brush off against other contestants, or be left lying around on the stage."
Some years earlier, UK fan Keith Armstrong-Bridges had also relied on unorthodox make-up, to become a Sirian Dustman. The enemy Sirians in Eric Frank Russell's SF thriller Wasp are humanoid but purple-skinned. So at the convention, our man laboriously stained himself with gentian violet for the sake of his art. Only later did it emerge that this wouldn't come off, or only enough to leave indelible purple patches on the bathtub. (Yes, the hotel complained.) Keith had to wait until his outer skin layers wore away. Alas, he died recently, and countless fans duly repeated their favourite anecdote about how he'd once dyed. What a thing to be remembered for.
David Langford has adeptly disguised himself as a shabby middle-aged man.