April 3, 2014

Cosplay in the Fifties: The Davy Crockett craze

The music video for "Come As You Are" by Peter Wolf portrays exuberant everyday life in a small town during the late 1950s, and by the end the whole town gathers together in a crowd as though they'd all caught dance fever from the future.

One of the key examples of "iconic Fifties life" that they bring out is the 10 year-old kid who's all dressed up in his Davy Crockett gear. Not because he just came from a school play about frontier life, but because that's just what boys were into at the time. In fact, the Crockett craze was part of a broader mania for all things Western during the late '50s, among both children and adults.

How similar was that phenomenon to the trend of cosplay in the Millennial era? It was a full costume of the icon — clothing, hat, and prop gun — rather than a t-shirt / backpack / lunchbox with the icon's image on it. The icon was a specific character, Davy Crockett, rather than a generic type like "frontiersman." The children were role-playing as the character, rather than dressing up that way while behaving normally. And it was a mass phenomenon mediated by the mass media, rather than a strictly grassroots sub-culture or counter-culture.

Daily life in the Mid-century was relatively unexciting, especially for children during the heyday of Dr. Spock, smothering mothers, Levittown subdivisions, and drive-ins where the customers physically cut themselves off from each other. Role-playing as a figure from the Wild West gave them an escape from the cocooning culture's insistence on parking yourself in front of the TV set rather than wandering around the neighborhood, clipping your fingernails and brushing your teeth in the proper way, and remembering to drink your Ovaltine.

At the same time, competitiveness was low and falling circa 1960, so kids back then did not make costume competitions and one-ups-manship a part of the Crockett craze. And unlike now, there was no pseudo-slut counterpart among girls — attention-whoring being another aspect of the competitiveness of today's culture. It was also restricted to kids who were about to go through puberty, rather than adolescents and young adults.

It seems then that cocooning is what brings this trend into being, and that high or low levels of competitiveness only shape its expression.

I don't remember anything like the Crockett craze during the nadir of cocooning in the '80s. There are pictures floating around of D&D-themed cosplay in the late '70s and '80s, but that must've been damn rare. There are only a handful of gatherings pictured, as opposed to the endless examples you can find of kids in Davy Crockett get-up or of contempo cosplayers.

At the height of Hulkamania, we might have worn a t-shirt like Hulk Hogan's, or played with ninja weapons during the Ninja Turtles craze, but we never got fully dressed up in character for role-playing, let alone dress that way in an ordinary setting like hanging around the house. Everyday life had enough excitement back in more outgoing and rising-crime times that it wasn't necessary to pretend that you were part of a Wild West culture.


  1. off-topic, from the Atlantic, "Why don't the 1 percent feel rich?"

    "Okay, that's not true at all. But they think it is. If you talk to people on Wall Street, most of them—even, in my experience, the ones shopping for Lamborghinis—will tell you that they're "middle class." Their lament, the lament of the HENRY (short for "high-earner, not rich yet"), goes something like this. You try living on $350,000 a year when you have to pay taxes, the mortgage on the house in a tony zip code, the nanny who knows how to cook ethnic cuisine, the private school tuition from pre-K on, the appropriately exclusive vacation, and max out your retirement and college savings accounts. There just isn't that much cash left over each month once you've spent it all!"

    "But another part of it is status anxiety. Not just conspicuous consumption, though there is plenty of that. Rather, it's the terror that their kids will fall behind. That if they don't get their toddler into the right preschool, they'll blow any chance of getting them into Harvard. So they spend ungodly sums on tuition, tutors, and enrichment activities to try to keep up with the other 1 percenters in the college admissions arms race. There's a perverse logic to it all: the richer the 1 percent get, the higher the cost of falling out. And that's why the "bottom of the 1 percent" in particular aren't getting wealthier. They're making more, but they're also spending more on their kids."


    There's been a plethora of articles in news magazines about inequality - it seems like the inequality trend may be getting ready to reverse as more people become aware.

  2. Didn't kids have more fancy dress parties and the like in the 1960s-1980s? Not just on Halloween? Simple costumes, but because they're kids and their parents have lives and rising inequality hadn't been around as long in the 1970s-1980s.

    I don't really know much about the mind of cosplay folks but they mostly just seem to be dressed up at conventions that sort of have a pseudo-party atmosphere (not a very lively one), not really "being" the character. Except maybe geeky girls who want to be socially acceptable pseudo-models / soft porn and so play at being the character to nurture geeky men's fantasies.

    Cosplay and cosplay festivals seems like a geeky version of costume parties for people who are obsessed with genre stuff and fantasy media worlds (more common it today's more risk averse and thus more socially phobic times).

    The ngram for costume parties seems to have a big spike from 1963 onwards and then a slight drop at 1992 - http://tinyurl.com/ol5cdxh. There's a bit of a trend of a rise in the term from nothing from 1900 to 1920 as well (the previous rising violence era).

  3. Westerns in the 1950s appealed to people who'd grown up with horses used for everywhere. The milk man was still flogging his horse to death to get him up icy hills so you'd get your morning milk in the 1930s. Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp were umpiring boxing matches in the 1920s. As George Macdonald Fraser remarked in The Hollywood History of the World, Westerners were right there when Americans started making movies.

  4. Westerns in the 1950s appealed to people who'd grown up with horses used for everywhere. The milk man was still flogging his horse to death to get him up icy hills so you'd get your morning milk in the 1930s. Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp were umpiring boxing matches in the 1920s.

    Dunno ... the children who wore Davy Crockett outfits and flocked to Western movies in the 1950's were born after the everyday use of horses had ended and after the last Western legends had died. Whatever caused Crockett-mania, it must have been something other than memories.

    At around the same time, the military (dis)honored Crockett's memory by putting his name on one of the most ludicrous weapons of all time, the Davy Crockett Atomic Rifle. Depending on terrain and other conditions, the lethal radiation radius of its warhead could be greater than its maximum range, making the use of one a rather dubious proposition :)


  5. New name for the blog?


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