How do you know it’s a costume

Lucy McKenzie

How do you know it’s a costume if it’s just a pair of black trousers and a white shirt?

You know because it’s made of cheap nylon, and it’s sold as a complete set in a bag, with a picture of the manga character it corresponds to on the front. The same goes for a tracksuit with JAPAN written like the FILA logo across the front, or a school uniform with a fake Harris Tweed scarf included. The closest analogy might be a novelty outfit from a sex shop, or a costume for Carnival or Halloween. But the ready-made manga looks sold in bags are different from these clearly-assigned costumes. Firstly, because they are very well-made. All the printed motifs match perfectly at the seams, and every detail, down to the faux label inside, has been carefully considered. And because of the context in which they are sold: a department store on Otome Road in Ikebukuro, Tokyo, that caters to the Fujoshi subculture of adolescent fan-girls who self-publish and consume homoerotic cartoons featuring their favourite male characters from mainstream manga. As well as the comics and outfits, wigs, make-up, and guides on how to emulate idols like The Prince of Tennis are on sale. They don’t seem to be for participation in public festivals, but for a more private universe.

When does it stop being a costume?

When it’s nice to wear. When it’s constructed from good quality fabric and the design has been refined to flatter your figure. When it’s normalised to fall on the right side of the line. And when you decide it has become something else. The romance of traditional, folk and historical dress has always exercised a strong influence on contemporary fashion. Whether they are satisfying an appetite for exoticism or simply being absorbed into streetwear, for garments to cease functioning as costume they must have their impracticalities stripped out to conform to contem­porary standards of beauty, comfort and price.

When Atelier E.B decided to produce a series of neo-classical nylon tracksuits, it was the issue of costume that preoccupied us: the elasticity of the term, and how much we wanted, like our Fujoshi sisters, to conceal the special status the garments had for us. Adolf Loos claimed that nineteenth-century English tailoring was a cloak beneath which the bourgeois gentleman should hide his individualism (and perversions) from the public eye. Now tracksuits and trainers are standard units of dress, democratic and anonymous. But for us they contain as much folkloric fantasy as any kimono, and a comparable level of sexual charge. Analogous issues arose for the elements of the collection that resemble school uniform: a mundane black skirt, grey v-neck and polo-shirt are un­spectacular, but their suggestion of a uniform titillates the subconscious. By contrast, our lingerie, made in collaboration with the Belgian company Carine Gilson, is not meant to evoke the sensuality of the boudoir. Carine Gilson epitomises master craftsmanship, and we combine it with our less refined pieces to destabilise brand consistency, as well as work with one of our heroes.

Why are you more likely to see a glamour model in a football strip than a professional woman athlete?

Because the Football Association effectively banned women’s football for 50 years. Migration in fashion reflects cultural change: masculine attire being assimilated by women, the influence of outsiders on the majority, and sportswear’s never-ceasing stylistic expansion in all directions. The lack of support for women’s football is an example of a silent norm, and this irrationality is increasingly transparent. Like the Breton shirts and yellow waxed cagoules that would be useless if one was actually sailing, Atelier E.B’s sportswear is not for use at the gym. We sponsor Leith Athletic Ladies All Ages Team, and their uniform, like any other football shirt, has a remarkable effect on the opposite sex. It works better than a push-up bra.

Did you get permission to make Charles Rennie Mackintosh jewellery?

No we didn’t, but neither did the companies who originally produced ‘Mockintosh’ in the 1980s and 90s. Mockintosh jewellery was well-designed and well-made, kept the local silversmithing industry alive, and is genuinely specific to Glasgow. It re­presents an alternative narrative in Scottish design, but because it was consumed mainly by women, and because its authenticity is questionable, it has never been designated as a legitimate represen­tation of Glasgow’s famed local culture.

What is Scottish style?

In the heightened political awareness provoked by the vote for Scottish independence in 2014, this seemed an issue that was worth exploring inde­pend­ently of the hierarchies and institutions that usually shape its definition. The loyalists waving Union Jacks made Rangers Football Club strips even more unfashionable. The Scotsman newspaper went the way of the Paisley shawl. The Royal Bank of Scotland’s ‘RBS’ logo on Scottish rugby shirts became an icon of hypocrisy at a time when the company was threatening to move its headquarters abroad if Scotland chose independence. A viable future felt like one that did not pander to romantic clichés from either the left or the right. Scottish style should remain uncommodifiable, but to ignore it would be wrong. There is Scottish heraldry in The Inventors of Tradition II, but it is rendered in pixels, like a hieroglyph on the threshold of offence.