10/19/2012 05:00 pm ET Updated Dec 19, 2012

Wild in the Corridors: A Professor Cosplays at Comic Con

The men's room door squeals
Inside, a young man pulls on
A red super self

I took my husband, Steve, along to Comic Con last weekend but worried that he might be weirded out by the whole experience, especially the array of cosplayers (costume players) who swirled through the corridors of the Javits Center. Fortunately he enjoyed it to the point of composing a series of haiku poems in honor of both the costumes and the players (see above). I was one of those wearing a costume but I didn't make it into a poem. Darn.

Even so, I hadn't been to a con (convention) for several years and wanted to look good, especially since this was New York Comic Con, one of the mother ships of the popular culture con circuit. Since I was giving a talk on "Rose of Versailles," the classic Japanese manga and anime series set in eighteenth century France, I decided to go for the aristocratic look. I paid a small fortune to have my hair done up in a kind of pompadour and wore a crushed pink velvet jacket with iridescent buttons that I had bought at a men's clothing store. Very chic.

Unfortunately, no one noticed. Why would they? Among the welter of cosplayers weaving through the corridors in outfits that ranged from Wonder Woman to Pokemon, my little, understated effort stood out about as vividly as a single rose in a field of poppies. Still, I loved being part of that world, if only in a subtle way.

Why do people cosplay? I've spent a lot of years thinking about this question as part of my research and writing on popular culture. At least one reason that occurs to me is that dressing up in a different identity gives one a special kind of confidence. Not only do you create a new identity that may, at least temporarily, suit you better than your day to day one, but you can also create your own world and take it with you. In my velvet jacket and piled up hair I felt keenly in touch with Oscar, the cross dressing heroine of "Rose of Versailles" who manages to be feisty, feminine, glamorous and compassionate, all the while navigating through the feminine world of Marie Antoinette and the masculine realm of soldiers and the French Revolution.

I've only cosplayed one other time in my life and that was an equally memorable occasion. I was in Tokyo doing research for a book on anime fandom when I was invited to give a lecture for a science fiction seminar led by the wife of one of my university colleagues. I've given a lot of lectures in my career but this one had a nice twist to it--we were all to dress in kimono from the Taisho period, roughly 1920's Japan.

The day for the lecture came and it started snowing--"hatsuyuki"--the first snow of the season. I went to my colleague's apartment where his wife wound a silvery kimono and a bright obi sash around me. The obi was stiff and tight and made me stand up straighter. I felt supported and enclosed--kimono armor! I put up my hair and they slipped geta on my white-socked feet. Suddenly I was taller and statelier. Out into the snowy streets of Tokyo we plunged, holding old-fashioned parasols over our heads like something out of a woodblock print (if woodblock prints depicted fair-haired Westerners).

The room where the seminar took place was in an old fashioned building with tatami floors and shoji screens. I knelt on the tatami and proceeded to deliver my lecture which was on "Neon Genesis Evangelion," an apocalyptic anime series set in a devastated near-future Tokyo. "Evangelion" in a kimono? But it seemed exactly right. With everyone around me in kimono and the snow blanketing out the traffic noise, I felt as if were in a time machine, or rather a time canceling machine where past, present and future mixed and flowed together. Such is the power of cosplay. At the end of the seminar someone played the theme from "Evangelion" on the koto. We applauded and then it was time to step back into the real world.

But is there a difference any more between the "real world" and the "fantasy world"? Certainly in New York the worlds seemed more and more to blend together. Maybe Oscar from "Rose of Versailles" is the perfect examplar of how fantasy and reality these days slip and slide together like the sides of a Moebius strip. Not only is she a fictional character created by a Japanese woman who places her in the dreamlike but historically accurate world of revolutionary France, but she also must make her way through the worlds of femininity and masculinity, both arguably constructs in their own right. In our contemporary world where gender, ethnicity, race and place can sometimes seem increasingly constricting, Oscar and the realms of cons and cosplay suggest a hopeful release from our own mental captivity. Or, to quote another of Steve's haikus:

Shopping bags are filled
WIth hints of identities
To try on and dream