Costuming for Live-Action Roleplaying Games

I have been an avid fan of role-playing games since the early 90s, when friends at my high school put together a gaming club. We would spend one afternoon a week, after school, playing whatever game someone was willing to run that day, usually AD&D. While in college, I found a game that I enjoyed even more – Vampire: the Masquerade. It combined my love of role-playing games with my fascination with vampires. Not too long afterwards, I was introduced to the concept of LARP – live-action roleplaying. Now I had role-playing games, vampires, improv acting, and costuming! I was in heaven… or at least I was when I finally got to start LARPing, a few years later.

Over the past 8 years of LARPing, I’ve been heavily involved in costuming for my characters. I’ve gone as far as to convert, via hand sewing, a pair of jeans into a skirt, over the course of a single day, just so I could wear exactly what I wanted for the game that night. It is entirely possible that I’m a bit of an extremist when it comes to LARP costuming. But I have picked up a few pieces of practical advice from which someone new to LARPing in general, or costuming for a LARP might learn.

Keep it simple:
Pick one thing, and use it as a part of all of your costumes for that character. This one thing can be anything from color, to a certain jacket or cloak, to a piece of jewelry, or even a prop (see below for more on accessories). My only recommendation here is that rarely will you want to pick “black” as your “one thing.” Too many Vampire LARPers wear all black for their costuming (and even in their everyday life). Go with a different color, and change things up a little bit.

I actually had one character (Dr. Luisa Dunsirn, Ventrue) who never wore black. She was of the opinion that all black is far too overdone among Kindred, so she went for the opposite extreme and wears colors. Yes, it was a bit difficult for me to come up with a variety of costumes for her, but the consistent theme of no black helped to make her stand out.

No, even simpler than that:
You can even go as far as to have your character wear the same clothes week in and week out. Preferably, if you choose this method, you have easy access to laundry facilities, so that your costume can be clean every week. Or you might be lucky enough to have several of the same shirt, pants, or whatever. Also, if you keep the general idea of the costume the same, this can also work for this theory.

Morgan, my Nosferatu antitribu Bishop, is a prime example of this. She used Mask of 1000 Faces to make herself look like Death, from the Sandman comics. So my costume each week was a black tank top, black jeans with a wide belt, black boots, and an ankh necklace. I had a couple of pairs of black jeans, and I would occasionally change things up with a different style of tank top, or a different style of black pants. Yeah, it’s all black; yeah, it’s kinda silly to dress like a comic book character; but it worked for Morgan. There was even some in character significance behind the choice to look like Death, too.

Know why you’re wearing it:
Which brings us to another good point. As a player, knowing why your character wears the clothing he or she does can be significant. Were you Embraced in the 1980s? Then why not wear some of the styles of that decade? (hideous as they may be compared with modern fashion… though I’ve seen a lot of 80s styles making a comeback recently) Are you an elder? Use little hints to denote the fact that you’re not from around here (in a temporal, rather than spatial, sense). While I wouldn’t recommend trying to get a historical costume, you can look at the older clothing, note some of the aspects of it that you find interesting or flattering, and try to find modern clothing that incorporates those aspects. Bringing in aspects of your character’s background through his or her costuming both helps you embrace that character’s mindset, and gives those around you some tiny hints about your character’s outlook.

For example, Elzbiet, my Tzimisce, was Embraced in the 1700s in Germany. To her, pants are a very modern style for women. She has always worn skirts, and really doesn’t like the idea of wearing pants. So for her, I wore a lot of long skirts, and blouses that reminded me of an older style. I even found a really great blouse that looked like a black corset over a loose white shirt.

On the flipside of that, Magdalena, a Ventrue that I worked on, but never played, who was Embraced about the same time, and in the same location, can’t stand the thought of wearing a skirt. She was subjected to that cruelty for too long as a mortal. She also spent time during her mortal life dressing as a man. Thus her style is much more likely to incorporate features of men’s clothing, even going so far as to wear a shirt and tie.

The ethnic, racial, and/or cultural background of your character might also give you some ideas. Do a little research here, and you’ll be sure to find something that you could incorporate. I’m actually embarrassed to say that I found, in passing, a note that said that honest Gypsy women don’t wear red, except for on their wedding day (and then as a symbol of their virginity). This, just a week after I wore my new red pants for Dani Ghivanni, a Ravnos of Rom descent! Not to say that Dani is particularly “honest,” but, had I known this fact earlier, I would have carefully steered clear of red clothing for her costuming.

Be consistent:
Believe it or not, even though you may not get a lot of comments on your costuming, other players do notice it. I learned this when I was playing my first LARP character, Elise Marshall, a Ventrue. Elise and one of her clanmates, Gavin, always dressed to kill. We were nearly as well dressed as the Toreador, most nights. One night, Dave (the player of Gavin) and I decided to have a “dress down” night, where we came to Elysium in more casual clothes. We had a LOT of people asking us if we were playing different characters that night. People had gotten used to the dressy outfits, and the casual clothes confused them.

This comment is particularly helpful for people who play a lot of different characters, like STs (StoryTellers), who have a lot of NPCs (Non-Player Characters) to portray. Sure, a card denoting which NPC you’re playing is helpful, but if that’s the only change you make, then a lot of people will have to drop out of character, go to where you are, look at the tag, and then resume what they were doing. If your costume is consistent whenever you play a certain NPC, it makes things a lot easier on the players. As another caveat, though, it does have to be something fairly obvious. When I ran my own game, I had three primary NPCs that I played: Sophia (Toreador), Octavia (Malkavian), and Gillian (Lasombra posing Ventrue). For each of them, in addition to having a style, I would fix my hair differently for each one. No one noticed the hair. Even when I asked them about it. *sigh*

But, at the same time, don’t be afraid to change a little:
When you play a character for long enough, it only makes sense that his or her style might change over time. For example, I played Dani on and off for more than two years, making her my longest lived character (we change who runs the LARP, and thus change characters, a LOT in this area).

When Dani first came into play, her costume was primarily utilitarian: heavy olive green “Army” pants with lots of pockets, hiking boots, and fairly practical shirts, with a little bit of a bohemian / Hippie flavor. About the only concession to fashion was a cute little butterfly tattoo. Before arriving in the city, Dani had been a wanderer, and it was critical for her to have clothing that gave her ease of movement and could take heavy wear.

Shortly after that, once she was more settled, her clothing began to shift towards slightly less practicality. It wasn’t too much of a problem to wear a skirt once in a while, and her shirts could be more loose and flowing. Butterflies continued as a motif, moving from the temporary tattoos to shirts printed with a butterfly pattern.

And then she made the acquaintance of D, a Brujah Latin King. And purple started creeping more and more into her wardrobe – little hints at first, gradually growing, until the night that someone noticed that nearly her entire outfit was purple.

In more recent nights, Dani’s clothing has incorporated aspects of all of these styles, edging ever so slightly to a little bit gothier feel. I’ve also been known to do “theme nights,” like the time she showed up looking as much like Trinity (from “The Matrix”) as possible. It was only the fact that I wasn’t playing her right after seeing “Pirates of the Carribean” that kept me from dressing as a pirate one night, and really wreaking havoc.

The big thing about changing your costume over time is to keep the themes running through it. In Dani’s case, it’s been butterflies, purple, and her Gypsy heritage (head scarves and the like). Dani’s themes are so ingrained now that I’ve discovered a couple of things. One is that when I go clothes shopping, I can easily find plenty of stuff to be “Dani clothes,” even though it’s not the type of clothes I would wear much in my normal day to day life… and I think of it as “Dani clothes,” to the point of saying “Dani would wear that,” as if Dani were a real person. The other is that I really have to make sure that my future characters/NPCs don’t wear much purple (or other things that I consider “Dani clothes”), to prevent confusion!

Diamonds are a girl’s best friend:
Well, they are, but that’s not really the point here. The point is: accessories. Accessories can make a good costume absolutely fabulous, and accessories can be used for switching quickly from one character or NPC to another.

Accessories don’t have to be jewelry, though they certainly can be. Morgan had her ankh necklace, as well as a gold engagement ring. Dani has some pilfered jewelry – a ring, a necklace, and a single earring – that she won’t part with easily, along with an anklet that includes the fangs of some Sabbat she helped kill. The jewelry in question doesn’t need to be anything expensive (and it’s better if it’s not). It just gives you an anchor to the character, and something to play with if you’re fidgety (like me).

Hats can be some of the greatest accessories. Typically, they work better for male characters, but Amber Knight, a Setite I played, was fond of a slightly oversized fedora (kept the light out of her face). One of the male characters that a friend of mine played was infamous for his sock hat (beanie); another never goes anywhere without his “battle cap.” Hats are particularly good for NPCs, as they tend to stand out more visibly than jewelry or some items of clothing.

Jackets, vests, or cloaks are also great accessories, though it takes the right character to pull off a cloak and not look silly. One of the STs in a game I played in portrayed an NPC that wore a full hooded robe; no one needed to ask him who he was portraying when he walked in like that. Another ST played an NPC that wore chainmail… and he had a full shirt of it on while portraying that NPC. The only advice I have about wearing jackets and the like as a costume piece is this: be sure you know how the climate control in your game site is before you commit to a heavy accessory of this sort. I honestly don’t know how long I would want to wear a full hooded robe if we were playing outside, in the summer!

Which reminds me of yet another thing. There are some costumes that just aren’t practical. Those tend to be the ones that are more expensive. If you want to shell out lots of money on costuming, more power to you. But most LARPers are poor college students, or poor just-graduated people, or the like. So if you have an expensive costume, and you want to wear it, make sure you won’t be wearing it to a site where it’s likely to get destroyed.

I’ve played in a few LARPs that take place partially or entirely outside. Those are the LARPs where I wear clothes that I really don’t care much about. On the flipside, for special events, some of the games I’ve played in have been known to get great sites. That’s when I’ll break out the prom dresses… and anyway, I only paid $10-20 for those, too.

Do not, I repeat, DO NOT plan on shopping at major chains if you want your character to actually have a wardrobe… unless you and your character dress exactly the same (which is weird in and of itself). You might be able to find a few choice pieces here and there, on clearance, but there really is no reason to spend a whole lot on costuming for a hobby, right?

I do most of my shopping for game at Good Will. On these shopping trips, I’ve managed to acquire about half a dozen prom dresses, none of which cost me more than $20 (and most were far less than that). I’ve found clothes with the tags still on them, with brand name labels, for less than half of what they would sell for in the store. Through doing this, I’ve accumulated a sizable game wardrobe. Most of it is designed to be worn for one or two characters, but some of the clothes can easily be used, in different combinations, for nearly an infinite number of characters.

The big thing about shopping for LARP clothes is that while you will want to stick to the theme of your character, you won’t want to buy anything that is too geared towards a single character. As we all know, even the best loved characters die, or are retired, some day. Dani has been retired from being an active character for a couple of years now. When I stopped playing her, I looked in my game closet (yes, I kept a separate closet for game clothes), and realized that there was a good chunk of that closet that wouldn’t be worn again for a while, once Dani was out of play. So I took some of it down, packed it into boxes, and remembered that it was there when I worked on a future character. Anyway, I needed the hangers… 😉

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