Humankind likes to be scared. In all stages of our history, threatening representations of the abnormal inspired rituals, myths, ceremonies, horror stories and a vast imagery capable to intimidate the established mechanism of societies and individuals.
Fear attracted and revealed a questioning of concepts that betrayed secret phantasms and frustrations of the human race. In the old bestiary of monsters, the vampire is perhaps the most famous. From demonic fallen angels, monsters born from unbaptized children, heartless predatory beasts and devilish demons to the modern nostalgic, romantic and syrupy specimens, vampires became popular as a liquefied prototype of the scary sensational that explains their success over the centuries.
This charismatic superstar from folktales, legends and Gothic fiction had the same magnetism in cosplay as well (it seems hard not to become a prey of this experienced old hunter). We’ll briefly enter this cosplay ghostland and try to contemplate their powerful stylish response, mentioning only a few examples of costumes about the undead from this treasure chest of popular culture.
For this mainstream subject, no door is easy to open, if you want to be more than a Halloween buddy or another annoying pain in the neck and really stand out in this global vampiric cosplay scene.
What could be the secret formula to attract public attention? Without supernatural abilities and certainly lacking the necessity of sucking people’s blood, these harmless impersonators draw their inspiration from the very same old deviant and polymorphous prototype that became a success of entertainment or left mankind without sleep over the centuries.
Engaging in cosplay after vampires from the entertainment industry turned into an amusing experience, a theatrical practice and a guilty pleasure. Hoping to take possession of the hearts of those that contributed to the celebrity of this marginalized and oppressed dead spirits, and certainly become just as feared and desired, cosplayers from all over the world chose as inspiration characters from Gothic fiction, movies (cult classics) or animation that appealed to the masses: Dracula (and his German version Orlok), Lestat, Louis, Spike, Myiu (the vampire princess), Kaname Kuran, Zero, Abel Nightroad and so many others.
More or less elaborate, vampire costumes illustrate perfectly the never-ending transformation of their cultural prototype. A cosplayer has a long vampiric fashion collection to choose from: starting with fearsome heartless beasts (that need high skills in makeup and composition and a strong personality) and ending with vampire lords that evolved from nocturnal predators into diurnal nostalgic hybrids.
Some costumes became a mockery due to overuse: for a few decades, the costume attributed to Dracula (the famous black and red cape) became a cliché that in the end ridiculed the VIP count of the movie industry. You certainly can’t take too many Princes of Darkness, not even for Halloween.
Anyways, that certainly didn’t spoil the fun completely, since no vampire can compare to Dracula as far as celebrity is concerned. His representations throughout the ages are most of the times surprising and formidable: the Devil himself, a cruel prince, a bloodthirsty tyrant, the lord of the undead, an immoral count with three brides, a ridiculous Halloween celebrity, count Chocula etc. For those trying to copy the beautiful costumes from the movie Dracula directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the challenge isn’t an easy task.
I am very fond of Eiko Ishioka’s costumes, a Japanese fashion designer that never saw a Dracula movie before getting the job, but understood the very nature of the characters and their “weird connections”. The director himself said in the same interview (available on YouTube) that he would insist more on the costumes than on the set, that the costumes will be in fact the set.
Willing to create her own vision and „completely throw away” Dracula’s cliché look from the film industry, Eiko Ishioka created “crazy designs” (as she calls them in an interview) with various sources of inspiration: the human muscles, insects, cocoons, armadillos, the frilled lizard, The Kiss by Gustav Klimt, snakes, Victorian fashion etc. Certainly, Dracula’s shape shifting nature and million faces cannot be rendered in cosplay that easily. The red costume of the count with the sophisticated hairstyle and long trail has one cosplay worth mentioning so far, and I also managed to find an interpretation of Dracula’s first apparition in the movie, the other red costume used in battle inspired most probably after the human muscular system and with the legendary helmet with horns.
Lucy’s costume, on the other hand, deserves at least that much attention: the young aristocrat with a strong potential of femme fatale that falls victim to Dracula’s powers and becomes a vampire also has sensational costumes. Her scary white wedding dress in which she was buried surely has to be worn in style: with reptilian moves and the creepy look of a creature born to the darkness to bring destruction and death. Kathe Jimenez seems to know her moves. The most dramatic feature of Lucy’s dress is the broad well-known collar inspired by the frilled lizard and decorated with sophisticated whitework embroidery, the key part of the costume that completes the creepy white translucent layers of gauzes with a grid-like pattern of symmetrical non-figurative motifs. It is a symbolic design with direct reference to the sexual mores and animal instincts of the character.
The illustration of the vampire as a strong sexual predator, inherited from Lord Byron and Romanticism, became in fact a priceless inspiration for the modern entertainment industry that speculated the huge power of the so-called “arousing material”. Dracula’s brides became typical examples, or prototypes, of the erotic vampire defying various prejudices and prohibited male sexual fantasies. Often illustrated as femmes fatales with licentious lesbian behavior and dressed accordingly in order to seduce their victims, these half-naked “women of the pit” with no shadow illustrate the depraved hidden part of the human being.
Bram Stoker himself describes those immoral brides as fascinating and dangerous apparitions with “scarlet lips”, “teeth that shone like pearls”, a “silvery, musical laugh”, “dark piercing eyes” or “eyes like pale sapphires” and “thrilling voluptuousness” capable to make men uneasy and face their dreamy fears: “I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips. It is not good to note this down, lest some day it should meet Mina’s eyes and cause her pain, but it is the truth”.
As far as the cosplay scene is concerned, so far I have found no praiseworthy costumes made after Eiko Ishioka’s designs (the stunning Oriental-inspired dresses and opulent hairstyles that illustrate the craftsmanship of the designs), only costume versions from the brides from Van Helsing. The costumes are designed to illustrate the fluid silhouettes of the brides: with almost weightless fabrics, large opening dropped sleeves, loose fitting seams, extravagant Oriental trimmings and elaborate embellishments (in a way, those costumes are stereotypes, compared to Ishioka’s glorious versions).
„Interview with the Vampire” is another illustration of modern vampires: those inspired after Gothic fiction, the „humanized vampires” (or the vampires with a heart, but not necessarily good hearted). Looking back at this classic cult movie, made with Hollywood’s top sexiest actors of the 1990s (Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and Antonio Banderas), a lump comes to my throat, then sparkles to my eyes and waves of flashbacks. The vicious, cold-blooded Lestat, the lonely and scrupulous Louis, the theatrical Aramand… The modern vampires in baroque clothes illustrated here are less powerful than Dracula, but their magnetism comes from their complicated psyche. The 18th century costumes bring all the action to life: the frock coat made for Louis and Lestat (cut just above the knee), the white long stockings and classic 18th century shoes, the ruffled poet (pirate) shirt, the sophisticated vest that requires very good fabric, the Victorian bustle gown of Claudia, etc.
Some of those vampires need special attention, because they are from the „new generation”. Old folktales and morals tell us that villains die in the end, because the order and harmony are always reestablished, but modern times revealed different sorts of fears and unpredictable dangers. That explains why Dracula is killed in the end, while Lestat survives and, in the final scene, we see him listening to Guns n’ Roses in a sinister rejuvenation. The old aesthetic of harmony and happy endings doesn’t seem reliable anymore here.
Another vampire fighting malevolent forces (or shinma) for the greater good is Myiu, the vampire princess from the Japanese homonymous series. This „evening beauty” always hunts in style alongside her companion Larva: unshod, having only a red ribbon around her right foot, she launches fire attacks, flies up in the air and uses teleportation to send the stray demons to the darkness. She is in fact a dhampir (half human, half vampire), both diurnal and nocturnal, who can see her reflection in the mirror and with no damage whatsoever from artefacts like garlic, stakes, crosses or holy water. This refined dhampir is not a pradator: although she needs to drink blood, the blood has to be offered to her freely. And if you think of cosplaying after her, apart from good fabric, I suppose you’d need that type of youthful beauty (the Japanese standard of beauty), a short height and the right attitude, because the white short yukata, the simple obi (meant to secure the yukata around the body), and the ribbons are not so difficult to make.
Vampire Knight brings other types of „educated” vampires, and the inspiration comes most probably from the Gothic prototypes. Classified into levels, their “monstrosity” is yet another occasion for meditation and unrest: the vampires from the „Night Class” are marginalized, segregated and unpredictable. Those from the higher levels seem domesticated enough, but the lower specimens remain frightening and vile.
This vampire society illustrates the same concept of „outsider”, or „stranger”, and some old Gothic fears: the fear of downgrade, the fear of the unexpected, of becoming a body without a soul (Zero), a lifeless monster. The restless vampire Zero certainly found a soft spot in the hearts of female shojo admirers, and that explains the numerous cosplays made after him. And so did Kaname Kuran, the high-handed ruler of this nocturnal society.
Both are presented as noble types that refuse to feed on humans and try to surpass their condition, or even save others from the fangs of lower ranked vampires. Even if you are not the biggest fan of the shojo genre, I guess a troupe of cosplayers in vampire uniforms could be an eye-catching image.
A similar unstable armistice between humans and vampires is the subject of the anime Trinity Blood, with constant post-Armageddon conflicts and dangers that the central character Abel Nightroad has to face to make possible this co-existence. Abel Nightroad is yet another type of vampire that illustrates the permanent transformations of his versatile kin: he is both a priest from Vatican and a crusnik, a specimen that drinks the dead blood of other vampires (something that brought death in Lestat’s era).
The costume of this futuristic member of the special operations group Ax couldn’t be less ultramodern and innovative. The aesthetic focus is on the magnificence of the Vatican costume and its elegant accessories: the long cassock looking more like a military elaborate costume with a standup collar and a T-shaped closure, with a set of two belts instead of the typical Vatican fascia, a pelerine (cape) with decorations in the shape of arrow ends, well-designed shoulder straps, white gloves with red crosses (usually, black is the color of clerics’ gloves, white is reserved only for the pope and the masters of ceremonies), a gold pectoral cross, a white stole (the long scarf for official duties, worn also by judges in court), all smartened up with perfectly round John Lennon eyeglasses. It’s no wonder I found so many cosplay versions made after him.
I wanted to mention a few vampires from games as well, namely Castlevania Lords of Shadow 2¸ because it brings into the scene a Dracula who falls victim to his own destiny (a typical Byronic image of a vampire that is always lonely and never understood…) and who must be powerful enough to defeat Satan himself. Certainly, a cosplayer in his right mind won’t try to find such superpowers and go out looking with his Shadow Whip for enemies in the streets, but surely will go to the gym to build some of Gabriel Belmont’s strong muscles and not fall into ridicule for failing to impersonate yet another Prince of Darkness.
After all, this character is a serious type, inspired most probably by a classic theme of satanic Romanticism of the 19th century: the vampire tormented by the past injustices of a hostile world. And his costume also needs serious attention to detail. He has the claws of a bird of prey and wears medieval boots, a „demonic” heavy metal “wrestling” belt with a skull and a fancy long jacket of intense red (a symbol of power and fame), with wide square shoulders and a pattern with golden arabesques and repeated four-leaf clover motifs, with the upper sleeves decorated with shields and the lower sleeves in the shape of large reptilian scales.
Castlevania 2 offers only vague references to Bram Stoker’ Dracula. Gabriel is Dracul, while Alucard is the (prepare…) Dhampir warrior son of the famous count. Alucard’s warrior costume from the Symphony of the Night version of Castlevania is designed to increase the charm and fascination of the character: pirate boots, a long black cape closed with a silver chain, a black military-style jacket enlivened by golden metal buttons and yellow ornate trimmings, a belt closed to the left, a white poet shirt with a big aristocratic bow, elegant black gloves and a sharp slender sword.
And that was only one Alucard from the vampirescape. The anime Hellsing introduces an Alucard that is no other than Dracula himself reinvented and readapted, working with the Hellsing Organization to fight evil vampires and demons. With his extreme power he annihilates all his enemies the “Natural Born Killer” way: with tremendous aggressiveness and theatrical humiliation.
His costume is a modern combination of styles meant to illustrate his new self: a black western charcoal suit and riding boots, a long duster coat, a bright red cravat, a chic hat with a wide brim and a pair of circular sunglasses.
Also, this time he activates in an era of technological progress, so he uses unique weapons designed to destroy his enemies straightaway (while in his old days he didn’t fight that much, but mostly commanded rats, bats, wolves and nature itself and used shape shifting and hypnosis).
Surely, our article was meant to be just a short account on this subject and its representations. The vampire is a strong and lengthy symbolic archetype with intimate connections to the profound aspects of our existence, so we should expect further memorable interpretations in the future.
Due to its incredible versatility, the vampire remains a proof of the fact that mankind wants to be immortal, to control minds and nature, to defy the patriarchal norms of morality and question the authorities that left us powerless, alone, introverted and discouraged. It is a symbol both of degeneration and regeneration, of freedom and damnation.
(Article published in the 8th issue of CosplayGEN magazine)
Okari Dane as Abel Nightroad (Trinity Blood) // Photo by Rigan
Viancod as Dracula (Dracula, 1992) // Photo by Aitsui Generis
Rainer as Kaname Kuran (Vampire Knight) // Photo by William Wong
Okari Dane as Abel Nightroad (Trinity Blood) // Photo by Rigan
Nathan Bissett as Alucard (Castlevania: Symphony of the Night) // Photo by FJT Photography
Monica works as a writer and translator, and is a passionate researcher of pop-culture, anthropology and cinema. In her spare time she also enjoys toy photography and often searches for old Japanese art toys to enlarge her collection. She also loves to discover monsters from old movies, folk tales, myths and legends of various cultures.