Dress Code by Marc Feustel

Oliver Sieber, Character Thieves & J_Subs

Skins, mods, teds, subs, cosplayers… subcultures of all kinds have been a central thread throughout Oliver Sieber’s career.
Since the mid-2000s, this theme has led to a particularly fruitful back-and-forth between his native Germany and Japan, more particularly Osaka, a city which he has been visiting regularly since his first photographic trip to Japan in 2005.

Two of Sieber’s series, Character Thieves and J_Subs, both of which are connected to Japan in different ways, are currently on show in an exhibition entitled Dress Code at the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn co-produced with the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto and the Kyoto Costume Institute.

Sieber’s relationship with Japan actually began in his hometown of Dusseldorf, a city with a significant Japanese influence that dates back to the post-war period. In 2004, while wandering through the city’s Japan town located in the area surrounding the Hotel Nikko, he first encountered the phenomenon of cosplay.

The term cosplay is a Japanese contraction of the English words costume play, referring to the practice of dressing up as fictional characters primarily from manga, anime, and video games. Although forms of cosplay first emerged in the early twentieth century, modern cosplay began to become a major international phenomenon in the 1990s. The practice is commonly associated with fandom and with those die-hard fans known as otaku in Japanese. Cosplay developed as these dedicated fans began constructing elaborate handmade costumes to emulate their favourite characters as faithfully as possible. These cosplayers would then come together to show off their creations and to meet up with other passionate devotees. While they sometimes gather in urban areas such as Dusseldorf’s Japan town or Tokyo’s Harajuku district, the primary gathering place for cosplayers is the fan convention.

From its beginnings, photography has always played an important part in the cosplay world, with a specific genre developing in which cosplayers attend events specifically to model their chosen characters for attending photographers. These photography sessions are usually highly performative and follow strict rules of etiquette, as many cosplayers do not want to share any personal information or be photographed without permission. In fact, despite the attention-grabbing exuberance of their costumes, many cosplayers are highly private people who are more interested in finding a like-minded community than in developing a broad audience.

When he first happened on a group of cosplayers in Dusseldorf, Sieber was intrigued by the trend and the parallels he saw with the musical subcultures and their associated dress codes that played such an important part in his youth. He began to investigate further and was able to contact cosplayers through the online forums they used to communicate with each other. This led to Character Thieves, a series of portraits of young cosplayers in costume which is a complete departure from the highly codified practice of cosplay portraiture. Although cosplay has become a major merchandising business, with much of the practice involving standardized off-the-shelf outfits, Sieber was drawn to the creativity and dedication of those fans that invested so many hours into making their own costumes.

In Howl, Leverkusen (2007), a young woman wears an intricate handmade costume representing the character Howl from Hayao Miyazaki’s anime classic, Howl’s Moving Castle. She is covered head-to-toe in black feathers with an impressive pair of wings spread out behind her. Although it is shot with a large format camera, like the others in the series, the image has a candid feel, as if Sieber had happened upon his subject lost in thought, somehow unaware of the photographer’s presence. The mood is diametrically opposed to the exuberant, effusive energy of most official cosplay photography, with a cooler, more aloof treatment.

As with Howl, in Character Thieves, the spectacular nature of the costumes contrasts directly with the muted expressions of those wearing them. The cosplay practice of performing the character for the camera and attempting to emulate its personality or character traits—thereby disappearing into its fictional persona—is replaced by a candid moment in which the person beneath the costume comes to the surface. Although her body is almost entirely covered by the costume, the focus in Howl, Leverkusen is drawn to the young woman’s pale face. These intimate, sometimes awkward moments are emblematic of the search for identity that is central to cosplay. For those involved in it—often adolescents and young adults—the practice provides a very literal way of taking on a new identity by slipping into another skin.

Although I wasn’t able to see the show, I am curious to know how Sieber’s photographs were presented in the context of a fashion exhibition. Alongside work by other European, American and Japanese artists, these images go beyond the fetishization of the fashion object to invite us to consider the role of clothing in constructing our identities and communicating them to others, not only expressing who we are but with whom we belong.

While they were shot over a decade ago, the Character Thieves and J_Subs series currently on show in Bonn have acquired a new resonance at a time when identity is becoming an increasingly fluid concept. As notions of gender are being broken apart, reconfigured and expanded, it seems that the cosplay ethos that “anybody can be anything” is (finally) spreading into society more broadly. If anything, that newfound resonance has been heightened by the global pandemic and its associated periods of lockdown and isolation. To paraphrase the title of Sieber’s award-winning book which brings together many of his series on different subcultures, over the past year we have all had to become members of a club of the imagination, a club in which we need to reimagine ourselves and hope to find community in the process.

The environments in which these full-length portraits are shot also play an important role in the series. Sieber avoided the standardized settings of fan conventions, meeting his subjects in their domestic surroundings to make each portrait. The series also includes cityscapes made close to the cosplayers’ homes, further situating the characters in familiar, everyday urban environments. These banal settings, whether in Germany, Japan or the United States, replace the characters’ usual fantastical worlds, as if to reimagine cosplay as a permanent transformation rather than a temporary performance. In Sieber’s portraits, the characters embodied by the cosplayers recede into the background of the image, bringing the individual’s search for identity to the surface and their attempt to express that identity through the visual language of costume. While these cosplayers’ outfits are outside the norms of everyday dress, the process of costume play involved is one which we all participate in on a daily basis.

While the phenomenon of cosplay is primarily performative and theatrical, in J_Subs which was photographed in Osaka around the same time, Sieber focused on the underground music scene and the fans he dubbed “J_Subs”, a moniker derived from the UK-Subs, one of the bands to emerge in the first wave of British punk in the late 1970s. During his first trips to Japan, Sieber was naturally drawn to the underground music scene which echoed the rockabilly and punk scenes he knew from his youth in Germany, providing him with an opportunity of connecting to a new, unfamiliar place.

Many photographic projects undertaken by Westerners in Japan participate in a process of othering, a fascination with and fetishization of the country’s “strange” or “exotic” traits. However, Japan has become a central theme in Sieber’s work through the parallels he was able to find with his own background.

In the absence of a shared spoken or even written language, we become more reliant on other forms of communication to connect with a different culture. In Japan the use of the visual languages of fashion and costume—from the futuristic to the traditional—is extraordinarily sophisticated, constituting a complex symbolic lexicon to be explored. In series such as J_Subs, Sieber’s photographs show how these visual symbols have been “translated” from Europe to Japan, retaining their significance while adapting it to this new cultural context—a process of Japanization which has been a central pillar in the development of Japanese culture.

The J_Subs photographs—head-and-shoulders portraits against a neutral background which were shot on the fly in the concert venues Sieber attended—are more pared down than those of Character Thieves. While there is still a performative aspect to these outfits, the pop culture of cosplay gives way to a culture of provocation and rebellion. As with the cosplayers he photographed, these young J_Subs are also searching for their identity and for a community outside the norms of mainstream society. Whether they are teds, mods, or punks, each musical scene has its own style and dress codes and while they all share some of cosplay’s performative facets, they relate less to nostalgia and aesthetics than to many of the socioeconomic factors which led to these subcultures developing in Europe in the first place. Indeed, a majority of those featured in the series belong to minority groups that find themselves pushed to the social and economic periphery of Japanese society. Through these musics of protest and their associated fashion codes, they are able to push back against this marginalization and to form a necessary community of support in the process.