Dressing like a rogue Catholic priest in search of demons and vampires created by Nazis might not immediately evoke thoughts of fashion — let alone pay homage to East Asian culture.
But Marylander Andrew Swetz thinks he is doing just that each year as he dresses in Asian comic book-inspired outfits at Otakon, a three-day gathering of Asian culturural enthusiasts in Baltimore's Inner Harbor.
The event — said to be the oldest and second-largest of its kind — attracts more than 25,000 people, as well as a fair share of stares from puzzled tourists who likely don't understand why throngs of people are walking the streets of Baltimore dressed as anime, comics and video game characters.
"It's a way to express yourself," said Swetz, a 25-year-old Parkville resident. "It is fun to act like other people. It is a break from reality."
Otakon, a membership-based convention, has been a mainstay in Baltimore since moving to the city in 1999. The conference, which is sponsored by Otakorp Inc., a Pennsylvania-based educational nonprofit group, originated in State College, Pa., in 1994. Not to be confused with Comic-Con, the large gathering of comics enthusiasts held annually in San Diego, Otakon's mission is to promote the appreciation of East Asian culture, primarily through media and entertainment.
"When you are celebrating shows like 'Grey's Anatomy,' it's hard to relate that to comics," said Jim Vowles, an Otakon spokesman, in reference to Comic Con. "Our focus is different. It's narrower — East Asian culture."
Otakon is not as much of an obscure fringe gathering as you might think. The Western Hemisphere regularly borrows heavily from East Asia.
Gwen Stefani's backup dancers, the Harajuku Girls, are said to be influenced by Japanese culture. Madonna's "Rain" video in 1993 had a definite Japanese feel. The video included Ryuichi Sakamoto, a famous Japanese musician. Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" movies pay homage to Japanese yakuza films, Japanese samurai cinema and kung fu movies of the 1960s and 1970s.
Tarantino's movie includes a memorable anime scene that serves as a flashback for a character. And then there is "The Matrix" trilogy, slick action movies dripping with East Asian influences. And stores such as Hot Topic carry clothes sporting anime characters.
"A lot of the things really bleed through in TV shows, music, some forms of fashion and movies," said Michael Flury, a 24-year-old Towson resident, who has been a part of Otakon since 2003. "It has become more accepted because people do not recognize it immediately or it is very subtle. But It is definitely there."
Just because the male-heavy Otakon is swimming with a bunch of self-professed "geeks" doesn't mean that fashion is ignored.
Some participants spend the entire year gathering accessories and pieces for their elaborate costumes. There are contests where participants are judged on their craftsmanship in creating costumes, and on craftsmanship and acting ability — known as cosplay. The conference will feature a fashion show Saturday by H. Naoto, a Japanese avant-garde designer.
Otakon costumes can be as simple as wearing an outfit fashioned from duct tape to spending several thousands of dollars on replica garments.
"There is the right way to do it," Flury said. "You can build the costume yourself, and it means more to you. That is the more fulfilling part."
Swetz ordered his costume from China for close to $200. "It gets more expensive the more elaborate you are," said Swetz, who went as far as bleaching his hair to match the character he is portraying. "If I can't get it right, I won't do it."
Vowles, 40, compares the fashion of Otakon to theater or mascot costumes.
"There is a lot of overlap in construction technique and over-the-topness," he said. "These people are generally hobbyists."
Otakon also has the reputation of attracting scantily dressed women, something that organizers have attempted to thwart over the years.
"The outfits can be pretty revealing," said Flury. "There were a couple in the last few years. One had a couple pieces of leather put over specific areas. It was just enough to cover the necessities, and it was pretty revealing. We told them that they needed to cover that up. Logic just doesn't kick in for them. For the most part, they are pretty modest and well-covered."
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