Jim Glaser - Conversations with Artists
What is the art of what you do ?
What I've been doing for the past 15-plus years mixes community and art. Kostume Kult started in 2002 because I love costuming and what the activity does for people. People who are shy aren't shy when they're wearing a fabulous costume — they’re as happy as they will ever be.
How did it start?
It all started when I discovered the NYC Halloween parade in the late 80’s and saw adults basically being kids. It was liberating. I saw how it brought together fashion, art and theatre and it became my thing to photograph. Witnessing tens of thousands of happy people walking up 6th Avenue was my first experience with what I call ‘conscious creative culture.’
What constitutes a costume?
There are two branches of costume. There’s Chic and then there's Geek. Chic is fashion, fabulous, outrageous, colorful. People on the Chic side are amazing but if you throw in an animal mask suddenly they’re role playing. I love the fact that in costume and fashion the line is pretty gray and I'm a big fan of people being more costumey more of the time.
What about the Geek Side?
I'm from the Geek Side. I grew up reading every form of sci-fi and fantasy. I played Dungeons and Dragons in college and I always liked playing roles. My Birthday is in April and as an Aires I started incorporating horns into my costumes. Ultimately when I turned 40 we started the Horned Ball because I didn’t want it to be about my birthday any more. So I took my interest in horned costumery and inflicted it upon everybody. Now The Horned Ball is one of the most richly creative events that goes on every year in New York.
What was your first NYC costume experience?
The first time I went to the Halloween Parade was a year after I got out of college. A friend of mine told me to put on a costume and meet him there. I wore a rubber Satan's mask paired with a black motorcycle jacket - that was my whole concept. My friend was wearing a broken Mickey Mouse head piñata. We were Mickey and Satan walking up 6th Avenue. I was shy; a freshman in the work world, not meeting any women, and all of a sudden I had every lingerie-wearing devil-babe hanging all over me. I whispered to my friend -- “we’re coming back every year.”
How does one approach costume wearing?
Different people get there different ways. Some people use it as a way to be expressive and all they need is a good event. Other people throw something on and get dragged by a friend somewhere. Suddenly they think ‘holy crap that was fun — when’s the next event?!’ Everybody has idea trauma when there's a theme party. That's why I started the Costume Network project. I wanted to post all the photos I was taking at the costume parties and the Halloween parade so people would have lots of photos to look through for inspiration on what to wear. I began writing articles which today would be called blog posts.
Is there a freeing element to wearing a costume?
Conformity is a bitch. The farther you go back in society the more being different was frowned upon. Being a freak, being flamboyant was only for rockstars or Hollywood. At a certain point it became cool and now I'm not afraid to wear a costume in public. I’m amazed when I’m dressed up on the subway how many people will say hi. It’s very freeing.
Is your life divided into Costume Jim and Jim Glaser/business guy?
I make my living as a high-level headhunter. During the 90s I was a pin-stripe-suit-wearing guy. Once a year at the Halloween Parade I was able to let the other piece of me out. I realized that I had to keep the Costume Network website content updated so I had to continue going to new parties to take more photos. When I wore a costume I got better pictures because people would smile at me in a crazy outfit, and so I was transitioning to a melding of ‘the two Jims.’ I went alone to Burning Man in 2001 as part of a Costume Network photography project and brought two or three costumes. I wrote the words Kostume Kult on a piece of cardboard and used it on the shade structure over my tent. Suddenly I was meeting all sorts of costume people. When the week ended I drove out and when I saw Burning Man recede in the rearview mirror the tears started to stream. That was when I made the decision that it was going to be more creativity more of the time. Jim Glaser and Costume Jim have melded to the point to where it’s really just Jim.
Is there a wide gap between people who ‘get it’ in the business world and people who don’t?
There is a gap, and I look for people with that twinkle in their eyes that tells me their child is alive as opposed to the people who are just too serious — maybe their child was never alive. Early on the Costume Network business plan was written by some Stanford Business School friends and it got me a trip out to Sand Hill Road to talk to some Venture Capitalists. One conversation in the office of a very well known guy stands out. He said “Jim, I like your energy - the problem is I’m not a costumer. I don’t know any costumers. I don’t know anybody who knows any costumers.” Looking around his office I developed a saying: ‘when you see golf trophies get the hell out of the room.’
How do you feel about the commodification of costumes at music events?
The first time we started to see Burning Man fashion on the cover of Vogue was kind of cool. So many people in media and fashion have gone to Burning Man at least once they just look around and go: ‘this is one of the most significant trends in our lifetime.’ What we’re seeing is a decentralized participatory culture that’s not about top-down, it's about middle-out. It allows more and more people to participate which allows creativity to come out of every corner, as opposed to a few of the old school fashion designers saying ‘hemlines are up, hemlines are down, brown is the new black.’ That's the old way. Now costume hemlines are wherever the hell you want them.
Is there a line you don't cross with costume?
We do draw some lines in Kostume Kult. We use the ten principles of Burning Man and radical inclusion is one of them. Allowing an opportunity for everybody to participate is important to us.
Part of Kostume Kult’s principles -- we have a constitution -- is we will not be bound by the strictures of political correctness. Kostume Kult is spelled with Ks because we’re not really a Kult - its an open arts collective. Whenever there’s a K where there should be a C there’s some culture jamming and also a little bit of danger -- when Klown is spelled with a K it’s not ok for kids. I'm very much on the side of free speech and culture jamming, but there are two sides. Clueless kids wearing full Indian war bonnets at Coachella not understanding the mass killing of American Indians crosses the line. There are certain lines where it’s no longer funny and the question to ask is what’s the difference between racist and racial. That’s a line that society still is working out. Ultimately, be conscious about what you’re doing. If you know Native American History and you’re going to wear a war bonnet -- have a narrative to it. Don’t just wear it because you think it’s pretty. Being unconscious and dumb about it is where the line is.
Talk a little more about Kostume Kult.
Kostume Kult is a complicated art project that is part community, and part themed events. As a sociologist’s son I thought about making something sustainable, building a community that will live on after me. As a recruiter, the goal was to start something then immediately begin succession planning so that other people will take it over. We now have a leadership committee, numerous creative collaborators and I no longer run the camp. At the end of the day, I’ve always wanted this to be decentralized and not top down. We've been ahead of many trends and now that I'm getting involved in the blockchain/crypto space I'm gratified that a lot of that is about decentralized organization building. As we grow and the movement expands I'm hoping that this is where the world is going.
If you could return to child Jim for a few magical moments and you could actually say something that he’d listen to, what would you say?
Being weird is cool. And that’s important because so many kids who are not right for a conformist universe feel that there’s something wrong with them. I now realize that those are the most interesting people. They were beaten up by the system. Other kids picked on them. Adults didn’t know what to do with them. But if they made it through whole they’re the most interesting adults. I was shy. I felt like a fish out of water so many times. And being self-conscious is kind of a cancer. You do not assert yourself in so many ways. I think of all the shoulda woulda couldas. But now I know being weird is cool. Be proud of it.