Costume is challenging to categorize, that is to say, one person’s “fashion” in a different context will be perceived as “costume” to someone else and vice versa. Take for example, the case of the West Memphis Three (WM3) which regained national attention last week when the three in question, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were released after eighteen years of what many supporters believe to be wrongful conviction and imprisonment. The three entered an Alford plea, which according to the Arkansas based Times Record, “allowed them to continue maintaining they are innocent while admitting that the state could produce enough evidence to convict them if they were tried again.”
A closer examination of the case reveals the WM3 were indeed convicted of murdering three boys based, as Mara Leveritt, whose book Devil’s Knot recounts the trail and conviction, in part, on the fact that Jason owned “11 black T-shirts” and Damien wore a wardrobe of black that Leveritt reports Damien started wearing to please a girl who liked the way he looked in black.
The way they dressed helped to convince a jury that these boys were part of a devil worshiping cult that believed in and practiced ritual human sacrifice. It almost sounds as if it could be the plot to an episode of South Park doesn’t it?
At the very same time, many Miamians were dressing in black and going dancing at the Kitchen Club. They were going to see Interview with the Vampire author, Anne Rice, at the Miami Book Fair and in the early nineties a young adult in Miami could put on their chicest black ensemble and catch local band, Marilyn Manson, opening for the Genitorturerers at the Cameo in Miami Beach. As Leveritt points out Miami Herald reporter Robin Dougherty was quoted as saying that Damien’s haircut and attire “wouldn’t get a second look at South Beach.”
This brings us back to South Park, whose creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker – Parker has been a prominent WM3 supporter – tackle the subject of fashion as costume quite well in South Park’s season twelve episode 14: The Ungroundable. In this episode we see the Goth Kids versus the “douchey Vamp Kids”. We are told in program notes, that the Goth kids hate the Vamp Kids for stealing their style. The mystery of why this sudden rampant style crime is occurring is solved when the South Park Goth kids realize that Hot Topic, a retail fashion chain store for customers with “a passion for music and pop culture”, has opened at the local mall. The typical South Park mayhem ensues and, as usual, the problem is solved by a rampant act of very bad behavior. The Goth kids get their conformist, non-conformist style back to themselves and Trey Parker and Matt Stone get to write a very catchy satirical Goth song which stays in the viewers’ head for days. Non-conformity has once more triumphed over the mainstreaming trendification of its signature fashion. This is to say, it’s all fun and games until fashion metaphorically pokes someone’s eye out.
It is perplexing that the way individuals choose to dress is such a volatile issue that clothing choices could help to convince a jury that satanic cult activity was the explanation for the unspeakable crime that was the murder of three eight year olds, Chris Byers, Michael Moore, and Steve Branch. The prosecution built much of its case around the way Echols dressed, what music he listened to and what authors he read. Things that many of us think of as popular culture and fashion were seen as the costume and trappings of evil.
Twenty years later, the prosecution tactic in the WM3 case seems almost ludicrous, but at the time there was a common belief, now generally disproven, that satanic ritual abuse of children was prevalent in the United States. For a fascinating look at this point in law enforcement history read the 1992 FBI Report –Satanic Ritual Abuse By Kenneth V. Lanning, Supervisory Special Agent Behavioral Science Unit National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime then after reading the report watch the two HBO films that brought the case to prominence, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996) and Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (1999) read the Devil’s Knot and notice the correlations between what Lanning writes about the training on the subject and how the investigation and trial of the WM3 was conducted. Seriously, a Metallica T-shirt is grounds for suspicion. Remember these were national law enforcement training conferences, how many people in South Florida in 1993 would have been in all kinds of trouble if their closets were raided?
In closing, there are two additional facts that are important to note.
The first is, that for the first eleven of the eighteen years Damien Echols sat on death row and Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley served time towards life in prison, a man in Kansas got up every morning and dressed in “normal’ clothes to go to work and to the Christian church where he was once the church council president. And it makes one wonder, if while he tightened his tie and smoothed his short cropped balding hair did, Dennis Rader, the BTK killer smile at how effective his costume was?
The second is, that in Jonesboro, Arkansas, the larger town 60 miles north of West Memphis were Damien and Jason were tried and convicted based in part on the black clothes and the band T-shirts they wore, there is, of course, in the Mall at Turtle Creek, a Hot Topic store.