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Douglas C. Pizac, Associated Press
Mark Fordham shows off his Darth Vader costume in his Provo home. The 44-year-old Utahn has worked more than 20 years to enhance his 40-pound creation.

Here is how most people make a Darth Vader costume: Go to Wal-Mart, purchase flimsy mask and cape, spend Halloween night breathing funny.

For Mark Fordham, the process is a little more in-depth. Over the course of more than 20 years, this 44-year-old from Provo has been slowly piecing together and improving his Vader ensemble, beginning with a simple jumpsuit/vampire cape combo. Today, the outfit weighs more than 40 pounds and features a real electronic panel with blinking lights and voice mike, a vacuum-molded helmet and a cape Fordham made himself from $30-a-yard wool crepe.

He relies on musical vocal training to get the voice right because, he says, "There's no voice box in the world that's going to make you sound like James Earl Jones."

As the commanding officer of the 501st Legion, an international organization of Star Wars enthusiasts that functions somewhat like a painstakingly costumed Kiwanis Club, Fordham leads hundreds of fans dressed as Imperial storm troopers in charity work — from Make-A-Wish Foundation appearances to Salvation Army bell-ringing.

His love of costume-making isn't unique among science fiction and fantasy fans; dressing up as beloved characters has been a part of sci-fi get-togethers for decades. Today, the genre attracts a diverse crowd drawn together by shared interests in imagination and often mind-blowing levels of craftsmanship.

Sci-fi and fan-made costumes have been intertwined since at least 1939, when 200 fans of pulp serials gathered for the first World Science Fiction Convention in New York City.

Marty Gear, a 69-year-old from Columbia, Md., wasn't quite old enough to be there. But as a founding member of the International Costumers Guild, with more than 25 years of experience, he's known as the unofficial historian of sci-fi and fantasy costuming.

Gear says the first costumed fans were Forrest J. Ackerman and Myrtle R. Douglas, a California couple who arrived at the 1939 convention dressed in their interpretation of the finest in 25th century fashion.

"Costuming is the second oldest tradition in sci-fi fandom," Gear says. "The first is drinking beer."

Sci-fi and costumes go together like elves and pointy ears for two reasons. The first, and probably most obvious, is the unabashed fun of getting to spend a few hours playing pretend.

"Whether it's Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter or anime, lots of people enjoy the concept of dressing up for a weekend as their favorite character and living a part," Gear says. "It's just plain fun, and many people don't get enough of that in their day-to-day lives."

For some fans, it's fun enough wearing a mass-produced costume or something assembled from old clothes. Others, however, have another motivation: They love the challenge of turning a 2-D image into a 3-D outfit and the creative outlet of doing it all yourself.

These fans learn to sew. They figure out how to make vacuum molds and buy $6,000 embroidery machines. In recent years, some have even developed elaborate costume construction methods involving intricately folded paper coated in layers of fiberglass.

"We joke that the official costumer's greeting is running up to some stranger to examine their sleeve and saying, 'How did you do that?!,"' says Maral Agnerian, a 32-year-old from Toronto who's been costuming since 1997.

Making attention-grabbing costumes isn't necessarily expensive. Gear's most recent costume, based on a 25-year-old book called "The Dragon Rises," only cost him about $125. On the other hand, a storm trooper or Vader costume like the kind worn by the 501st Legion can run into the thousands of dollars.

And all costumes take time. Particularly since fans place a high value on detail. Agnerian recalls making a Princess Leia costume from "The Empire Strikes Back" that quickly went from simple to serious after she saw a detailed photo of it in a costume exhibition.

"I'd had no idea, but it turned out the whole thing was embroidered all over," she says. "I decided to buckle down and spent six months toting it around in a backpack, working on the embroidery everywhere I went. It was a labor of love for me."

Naturally, after all that work, costumers want to show off what they've made. They do that at sci-fi conventions, most of which have some sort of costume contest, or masquerade.

Today, the World Science Fiction Convention draws as many entrants to its masquerade as the 1939 event had in total attendance. World Con and Costume Con, a convention dedicated entirely to costuming, have two of the biggest masquerades, but smaller competitions are held around the country and the world.

Masquerade participants are grouped by skill level, and each level has awards for workmanship and presentation, which might include performing a short skit or musical number. To win the coveted Best In Show award means being exceptional at both, showing the same comfort and creativity behind a sewing machine as in front of a crowd.

There are downsides. Costumers say friends, family and even strangers frequently tell them their hobby is pointless, weird or too obsessive.

The costumers say that depends on your perspective.

"It's just a hobby like any other," Agnerian says. "It's not any less valid or adult as stamp collecting or bird watching. And it's certainly no more silly or obsessive than the people who wear around their favorite player's jersey or paint themselves blue at sporting events."