An Overview of Cosplay: Exploring the Subculture
To some, cosplaying is a hobby. To others, cosplaying is a lifestyle. Whether you have participated in cosplay or not, cosplay has become prevalent in today’s society. Ample time and labour is spent on creating these costumes, in order for individuals to participate in events that allow them to embody their favourite characters. To the uninformed, cosplay is the same as dressing up as a witch for Halloween. But for those who practice the art, cosplay is more than just dressing up – it is fully immersing oneself as a character and performing in front of hundreds of fans.
How did this phenomenon start? When did cosplay grow from being ‘dress up for adults’ into something which has been accepted as a sub culture and a representation of one’s fandom?
The History of Cosplay
Initially dubbed as ‘costuming’, cosplay began in the late 1930s in North America. Back then, cosplay did not require participants to mimic a character’s appearance. Rather, they simply needed to dress appropriately for the genre, which is what Forrest J. Ackerman did in his futuristic costume when he attended a sci-fi convention. He was the first attendee to show up in costume, so in the following years, conventions began to look like masquerade balls, and prizes were given to whoever had the ‘best costume.’
In Japan, the manga series, Urusei Yatsura, and television series, Mobile Suit Gundam, helped launch the movement, as Japanese college students eagerly dressed as their favourite characters for conventions. Borrowing the practice of masquerading from North America, fans would re-enact their favourite scenes, which added to the excitement, as they were able to display their adoration for the series.
It was not until 1984 that the term ‘cosplay’ was invented, combining the words ‘costume’ and ‘play’. This was coined by the Japanese reporter, Nobuyuki Takahashi, after he attended Worldcon in Los Angeles. When translating the word ‘masquerade’ to the Japanese audience, he thought that the word sounded ‘too old-fashioned’ and used ‘cosplay’ to describe the concept.
Fast forward to today, a time when cosplay has created a subculture of its own. In North America, it is no longer odd to see people donned in costume at conventions. Cosplay is no longer limited to just sci-fi or anime, but has branched into other categories, such as superheroes, cartoon characters, video game characters, and more. Similarly, Japan has embodied cosplay as part of their pop culture, especially in districts such as Harajuku and Shibuya. Cosplayers in these areas dress up on a daily basis, so it is not odd to see someone stand out amongst all the civilians.
As well, maid cafes have become extremely popular, in which a waitress is dressed as a maid and serves her ‘master’ (aka the customer). This type of roleplaying might be considered ‘odd’ to others, which draws us to the question of why people choose to participate in cosplay in the first place.
Why People Participate
There are many reasons as to why participants dwell in the art of cosplay. Just as how it’s fun to dress up as a different person on Halloween, cosplayers enjoy transforming themselves into a character. In BuzzFeedYellow’s video, “Why I cosplay”, two cosplayers share that being someone else gives them strength because it helps with their confidence. One explains, “Through cosplay, I can become these characters. I could live vicariously with how cool they are.” Since cosplay focuses on the likeness to the character, thought is put into high quality costumes and realistic roleplaying. In a sense, cosplaying is like acting, for participants must get into character and behave like them once they wear their costume.
Within this subculture, there is also a strong sense of community. Whether one enjoys sewing, modeling, or photography, fans are able to interact with others who are in the same fandom. There is a sense of unity, and it’s thrilling to see another person cosplay as the same character or another character from the same series. Group photos are taken, and ‘fan service’ is performed to get onlookers excited. In some cases, cosplayers will get together for occasions other than conventions. For example, those who enjoy making costumes attend sewing parties to work on their costumes with other cosplayers and share construction tips. There are also cosplay beach parties and club events that are hosted by enthusiasts, which give cosplayers opportunities to wear their costume in different locations.
Ultimately, what all cosplayers have in common is that each person goes into this hobby because it’s fun. It requires time and dedication, but it is also rewarding to see the results. After all, nobody spends hours making their costume just to begrudgingly put it on once it’s done. It’s an opportunity to represent a fandom, and can be practiced by anyone who’s willing to learn.
Although many cosplayers participate for fun, there are some who do it to earn a living. For example, the cosplay celebrity, Jessica Nigri, became popular when her ‘Sexy Pikachu‘ costume was posted on the Internet. Since then, she has appeared in conventions as the official cosplay model for numerous characters, such as Connor Kenway (Assassin’s Creed III), Vivienne Squall (KILLER IS DEAD), and the female version of Captain Edward Kenway (Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag). Her fandom has grown exponentially, as she has Facebook fan pages, Tumblrs, and a subreddit dedicated to her. Jessica also sells autographed posters of herself on the side and gets paid to create costumes for new video games that come out.
Other than Jessica Nigri, there are also cosplayers who charge money for their photos to be taken. Although monetization supports participants in the craft, it also creates complications. Angelia Bermudez, a Costa Rican cosplayer, was stranded in a foreign country as a victim of fraud. She was promised that her hotel and plane ticket would be covered, but realized too late that she was being scammed, as the person who was in charge of her accommodations was arrested. As a result, she was only able to return home because of the donations of her kind-hearted fans.
These are the risks that professional cosplayers face, and it is unfortunate that those who put hard work into their craft are either ridiculed or not taken seriously. But what makes a full-time cosplayer a ‘professional’ in their craft? Is it the costumes, or how someone models it? What makes a cosplay ‘good’ in the first place?
What Makes a Good Cosplay?
On August 2015, The Buzzfeed’s Try Guys released a four-part series exploring the world of cosplay. In this series, the Try Guys learned how much effort goes into a costume before a convention. They were baffled at how one costume could take 700 hours to complete, which leads others to think about the factors that go into making a good cosplay.
1. Attention to Detail
When preparing for a cosplay convention, it is important to plan ahead and take one’s time with the costume. Although on-lookers may not be able to tell the difference between two fabrics or wigs, they will notice if a costume does not look good. Avid fans will also notice if details are missing (such as a wristband), hence multiple photos should be analyzed before making the costume. However, what catches the eye more than anything else is how the costume fits on the person. Therefore, cosplayers should tailor the costume so that it fits their body proportions, regardless if they have the same body type as the character.
Cosplay is also about the overall appearance. Makeup can help accentuate the look, especially if a character has special features, such as whiskers, elf ears, etc. For example, Naruto in sage mode has orange/red pigmentation around his eyes, so this is a detail a cosplayer should not miss if they decide to cosplay as Naruto’s Sage mode.
As long as the character can be recognized, fans have creative freedom with their costumes. One of the most popular ways to change a character’s design is to do a gender swap. A gender swap changes the gender of the character and modifies the costume accordingly. For example, The Try Guys decided to do a gender swap by doing a male version of the Sailor Scouts.
Another popular choice is to modify the costume to fit a different theme, such as steampunk, Victorian, lolita, etc. This not only exudes creativity, but requires imagination, as there might not be a photo to use as reference. However, too many modifications risks onlookers to not recognize the character, and it can be tiring to endlessly answer the question: “Who are you supposed to be?”
Confidence helps a person stand out amongst those with the same costume. The way a person poses and interacts effects the experience, although it may initially feel awkward for first-time cosplayers. But confidence can be built, as long as the person is willing to put themselves out in public. Kristen Lanae, a cosplayer, is an example of a shy woman who thanks cosplay for helping her with her confidence. In an interview with the Daily Mail, she says, “I have always been very quiet and shy, but when I am in costume I come alive. I would say it’s because of all the positive reactions I get in costume.”
There is an abundance of support in the community for those who want to get into cosplay. People can take photos of their progress and ask for advice on how to construct a certain item / piece of clothing. There are fans who encourage other cosplayers and comment on their social media to appreciate their work. However, with any art form, there is always a risk, as others may not see the beauty or find it confusing. But because cosplay is a physical art form, there are more risks than onlookers simply not understanding the cosplayer’s costume.
The Risks of Cosplay
1. Sexual Harassment
Unfortunately, some characters are designed to be provocative, and have spandex body suits or high school uniforms with short skirts. As a result, fans forget that there are individuals inside those costumes, as they are swept up in the fantasy that their favourite character has come to life. This is a problem, as many sexual harassment cases have been reported by cosplayers who are trying to enjoy the conventions. Women have been groped, and men have been put down for not fitting a certain costume. Thus, organizers are bringing awareness to this issue by implementing anti-harassment policies. In New York’s Comic Con, attendees can see a large sign that says ‘Cosplay is Not Consent’, and that everyone should be treated with respect.
Remember: cosplaying a character is not an invitation for lewd comments or sexual harassment. It should be practiced freely, without participants worrying about the risk of harassment.
As previously stated, there are some fans that are caught up on how a character should look like if they appear in real-life. As a result, judgement is passed onto cosplayers who do not look the part, which is incorrect practice of this art form. People come in different shapes and sizes, and should not be body-shamed if they do not match the character’s body structure. Yaya Han, a popular cosplayer and a supporter of all cosplaying body types, has spoken about this issue, as she states:
“There is no rule book, commandments, or memo on HOW you should cosplay. If you want to dress as a character that looks nothing like you, go for it! There is so much judgement on race, gender, weight, size, height and other things that CAN NOT BE CHANGED in cosplay – it has never made sense to me.”
Cosplay should be an enjoyable experience for everyone. Although there are some negative aspects within the community, there are also ample amounts of positivity. Hence, people should not be discouraged to cosplay as their favourite character. Cosplaying is an opportunity to bond with those who have similar interests, and a chance to be someone else for the day. It is an opportunity to represent one’s fandom, and get to know others with the same hobbies. After all, when do you ever get to see Naruto eat lunch with Superman?
Cosplay has evolved from masquerading into an art form. Although it can be considered as mimicry, there are individuals who put their own creative twist into their costumes and overall appearance. What once was a hobby has allowed participants to make careers out of cosplaying, which demonstrates the prevalence of cosplay in society. It has become part of subculture, and can no longer be considered ‘dress up for adults’.
Cosplay is considered an art form, because it’s an artistic expression that empowers individuals as they transform into different characters. And just like all art forms, cosplay starts with a passion, and turns into something tangible the moment an individual decides to make it come to life.
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Featured image by Florea Flavia.
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