I have a love/hate relationship with cosplay. Before writing this article, I didn’t particularly lean one way or another. For context, I am an artist who sometimes models for another artist and have had occasion to dress up in costumes for some of the shoots. If I’m being honest, there have been at least a few times while I’ve been in costume that I wanted to act like the character I was portraying. Sometimes it was just to be silly and make my boss laugh, but other times, I felt a genuine desire to actually pretend to be this character. So, I have some experience in dressing up and having my picture taken and some experience as a vendor at the shows many cosplayers attend and it’s from that perspective that I wanted to take a closer look at cosplay.
As an artist and a vendor at shows like Garden State Comic Fest and New York Comic Con, I noticed that most cosplayers do not spend money at shows. Sometimes, they even distract customers and take them away from my table or booth. When sharing these thoughts with other artists, there was a consensus that cosplayers are a hindrance more than anything else. In one instance, an artist I spoke to recalled a show where a cosplayer actually put their stuff down on his table (without asking) so they could pose for photos. While this may not seem like a big deal to the casual observer, the cosplayer blocked traffic to the table, completely disregarded the artist’s space, and never bothered to ask permission or say thank you, let alone buy something. Artists pay for that table, that space, and the chance to sell to potential customers. Artists aren’t likely to appreciate a cosplayer’s hard work and talent when their own has been completely disrespected.
It might seem as though I haven’t given cosplayers a chance, but I’ve done my best to hear both sides. I have even spoken to cosplayers at shows, spending time with them like I would any other customer in an attempt to be wrong about my possible stereotyping. Yet, 9 times out of 10, they came, that chatted, they ‘oohed’ and ‘ahed,’ and they left. So if it sounds like I hate cosplay? Sometimes I do.
However, I recently volunteered at and attended a small New Jersey convention called Cosplay Collectible Con (or C3) that gave me a bit more of an appreciation for the art form. C3 is not a large convention, or one that has super famous cosplayers like Yaya Han or Jessica Nigri, but it is a good show for getting into the culture, and does have some great talent that is local to the area. I focused my attention specifically on cosplayers who make their own costumes, because those are the people I found the most interesting. Throwing my bias to the wind, I wanted to be as open as possible. What I discovered was a group of hardworking, passionate, dedicated individuals who are trying to figure out their artistic path as much as myself or any other artist is.
As is true with all enthusiasts, cosplayers do what they do–laboring over the production of their costume, practicing poses, and testing their hard work in the face of the general public–out of love. In fact, I got the impression that most cosplayers started out being fans of cosplay and loving what they saw so much that they started making their own costumes. However, as is also true of any group of enthusiasts, I noticed that some cosplayers had exceptional egos. It would seem that for at least a few, cosplay is a popularity contest. While I found this hard to believe at first, I observed firsthand the hostility between some of the cosplayers and their groups, and some of the behaviors of those who thought their skills and costumes were superior to others. These were the competitive cosplayers–the ones who needed everyone else to love them and their cosplay, so they could feel validated and superior. Fortunately, it seems that this is not the norm. In fact, many cosplayers tend to be very supportive, encouraging, and inspired by each other, even when they are wearing the same costumes.
Which leads me to the community aspect. At this show at least, there were so many different cosplayers, and they had so much heart. One participant, Danielle, cosplays as different variations of Harley Quinn. Danielle has attended New York Comic Con, Garden State Comic Fest, and a few other shows. She’s been cosplaying for a few years now. Danielle and her friends have made it a tradition when visiting conventions to bring small, wind-up, chattering teeth with them to hand out to children. She said she especially loves to see the smiles on kids’ faces when they get a glimpse of their favorite characters. When I asked her about pictures and being stopped at conventions at awkward moments–like during her one chance to grab a meal during the day–she said, “I never, never ever turn down a kid.” I’ll have you know, she gave me one of those wind-up toys, and I now proudly display it on my desk.
So, what compels cosplayers to dress up? I wondered how far back it went, so I did some research. Dressing up in costume dates back at least as far as the masquerades of the 15th century. But, it wasn’t until 1908 that someone actually dressed up as a character from a comic strip. The comic was Mr. Skygack, from Mars, and the cosplayers were a couple from Cincinnati, Ohio. They dressed up for a masquerade at a skating rink dressed as Mr. Skygack and Miss Dillpickles. Fast forward to 1984 and the 42nd Worldcon in Los Angeles. Of the many attendees, there was a man named Nobuyuki Takahashi, the founder of Studio Hard, who coined the term cosplay by combining the term “costume play” when reporting back to his Japanese audience in My Anime. Cosplay–though it was just starting to take off in the US–was already popular in Japan, but the trend grew after Mr. Takahashi’s reporting.Though the term would take a few years to catch on, the cosplay trend would continue to grow in Japan and throughout the world.
This history shows that it isn’t really that out of place for people to want to dress up. It was really just a matter of money, class, and available content to cosplay as. Comics, cartoons, video games, and even movies have grown exponentially since the early 1900s. They have provided us with endless characters and stories to adore and admire, and the visual representations to accompany them. And I believe it is our connections to those characters that makes people want to cosplay. According to an interview with the Daily Mail, cosplayer Kristen Lanae 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.”
It is often a connection that people feel to these characters that drives them to dress up and play the part. Being a cosplayer, oddly enough, takes people out of their usual comfort zone, and puts them into a new one; one that allows for personal growth, encouragement, confidence, and creativity. And they receive additional support from the people who positively respond to them. Based on the number of people who currently cosplay, I’d say the reactions are more positive than negative.
So, now you’ve read my experience of cosplayers, and why I believe they do it. But what about the how? Do you know how much work goes into cosplay? Have you ever seen someone create an original character? And why do some people get paid to cosplay at shows? I’ll answer those questions and give you my final thoughts on cosplay in Part 2!
All photos ©Matt Mutch