With the rising popularity of anime and the subsequent rise in popularity at such anime conventions as Anime Expo and Fanime Con in California, the practice of cosplay became a largely popular activity among fans.
Cosplay, a contraction of the words “costume” and “play” is a fan-activity where people dress up as characters from anime, manga, TV shows, movies, or any other character. There are people who dress up as well-known characters such as Naruto from the manga of the same name, and there are others that dress up as lesser known characters, or even original characters that they have created themselves. Cosplay is a versatile medium where a cosplayer dons a costume to masquerade as a character.
In a sense, it is like what many kids do when Halloween comes around, but the cosplay crowd has no age boundaries. A little girl can dress up as Chibiusa from “Sailor Moon,” just as a middle-aged man can don an overcoat and become Pastor Anderson from “Hellsing.”
Just what is it like to cosplay, though? The cosplay community in America is intricate, and its history is largely mistaken as something originally Japanese.
The Origin of Cosplay
It was in the mid-1960s when “Star Trek” first graced the screens of American homes. Its subsequent wild-popularity, along with the release of George Lucas’ “Star Wars” gave rise to science fiction conventions around the country during the 1970s. As Americans were used to the concept of dressing up for Halloween, conventions drew a number of fans that decided to dress up as their favorite characters for a masquerade.
This practice was observed by Japanese science-fiction fans, and was later emulated in Japanese conventions as well. The concept of cosplay spread to the, then fledgling, Comiket convention, where fans of dojinshi, fan-published comics, came dressed in costume. According to one of the founders of Comiket, Yoshiro Yonezawa, one of the first anime cosplayers that received a great deal of attention was a girl dressed as a character from “Triton of the Sea” by Osamu Tezuka.
Meanwhile, in America, the first anime convention took off. In August of 1983, Yamato Con was held in Dallas, Texas to attract a small number of “Star Blazers” fans. The science-fiction community had a much larger presence by then, and their conventions contained much more in terms of cosplay, but the start of anime conventions in the U.S. signaled what was to become a new trend.
By 1990, cosplay was a well-known sight among con-goers. A-kon, one of America’s longest running anime conventions had cosplayers, and by then Japan had a healthy community of cosplayers from various otaku-related conventions. The rise of fast and cheap access to the Internet sent cosplay well on its way to becoming an international phenomenon.
The Internet allowed cosplayers to meet, organize, and talk about costumes within forums. The launch of Cosplay.com in 2002 further strengthened the global community, cosplay and costume-related forums from sites such as 4chan.
Why do it?
Ko Tyson, or Ko-chan on the Internet, is an avid cosplayer. Starting with her cosplay of Sailor Moon when she was seven years old, she’s created or worn roughly 40 different costumes. With her costume for Edward from “Fullmetal Alchemist,” she has redone the costume a multitude of times to create a number of variations, ranging from pants-less Edward to a full suit of automail for her right arm and leg. Made from wonderflex, the automail kept Tyson up into the early morning hours for a number of weeks.
“I worked on and off for a few weeks. I had school and work, so I would work late at night and go to bed at four in the morning.”
She does this because it’s fun for her. On top of simply enjoying being in costume, Tyson treats the act of cosplay as a form of paying tribute to favorite characters. In showing her love for characters, she also gets to enjoy seeing other people’s reaction to her doing their favorite character.
“It’s always a pleasure to see someone’s eyes light up because they go, ‘oh my God, it’s my favorite character.’ It makes me feel really good because I get to do something I enjoy, and I’m giving other people something they enjoy,” she said.
How do people get their start?
For many of the current generation of cosplayers, the rise in popularity of anime and manga proved to be the catalyst for their hobby. Combined with a sense of longing for dressing up in costume from Halloween, cosplay became a perfect outlet to express fandom.
For people like Misty Hopkins, or Bunnychan on the Internet, the interest in cosplay came with her first visit to an anime convention, along with a passion for adorning costumes back when she was younger. In 2003, Hopkins became interested in anime and went to her first con when she was 18 years old. She realized that people at anime conventions had a habit of dressing up.
“When I went to my first convention I really had no idea what to expect,” said Hopkins. “When I first saw people in costume, I nearly freaked out. I even bought a schoolgirl uniform in the dealers room that very day so I could join in.”
Hopkins paid $125 for a shabby schoolgirl uniform after realizing how widespread cosplaying was. Once she realized its popularity, she wanted to do more. She went on to do several more costumes, those of popular video game characters, such as Yuna from “Final Fantasy X” and Taokaka from “BlazBlue.”
Since joining the fray, Hopkins met a number of close friends through cosplay. She keeps up with a number of them outside of cons and meets up with other friends at the cons she frequents.
There is no good or bad in cosplay, just genjitsu
For many, a good cosplay is something that is put together with the time and effort that is available to the cosplayer.
Tyson reveals that a good costume is something that is put together with the best materials available to the cosplayer. Not only that, but Tyson emphasizes character. Throughout the years, her portrayal of Edward has led to her improvement in becoming the character. She has fine-tuned herself to ad lib the character, such as having reflex reactions to being called short, an ongoing joke from the series.
“When somebody calls me a ‘bean,’ I now almost instantly just flip them off,” she said with a chuckle.
Likewise, Hopkins agrees with dedication and love for a character being main ingredients to a good cosplay.
“The main thing is how much you put yourself into the project,” said Hopkins. “Are you doing a casual outfit just for fun, or a more serious one? Or are you going all out on a crazy outfit just because you want the attention?”
Hopkins did a costume of Misa from “Death Note” with her boyfriend. The characters were from a popular series, but they did their costumes more out of their love for the series rather than for the sake of attention. The extra touch of dedication made them a popular duo for photos at one of the cons.
Hopkins claims that those that she knows in the community of cosplayers are all good people. Generally, elitist attitudes tend to have a detrimental impact on fellow cosplayers. For those who keep to their own circle of friends to cosplay, civility tends to be the norm. In fact, most cosplayers are people who simply enjoy wearing costumes and hanging out at cons.
There is however, a minority of cosplayers that tend to let their egos run wild. Propelled by the anonymity of the Internet, these people tend to see cosplay as serious business.
Kristen McGehee, or Mirai Noah to her cosplay friends, often dresses up in Gundam cosplay. Like Tyson, McGehee has 40 costumes in her repertoire and has been cosplaying since 2005. She chooses to do characters she likes, which generally tend to be secondary characters that not many people know, but she tries to portray them accurately. McGehee’s perspective of the cosplay community differs from that of Tyson and Hopkins.
She takes an active part on the Internet, where she contributes daily to such forums as Cosplay.com. Her participation in these communities showed her that there is a sort of hierarchy among cosplayers on the Internet. There are many veteran cosplayers who look down upon beginners, a sense of competition to be the first or best at doing a new character costume, and the ever present issue of physical appearance.
“Most of the drama is online, probably because there is that level of anonymity, and also because they are not saying things to the person’s face,” she said. “But I have seen some cat fights at cons before, as well as snickering behind people’s backs. I’ve even been given the cold shoulder before at cons and it was awkward.”
While she can’t cite particular instances, the general trend of cosplay elitism runs to this day.
The complaints range from comments about what costumes are good or bad, to whether the cosplayer is Asian or not.
“Some people believe that you should only cosplay your race, and other people think that only Asians (such as the Japanese) can cosplay,” said McGehee. “There are some really fantastic costumes coming from all over the world, so I don’t think that Asian-only idea will persist. It’s in the minority.”
The racist comments that show up on forums are often deleted quickly, but the emphasis on seniority and body shape will probably stay an issue for years to come.
What are the limits to cosplay?
There are physical limits to cosplay. Whether it be a matter of skill or physical appearance, a character can become hard to cosplay. At its base, cosplaying calls people to look like the character they are trying to portray. This can be limited by anything from skin tone, to the cosplayer’s sewing ability. Cost is also an issue. Fabric can get expensive, especially for more elaborate costumes.
There are people, however, that defy the physical limits of portraying characters. Infamous people such as Man-Faye, a somewhat portly and hairy man dressed up as the voluptuous bounty hunter dressed in golden hot pants break down the original presentation of the characters. While Man-Faye is a legend and the stuff with which nightmares are made of, many other cosplayers often break the gender barriers.
With much of the cosplay community being female, and a large number of female fans liking male characters, there is a large number of people who crossplay, or cosplay while cross dressing. These people often bind their chests and don men’s clothing. Tyson and Hopkins are both crossplayers.
Despite doing many crossplays, Tyson believes she can only cosplay characters that she can reasonably look like. “Lucky for me, a lot of the characters I like the most are effeminate.”
What it comes down to for many people are their willingness to show their love for the character.