Dressing up as famed characters from across the pop culture landscape for events other than Halloween is nothing new. Certainly, people were doing it well before the term cosplay came into being. But, with every passing year, the image of the superfan dressed in detailed, often complicated costumes becomes more prevalent.
Right now, it's safe to say that the cosplayer is the face of the fan convention, even if there are plenty of people at these events who don't dress up at all (myself included). Over the past few years, I've covered a lot of cosplay for L.A. Weekly, from a samurai rendition of Darth Vader to a gender-bent version of the Justice League, from professional cosplayers like Yaya Han to a Firefly fan who chose Jayne's hat as her first costume.
Still some questions remain unanswered. How exactly do people get into cosplay? What do cosplayers see as their biggest successes and failures? More importantly, why cosplay? Since this Saturday is International Cosplay Day, I posed some of these questions on Twitter and Facebook. The responses vary, but the passion for dressing up as someone else is always the same.
Although cosplay typically starts at conventions, that's not always the case. Writer Courtney Kraft got into cosplay through a Star Wars LARP group that she joined. She created her own character, a Sith apprentice, and made a costume. “I recall wearing a lot of black and purple and this hideous gold belt that belonged to my mother.” She continues to play the character 15 years later.
Others talk about cosplay as an extension of the costumes they were already making for Halloween and other events. “I've been dressing up at any given opportunity for as long as I can remember,” says Houston-based cosplayer Vanessa (no last name given), who also goes by the names DalekEmpress and EmpressV. Halloween, theme dress-up days at school and Renaissance Faires were her thing until she started dressing up for conventions back in 2009. Her first stab at convention cosplay was “Dalek Couture,” a dress based on the Doctor's nemeses in Doctor Who. Naturally, she chose a Doctor Who convention to debut the dress and the reaction from fellow fans was great.
Since then, the Dalek Couture dress morphed into her DalekEmpress outfit, an epic ballgown made to resemble the Dalek's shell. She's currently on version 3.3 of the dress (“It gets sub-versions because I have to remake half of it after every convention,” says Vanessa), which she'll be wearing at Dragon*Con this year. Recently, at San Diego Comic-Con, Vanessa managed to bump into Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat and stars Karen Gillan and Matt Smith while dressed as the DalekEmpress. (You can see photos on her Tumblr.) Later on, she found out that Gillan mentioned her as “the Dalek in the elevator” during the panel.
Up next: the heartache of cosplay
There's a certain thrill that comes with running into the people behind your favorite shows, movies and video games while you're dressed as one of the characters. That's happened to Kit Quinn a few times. Back when I interviewed Quinn and her pal Tallest Silver for the L.A. Weekly People Issue, they talked about meeting Paul Dini, the writer who worked on Batman: Arkham Asylum while they were dressed as characters from the game. Just last year, Quinn and her boyfriend showed up at Adult Swim's Venture Bros. party dressed as Dr. Mrs. the Monarch and the Monarch. Not only did they win the costume contest judged by the show's creators but they also ended up on an Adult Swim bump. Quinn ranks that as her best cosplay experience.
But for every bit of cosplay glory, there's also a lot of heartache. Cosplayers, more often than not, are also craftspeople. They frequently spend weeks, even months, creating their costumes. This can require learning lots of new sewing and fabrication techniques and searching all over for the essential materials to complete the piece. When something goes wrong, it can be beyond frustrating.
Johnny Zabate, from San Diego, started cosplaying at Anime Expo in 2004. He took a break for a few years while he was serving in the military and then returned to his hobby in 2010.
Recently, he was hired to appear at a convention as Raven the Reckless Fist from Elsword Online. The trouble for Zabate began when he was working on Raven's Nasod arm. “The pressures of fulfilling my contract to the company and the fact I was using experimental methods to accomplish the task were crushing me,” he recalls.
Zabate admits that he “broke down” while seeking advice at a Fiberglas shop. “It must have looked completely ridiculous, a full-grown man dressed in shabby clothes covered in paint and Fiberglas resin just bawling for no reason,” he says.
All the trouble was worth it, though. Zabate's costume was a hit with Elword fans. One girl even handed him a gift, a Raven bookmark. “[It] felt really nice to have my work validated by the fans of the game and I knew that they were happy I brought their character to life.”
Cosplayers are quick to mention the buzz they get from positive feedback at conventions. Sometimes, particularly online, the responses to their work aren't quite as kind. Trolling can be a real nuisance for people who had enough guts to share their work online. “It just makes cosplay lose the love and warmth it brings people,” says Ginger Burton, an award-winning, L.A. based cosplayer and co-founder of the group Chocolate Covered Cosplay. “I wish everyone would just accept everyone for who they are and instead of bashing someone, just give them constructive criticism or only focus on the parts they did well,” she says. “We are all playing dress-up anyway, so what's the big deal?”
Undoubtedly, the pros outweigh the cons when it comes to cosplay. For the diehards, no cosplay disaster or Internet troll can keep them from pursuing their quest for the perfect costume.
“It's an interesting and creative way to show the creators how much we love and appreciate what they do,” Quinn says.
Sometimes, cosplay can help people realize their talents and improve the skills they already have. Vanessa's background is in sculpture and Quinn studied theater. Meanwhile, Burton works in the fashion industry and is a skilled pattern maker and seamstress.
But there's more to cosplay than that. “I love the people that I've met and the places I've been able to travel because of conventions,” says Burton.
Cosplay can mean friendship and adventure and, most importantly, a much-needed break from the jeans and T-shirts of the day-to-day world. Says Vanessa, “Everyday life does not provide nearly enough opportunities to wear sequins and feathers.”