When we were little, most of us were probably told that we can be anything we want to be. While the concept is true to a certain extent, some of us saw a fictional character we liked and said, yup, that’s what I want to be.
That, essentially, is what cosplaying is.
A portmanteau of the words “costume” and “play,” cosplay is the act of dressing up as a fictional character from movies, tv shows, graphic novels, books, games, and other media. It’s quite literally stepping into your favorite character’s shoes (or a recreation of them), along with some props, accessories, and wigs. A lot of these are made by hand, which is why some of the best cosplayers excel in doing everything from makeup and fabric dyeing to even metalwork and robotics.
But author and fan culture expert, Lauren Orsini, points out that it’s more than just simply dressing up as a character. Cosplayers, she explains, “take efforts to become that character” through things like mannerisms and gestures. In other words, it’s not just the costume. Cosplay is a type of performance art.
Though cosplayers often congregate in events like Comic Con, people also do cosplay from the comfort and relative safety of their homes, especially since the start of the pandemic.
Cosplayers come in all genders, ages, and races, and with every kind of budget. Though some cosplays can get super expensive, with a little resourcefulness and creativity, you can do it, too!
Cosplay, a Brief History
The word “cosplay” is a relatively modern invention as compared to the actual practice of cosplaying, which one can trace as far back as the early 15th-century carnivals. There, people often got to dress up as famous historical figures, popular characters from stage plays and books, and even objects or concepts.
However, the more contemporary version of cosplay began at the 1st World Science Fiction Convention in 1939, when Myrtle R. Jones — otherwise known as Morojo — arrived in a science fiction-inspired costume she designed for herself. She had also made one for her boyfriend, Forrest J. Ackerman, and together, they arrived as time-travelers based on H.G. Wells’s Things to Come (1936).
From there, lovers of all things sci-fi and fantasy started to adopt the idea. By the 1960s, thousands of fans were attending conventions as aliens, astronauts, and of course, Star Trek characters.
On the other side of the world, college students in Japan were also dressing up as their favorite manga and anime characters, a practice that had become pretty widespread by the 1970s.
The term cosplay, however, was only coined In 1984 by Studio Hard’s Nobuyuki Takahashi. He had attended the 1984 World Science Fiction Convention in Los Angeles, California, and was impressed by the costumes people were wearing. He struggled to find a word to describe it when it was time to write about the experience in a Japanese magazine. But eventually, he arrived at the word “kosupure.”
Try saying that out loud. If it sounds a bit like “cosplay,” that’s because it is — he decided to combine “costume” and “play” to describe the practice’s unique mix of dressing up and acting the part of a specific character.
The term started becoming popular in the 1980s, until eventually becoming more common by the 1990s. In 2003, the world’s first Cosplay Summit was held at Nagoya, Japan, with participating cosplayers hailing from as far away as Germany, France, and Italy. And today, cosplay has become a staple in any comic book or sci-fi convention.
I’m old enough to remember a time when liking things like cosplay and anime was considered weird — an opinion that, unfortunately, still sticks in some places. After all, cosplay was started by a woman and remains largely non-male, which means that a lot of people tend to look down on it.
But with more and more individuals (big-name celebs included) enjoying the activity, cosplay has become a bit more mainstream today.
The World of Cosplay Today
Cosplay has become a global and, at times, commercial practice. Many of the world’s biggest cosplayers have been able to turn their performance art into a career, and are paid to create cosplays, attend cons, and promote certain brands. For instance, Japan’s highest-paid professional cosplayer, a 27-year-old known as Enako, has a collection of over 400 outfits.
But even for those who don’t get to earn a ton of money from it, cosplay continues to be a beloved activity they can enjoy by themselves, with fellow cosplayers, and with friends and family.
Like the rest of us, however, cosplayers have also had to adjust their lifestyles drastically in the last couple of years because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the health protocols designed to keep us alive and healthy. When public events like cosplay conventions became unsafe, many turned to social media with hashtags like #ComicConAtHomeCosplay.
The shift meant that many of those who relied on in-person cosplay events for income, like professional cosplayers and photographers, have had to take a hit. Of course, one can always cosplay a character who wears a mask, like Watchmen’s Sister Night, but it’s not going to be the same.
After all, the choice of character to cosplay can be very personal, and the ongoing pandemic means that comic conventions in general likely won’t be the same for a while.
Why People Love It
To an outsider, it might be a bit hard to understand why people spend so much time, money, and effort on this kind of performance art. But for people within the community, the art of cosplaying is so much more than the sum of its parts.
As an Escape
One reason people turn towards cosplaying is that it’s an escape from everyday reality.
Now, I know that escapism tends to have a bad rap, but it’s important to note that it’s not always a bad thing. With the right circumstances and in moderation, stepping outside of yourself and into a character you identify with can be pretty empowering — and it’s one of the biggest motivators for many cosplayers.
We know that what we wear has an effect not just on how others see us, but in how we think of ourselves, too. This is called the science of enclothed cognition, and is why for some young people, cosplay can be a means of being more confident and comfortable with themselves. “It makes me feel like I’m able to do things I’m normally not able to do,” says Moon, an 18-year-old cosplayer. “It also helps me express myself in ways that I normally struggle to express.”
Someone shy and reserved, for example, may transform completely in the shoes of characters like Brave’s Merida or Star Wars’s Princess Leia. For Lady Di, a cosplayer who likes to gender bend, those characters can be Iron Man and Khal Drogo. “In real life I’m a very anxious, awkward kind of anti-confrontational person,” she says, but dressing up this way “really helps my self-confidence and my anxiety.”
The power of clothing to help us do this isn’t dependent on how expensive or elaborate our costumes are. So if you want to tap into the wisdom of cosplayers yourself, think about clothing you relate to a character you look up to — whether it’s She-Ra or Captain Marvel — and try and pick out clothes that remind you of them.
It may not be a costume per se, but notice how it might make you feel just a little bit tougher and ready to take on whatever lies ahead.
As a Means to Look Inward
Aside from getting inspired by certain attitudes and attributes of certain characters, the art of cosplaying can also help you explore the parts of yourself that may not always come to light.
A 2013 study on cosplay and fandom found that most cosplayers tend to identify with the characters they choose to embody — whether it’s because they feel they have similar psychological characteristics, identify with some aspect of that character’s past, or because they look like that character physically.
This is why tapping into a specific character can have a lot of potential in processing experiences you may not always be comfortable talking about or examining otherwise.
For Robin S. Rosenberg, one of the study’s authors and a clinical psychologist, characters like Batman can be especially meaningful for those coping with grief or trauma. After all, Bruce Wayne witnessed his parents’ brutal murder, but was able to channel his emotions into becoming a superhero.
“When people are dressed as Batman, many talk about having [experienced] their own traumatic experiences,” she explains. “He survived and found meaning and purpose from his experience, and that is inspiring to them.”
Other popular comic book characters like Wonder Woman, who manages to succeed even in a male-dominated world in and out of fiction, have the same effect.
Moreover, other researchers have pointed to cosplay’s ability to help you get in touch with your inner child. For instance, a 2012 study found that among cosplayers, being able to step away from reality and into a whole other fictional world provides a certain sense of fulfillment.
By crossing that boundary between the real and the imaginary — and more importantly, embodying that with your cosplay — people transform not just from “ordinary person” to “superhero,” but also from “adulthood” to “childhood.” For those cosplaying as their favorite superheroes or cartoon characters, they get to reconnect with things they enjoyed as a kid, as well as the parts of themselves that they may have had to snuff out in order to grow up.
All this is why professionals like Jennifer Klesman, LCSW have turned to cosplay as a tool for therapy. She currently works with patients dealing with anxiety, trauma, and identity issues, among others.
As a Community
Lastly, people love cosplay because of the community built around it. After all, to borrow the words of Archive of Our Own’s Naomi Novik, all fandom (and the art made through it) happens “not in isolation, but in community.”
If you’ve had the pleasure of attending comic cons and other cosplay events in the past, you’d know that people who cosplay tend to have a lot of fun together — whether they’re just taking pictures, talking about their art process, or geeking out about characters.
A love for the same show, game, or book is a great common ground for starting lifelong friendships. And while some of these friendships are renewed at conventions every year, others can expand towards the realm of everyday life.
For Michael Nguyen, a cosplayer and a costuming columnist, Star Trek was a gateway to cosplay. And cosplay, in turn, gave him a rich network of people who love the same characters and world that he loves. “Costuming is more fun if you do it with other people,” he says. “You create your own look, but you also feel like part of a universe when you surround yourself with people who enjoy it as much as you do.”
As more people get vaccinated and countries inch their way towards the next normal, comic conventions and cosplay events are restarting — albeit with masks and other safety protocols — for communities to meet in-person once more.
Despite all this, it’s also worth noting that the community isn’t perfect. Like with fanfiction and the wider world of fandom, cosplay communities aren’t exempt from the inequality of the world around us.
For instance, more and more creators are speaking up about racism in cosplay, often discussed in terms of “accuracy.” Even within fan communities, which people tend to think of as inclusive and welcoming, Black women tend to face the most online vitriol simply because of their skin color.
“To this day, I still get abuse for cosplaying as fair-skinned characters,” Shellanin, a cosplayer from Atlanta, tells i-D. “I’m aware that I do not look like the majority of the characters I dress up as, but that’s the most empowering part about it. It’s like we’re expected to turn up as either Canary from Hunter X Hunter, Kofi from Cowboy Bebop or Rei Hououmaru from Kill la Kill. It’s insulting.”
The problem with the discussion on “accuracy” is that it ignores one big issue in pop culture: There simply isn’t enough representation for melanated people and, indeed, anyone outside of the Eurocentric, thin ideal of beauty. It’s also why plus-sized people also tend to face a lot of stigma and erasure even within the cosplay community.
It doesn’t mean that the community itself is inherently bad, of course. It only means that as part of the wider world around us, it’s also grappling with how to make its spaces more equitable and inclusive.
Anything You Want to Be
At the end of the day, cosplay is a way to engage with a character whose qualities and storyline you resonate with and want to show to the world. Like much of fanwork, it’s a labor of love that we share with our wider community.
And just as individual artists meticulously craft their cosplays, the community, too, continues to adapt and evolve with the times — hopefully, towards one that more accurately reflects and embraces the diversity of the people in it, and the stories that they love.