If you’ve ever come in touch with a popular media product with a large fandom (a fan-created subculture on the internet, which involves communicating, sharing opinions, and fan-created content based around a piece of media) – think Marvel; DC, Harry Potter, or popular anime like Naruto – then you’ve probably come across the word “cosplay”.
Have you ever wondered what it is – or what makes is such a popular hobby among fans? You’ll find all the answers right here.
So, what is Cosplay?
You’ve probably already figured out that the word “cosplay” is a portmanteau of the word’s “costume” and “play”. But what does it constitute of, exactly?
When a person dresses up as a character or sometimes even a specific concept inspired by a piece of media – that’s cosplay. In a way, we’ve all cosplayed at least a few times in our lives. Have you ever dressed up for Halloween? Congrats! You already have the experience.
Cosplay is like an unscheduled Halloween turned up to the max.
The difference between regular folks and cosplayers is that for the latter that Halloween party lasts year-round. There are fan-events planned and organized that either involve cosplay as an inevitable element (think legendary San Diego Comic-Con) or are entirely centered around cosplay.
Why is Cosplay such a Beloved Hobby?
At first glance cosplay’s popularity might seem baffling, since it can be quite time-and-effort consuming. Yet thousands upon thousands of people have chosen to dedicate their lives to it (hell, some even manage to make a living off of it – just look at cosplay Instagram).
To put it simply, cosplay combines 3 things that most people are looking for in a hobby: beloved source material, creative outlet, and community to share with.
When you start doing cosplay, not only do you get a chance to let your imagination fly and share your love for certain things AND your creativity with the world – you get to enter a safe fan-space that is welcoming and always ready to help you.
Cosplay may not be the biggest subculture out there – but it is pretty big.
Where does Cosplay Come From?
The term itself was coined in the 1980s, but as mentioned already – people have always loved dressing up as other characters for the occasion, so it’s not like cosplay started in the 80’s out of nowhere.
Most people, who’ve researched the subject, attribute “the birth of cosplay” (well, not actual cosplay, but the tradition of dressing up as different famous characters, concepts, and objects) to 15th-century carnivals.
And I’m sure, if someone decided to dig deeper, they’d find even earlier instances. Humanity has always had a love for dressing up.
If we were to talk specifically cosplay though – the act of dressing up as characters/concepts from popular media without attachment to any particular holiday or event – it got its start at the 1st World Science Fiction Convention.
Back in the day, cosplay had an unsavory tag of “being exclusively for nerds” attached to it. Nowadays though? Cosplay is the biggest it’s ever been.
With the spread of the internet and fandom culture with it, the cosplay community has grown exponentially in the past couple of decades.
The Internet gave the ability and space for the like-minded individuals to connect and not only communicate but set up events themselves.
This, in its turn, gave birth to more fan-events, cons, and gatherings (fandom-specific or general) then anyone could even imagine just a little while ago.
And How Does this Cosplay thing Work?
The main idea of cosplay is to portray a character (or a concept, or even an inanimate object popular in the piece of media the cosplayer is attracted to!) as faithfully as possible.
The looks – costume – is the most important part of cosplay. The costume can be simple (just the base-look that the character is most known for in the media), it can be elaborate (with more emphasis on accessories and use of additional props), or it can be original: these days cosplayers love to put their own twist on the looks they’re choosing to portray!
Think steampunk, or horror, or fantasy elements. You want to be a zombie Batman? Or medieval knight Iron Man? Go for it!
When it comes to cosplay the only constraints you have, are the main details of the character’s costume (the entire point of cosplay is for your costume to be recognizable!) and your imagination.
Frankly speaking, whatever it is, there’s a chance someone has already done it.
For more dedicated cosplayers, the costume is only the first step. They tend to put more emphasis on the “play” aspect of cosplay and try to copy the mannerisms, gestures, and the way the characters they’re cosplaying as talk.
I’m Kinda New to this Fandom Stuff. Can I cosplay?
Everyone can cosplay. Everyone!
It doesn’t matter how old you are, it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman. Cosplay is open to people of every gender, race, orientation, and age. While teenagers and young adults used to be more prevalent in the cosplay community – there are people way older, who’ve been here since the first few cons and have stuck with it ever since.
You’ll even find entire families who do cosplay together at conventions. The bigger and older the community grows – the more diverse it becomes. There’s a place here for everyone.
Is Cosplay Problematic?
Sigh. Haven’t you heard? These days everything is problematic. Especially on Twitter.
In all seriousness though: If you just want to enjoy dressing up as your favorite character together with other people who enjoy the same piece of media you do? Being inoffensive is pretty easy.
Two big complaints people seem to have against cosplay seems to be about 1) female body objectification; 2) racism.
The objectification argument can be a tad complicated. These types of accusations rear the head when cosplayers, especially female cosplayers, either cosplay as a character that is already accused by the fandom of being “too sexualized” or specifically “sexualizing” a character by altering the costume to be more revealing, thus objectifying their own bodies.
I believe cosplay isn’t inherently objectifying, even when a costume is revealing. After all, cosplay is something people do to enjoy themselves: if a girl wants to do a “sexy” version of the character, then she should be free to do so.
If you do not feel comfortable with dressing in a revealing outfit though – you most definitely shouldn’t feel pressured to do so. Stick to what you feel the best in.
The racism argument is more straightforward: sometimes you’ll see people dressing up as characters that aren’t the same race or even gender as portrayed in the source media.
Don’t be an ignoramus about it. After all, we fall in love with fictional characters when we feel a connection – and that connection often has little to do with how they look. As long as the cosplay is done respectfully it’s all fine.
If you’re a white person who wants to cosplay a character of color, don’t do blackface/brownface. If you’re a dude who wants to cosplay as a female character – don’t do a sexy version. Be respectful and it’s all going to be fine.
(There will be some people who’ll still cancel you on twitter but there’s nothing you can do about that).
How do I Get Started?
- Find a convention near you. Read up about the convention, look up the photos from the past events, decide if the convention is the right place for you to show your first costume (bigger conventions may be overwhelming to some, while others prefer them for the relative anonymity – decide which works better for you).
- Select your costume. Consider your favorite characters from your favorite pieces of media. The sky (and your imagination) is the limit here.
- Though, do keep in mind that cosplay can be an expensive hobby, since your costume may involve not only the costume itself, but wigs, accessories, and additional props. There’s no need to start with an overly elaborate costume – maybe do a “casual” version first (after all Tony Stark’s seen in a nicely fitted suit almost as often as in his Iron Man costume)
- Shop for the costume. Do a little research and don’t be afraid to ask other – more seasoned – cosplayers for help if you feel a little lost. There are specialized internet shops where you can shop for the pieces. You can even hire a professional cosplayer or a costume-maker to do your costume if you have money to spare. Or you can just visit a nearby shop and dress up in an “everyday look” of the character if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Nothing wrong with starting out small.
- Maybe practice acting as the character to make the look more believable. Not that this part is necessary, but it is “costume play” after all – playacting can be fun. Don’t feel obligated though, cosplay can be just as fun without it.
Where do I Cosplay?
These days multiple fan-cons take place all over the world and most of them have cosplayers participate in one way or another. If you live in the United States, Japan, China, and South Korea, then finding a con to cosplay at will be quite easy.
Most fan conventions, be it video games, anime, comics (or all of these rolled into one) are more or less open to cosplayers – and there are even specific conventions all about cosplaying.
If you’re from a country where cosplay is not as big – don’t get discouraged! There may be fewer opportunities for you, but a couple are most likely there: you just have to dig a little deeper.
These small conventions have their advantages, however. The fan-community that organizes and participates in them is even more tight-knit due to small numbers: you’re bound to make some friends that enjoy the same things you do.
Just remember rule #1 of cosplay – everybody’s here to have fun and enjoy what they love! Cosplay costumes are made to be fun and be a way to let your imagination run wild for a night.
It’s a way to lose yourself in a world of make belief and avoid thinking of those everyday hassles of bills and jobs.
Pick your favorite character and have some fun.