Convention Attention: Let’s talk Cosplay

Just your average Saturday afternoon at a mall in California.
Just your average Saturday afternoon at a mall in California.
Cosplay is a lot more than just dressing up. Let’s start with a basic overview of what Cosplay is, where you’ll find it, some history, and some links for those of you who want more information.

Simply put, “cosplay” is dressing up as an identifiable character or object from fandom. It’s a way to promote a character or fandom you like, or even a character that would just be fun to dress up as. Cosplayers are most often found at ComicCons, Anime conventions, and  media specific conventions. You’ll even occasionally find cosplayers dressed up and wandering around town just for the heck of it,  or at cosplay events at comic shops.

Convention attendees have been dressing up, or “cosplaying” since the beginning of the idea of conventions, when it was simply called “dressed up”, or “masquerade”.  Rob Hansen’s extensive online science fiction history archive features articles that include photos (warning, some may be NSFW) of masquerade and cosplay at Conventions going back to 1939. The only thing that’s changed over the years is the type of camera used to take the pictures.


The term Cosplay gained popularity in the 1980s in Japan, where it was a shortening of the longer term “costume-play”.   For a long time the term was applied only to people dressing as characters from anime or Japanese video games, but  these days, if you’re dressed up as any identifiable character from any video game, tv show, movie, comic book, or novel, you’re cosplaying.

Personally, I give huge thanks to the recent popularity of ComicCons and Marvel and DC Comics character movies that have come out in the last 10 years for making cosplay more popular. Some characters are so popular that many conventions will do specific photo ops of all the Princess Leias, or all the Spidermans, or all the TARDISes, or all the Master Chiefs from Halo, bringing to mind that scene in Galaxy Quest where Sigourney Weaver’s character, Gwen DeMarco, does a photo op with everyone at the convention who is dressed up as her.

Wonder Woman at a comic shop in Grand Rapids, MI
Wonder Woman at a comic shop in Grand Rapids, MI
In my opinion, the best thing about Cosplay is that take it you can as far as you want to.  There are plenty of places online to purchase a costume, or you can make it from scratch.  You can dye and style your hair like the character, or buy a wig (or as one cosplayer once told me, cosplay a character where the costume completely covers your head so you don’t have to worry about your hair). You can carry around props or fake weapons that the character would use, you can even  add an element of live action role playing, by spouting lines the character would say and using their verbal mannerisms. Wanna mash it up? Go for it!  How about steampunk Boba Fett or a zombie Princess Peach?  You can even Cosplay non-human characters,  an inanimate object from fandom, or just imitate the cover art of a book. Different interpretations of Twilight Sparkle and other My Little Pony characters have become increasingly popular, as has unlimited interpretations of the TARDIS.

My first experience cosplaying was both terrifying and unbelievable liberating. I dressed as Holo from Spice and Wolf.  My shirt was 4 sizes too big and the wrong color. My wolf ears were the wrong shape.  No one had any idea who I was. I didn’t know how to pose for photos (an art-form unto itself).  I felt a little silly during those first few hours. What was I supposed to do? How was I supposed to act?

By the end of the day, I still didn’t know what I was supposed to do, but I had fallen in love with Cosplay.

TARDIS Cosplay at ConFusion 2012. Look closely for a tiny Doctor Who.
TARDIS Cosplay at ConFusion 2012. Look closely for a tiny Doctor Who.
The shirt was still way too big and the wrong color.  My wolf ears were still the wrong shape. And LARPing? Forgetaboutit.   But I’d had my first taste of Cosplay and knew I wanted more.   Will I be remaking that hideous bubblegum pink shirt so it’s the right shade of lavender and actually fits me? Eventually. Will I get the right set of ears? For sure. Will I be brave enough to enter into an Anime Con costume contest? ehh….. probably not.   Have I got another cosplay project in the works? You bet I do!

Interested in Cosplay but don’t know where to start?  For inspiration (and squee-worthy drooling), check out these amazing videos taken at Comic Cons and Anime Cons.  For discussion forums,  tips on making bizarre props, photography advice, wig suggestions, and other costuming questions and discussions, check out Cosplay.com, one of the largest and friendliest online cosplay communities.  Not headed to a huge ComicCon anytime soon? Not to worry, plenty of regional science fiction conventions play host to cosplayers and cosplay panels and discussions. Keep your eyes and ears open!

Let’s end this article with a few questions:

  • Have you ever Cosplayed?  If yes, what character?
  • If you haven’t, is this something you would ever do?

And as always, here’s a few upcoming Conventions!

15 thoughts on “Convention Attention: Let’s talk Cosplay”

  1. I usually like to cosplay as tall, thin men in suits, because it’s not a stretch. Most days I’m a tall, thin man in a suit.

    The Tenth Doctor, for example: http://25.media.tumblr.com/b177e63d47aa692c164595c816588c6b/tumblr_mruetkNpSV1qh8mxzo3_1280.png

    Or BBC’s Sherlock: http://24.media.tumblr.com/28386ffadeb5de95ac014263256bada1/tumblr_mruetkNpSV1qh8mxzo2_1280.png

    Stepping out of the mold a bit (or into the mold? That’s a fabrication joke), I’ve started work on the Iron Man Mark VII armor from The Avengers. I’m hoping to have that ready for New York Comic Con next year.

    1. You make a great 10th Doctor! I keep trying to get my husband to dress as Okabe from Steins;gate, because all he’d need is a white lab jacket, messed up hair, and a red case on his cell phone.

      What materials are you using for the Iron Man armor?

      1. Worbla, mostly, although there will be a mix of other elements in there. I’m very lucky in the fact that I have access to a 3D printer, and friends who do injection molding and fiberglass, so I have plenty of options available.

        I have a friend clamoring for me to do Okabe when she cosplays from Steins;Gate.

  2. OK, the nitpicky part. “Cosplay” didn’t exist at all in Japan before 1984. The word was coined by video game magazine editor TAKAHASHI Nov, inspired by his experiences at the 1984 World Science Fiction Convention in Los Angeles. Japan doesn’t have a tradition of fancy dress, so hundreds of people running around the halls in original and media recreation costumes was quite a revelation.

    Upon his return to Japan, his next magazine editorial was about Worldcon and encouraged young gamers to dress up like their favorite characters. He figured it was a good way to drive interest in games. Rather than using the Japanese translation of “masquerade” (which has connotations of stuffy, aristocratic activities that no ordinary person would ever engage in, remember, no tradition of fancy dress) he mashed up the English words “costume play” (because Japanese is all about contractions and dropping unnecessary syllables) to create a new word that didn’t have any cultural baggage with his readers.

    1. ooh, that looks great! Thanks for the link, I’m always looking for more Conventions to link to at the bottom of these columns. And Raleigh? I do get down to Raleigh now and again. . .

  3. As someone who’s been dressing up in funny or fancy clothes pretty much all her life, I know about costuming before the advent of the term “cosplay.” I am 64 years old and have been dressing up at science fiction conventions since the 1970s. I entered contests at local, regional and World Science Fiction conventions. It was never required that you dress as a recognizable character from TV, movies or comics. You could and still can dress as a character you have made up yourself or one from print media.

    Because the term “Cosplay” has become the standard now and it’s come from anime cons, we who dress up as original characters seem to be unpopular and I think this is a bad thing. Not everybody fits the body or age for recognizable characters. Not everybody wants to dress as someone else’s character. Perhaps we need to continue to use two terms to designate the difference between cosplay and costuming but better yet would be to broaden the definition of “cosplay” to encompass all forms of costuming.

    I am in charge of the costume contest at my local SF con, Necronomicon in Tampa, Florida, and have been for 28 or our 32 years running conventions. I love costuming and I hate to see people phased out because the definition of a term excludes them. In traditional costume contests, there are two types of costumes: original and recreation. I think this is the most fair way to categorize and it does not exclude those of us who don’t look like or cannot be made to look like recognizable characters.

    Now that I have written this long-winded response to your article, I shall go and get back to Christmas cheer:)

    1. Not long winded at all, and I appreciate you taking the time to comment. :D You’re an expert in this field, I appreciate any and all information you’re willing to share.

      I think the term “cosplay” IS coming to encompass anyone who dresses up, be it a fandom character or an original creation, the word lends itself to being very fluid. Fandom and conventions are about everyone feeling welcome, regardless of who you dress up as, or if you dress up at all. I’ve sure stuck my foot in my mouth this time, haven’t I!

      Your comment brings to light that I’ve put myself in a sticky situation. The costume that I’m working on right now is a character
      from a book that came out in 2013. There is no movie poster, no comic book artwork, no official images of the character. In the book, she is described in detail, as are some of her outfits. Does that make my costume cosplay, or an original creation?

      1. I’ve seen plenty of people who dress in steampunk or other costuming/original characters refer to themselves under the cosplay umbrella. I think there’s no reason why the term can’t be inclusive of anyone who likes dressing up as something they aren’t.

        I found out about it because of my involvement on the back end of the MS Paint Adventures site, which has many, many cosplayers. A lot of them will take fan art that reinterprets the characters in different settings or with different costumes, and create cosplays of these alternate versions. That’s not far off from visualizing what a character from a novel with no official art is, or someone who translates a completely 2D character (from early video game art, for example) as a 3D person.

        I tend to focus more on the “play” part. As long as you’re having fun, I think it fits.

        1. Brian, I think change is coming but we need to emphasize that “play” is the operative term and that all who enjoy costuming are welcome under the cosplay umbrella. Thanks for your comment.

  4. I haven’t cosplayed yet but I’m always cheered when I see someone play one of my favorite characters from for instance Claymore or Farscape. I’ve actually considered building either a ZAFT uniform from Gundam Seed or genderbending Rachel Grey’s current costume. I’d LOVE to wear a red and orange trenchcoat.

    I’ve thought about doing a broken-apart half-form of Isley’s archer centaur Youma form from Claymore because he’s one of the few male characters in the series. I could freak people good with Dae and his half-mutated face.

    Lately I’ve discovered a LARP and I’m trying to put together a fun low-budget costume. It’s a challenge because I’ve tried it. :D

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