What is Cosplay?

Eamonn asked, “What is cosplay?”

The local newspaper had just run a front-page article on a local cosplay group organising an outing to probably the first true regional geek culture convention in Australia (we in Cairns, of course, are trying to get one up here next year). Naturally, someone at the office was going to be curious about what this new word meant.

Just as naturally, he was going to ask yours truly (Eamonn calls me “the Matrix” on account of my trivia-geared brain).

And I reckon he’s not the only one curious around here.

Geek culture is exploding in Cairns (I submit as evidence example Aexample B and example C) and I have no doubt there are heaps of people wondering what all the crazy new ideas coming with that explosion are about.

What is cosplay? The quick answer

“Basically, it’s dress-up,” I said to as I went to Eamonn’s desk. “But, look: Fire your browser up for me?”

“This isn’t gonna get me in trouble, is it?” he laughed – but with a couple of pinches of nervousness.

“Probably not, no,” I said, leaning over his keyboard. Though I doubted Google would spit up any images that’d trigger work’s content alarms, I wanted to go for something virtually guaranteed to be safe (yes, yes, I know about Rule 35) and that wouldn’t baffle my colleague (a little older than me, England-born, has probably never seen any anime in his life) either.

I typed in “ghostbusters cosplay” and hit enter.

My friend’s eyebrows went up. “Where did they get those costumes from?”

I smiled. “Odds on, they made them themselves.”

“Cos” is for “Costuming”

Japanese Ghostbusters cosplay
Domo, gents. Domo arigato. Domo also to Tokyobling, who took this photo (link in the credits).

No, not “costume.” Costuming.

Why?

Try it yourself: Type “ghostbusters cosplay” into your favourite search engine (you don’t know what “ghostbusters” are? Okay, fix that now, THEN run the search).

You can see why my colleague was impressed, right? They look like they stepped right off the movie set. And yes, it’s highly likely that the people wearing costumes are the people who made them. In their homes or garages, from instructions they got from “making of” documents or simply from watching the films and making notes, on their own time and dollar and for no fiscal recompense.

This is one of the two concepts at the heart of cosplay. Sure, you can go and get a decent costume from Singapore Charlie’s, but what really makes you a cosplayer is making the costume yourself.

It gets more tricky when you’re trying to replicate a costume that never really existed in the first place, like a character from a video game whose original costume only ever exists as a collection of data. (Not to mention when you’re gender-swapping it, which I’ll touch on later.) And even trickier still when your character’s costume only ever existed as a flat pencil drawing, like, say, Son Goku from Dragon Ball Z, your favourite pre-Pixar era Disney princess or the impossibly figure-hugging outfit of (insert comic book superhero here).

But those challenges don’t stop cosplayers.

Cosplayers are craftspeople as much as fans. A player will be able to tell you just which fabrics and stitching techniques they used to put their outfits together. It’s often fun to find out just what they modified to replicate a particularly intricate part of their costume.

It’s even more fun to see how they applied their creativity to turn a cartoon or comic book costume that could never work in real life into something that looks completely plausible.

And it’s not just clothing. While there’s a thriving business in making prop replicas from movies and shows, you’re about as likely to encounter a Ghostbusters cosplayer who home built his or her proton pack at the same time as the overalls.

“Play” is for Playing with Characters… and Ideas

There’s a reason why you don’t often see cosplayers outside of major events like genre conventions, and that’s because they’re not just about the outfit.

Playing a Character

Have you ever noticed, when you dress up as a particular character, you find yourself imbued a little bit with that character’s energy? If you’re in a Starfleet uniform from Star Trek, you find yourself standing a little straighter, feet shoulder width apart, hands behind your back?

This is where the “play” comes in; the poses, the moves, the attitude and spirit of the character whose costume you wear.

The Vixen Gamer cosplaying Lara Croft at Supanova 2012, with an unidentified cosplayer as Obi Wan Kenobi.
The Vixen Gamer cosplaying Lara Croft at Supanova 2012, with an unidentified cosplayer as Obi Wan Kenobi.

It’s also why the natural home of cosplayers is genre conventions like Comic Con and Supanova, GenCon and the Penny Arcade Expo. There’s something about the atmosphere of conventions where popular and outside-mainstream culture collide. It invites a little playfulness, a little suspension of disbelief: you’re not just watching a pair of folks in costume, but you’re actually watching Lara Croft share arse-kicking duties with Obi-Wan Kenobi.

At genre conventions, fans of genre work can appreciate cosplayers’ efforts not just in creating their costumes, but their endeavours to make you feel like a fictional character stepped off the screen or page and into the real world for a little while.

But while people have been dressing up for parties and masquerade balls for centuries (and have been replicating the outfits of their favourite genre characters at science fiction conventions for at least four decades), the cosplay movement was born and raised in Japan over the last twenty or so years. As such, a lot of cosplayers recreate characters from Eastern cartoons, movies and video games.

Though anime and manga have certainly exploded in the West since the early nineties, it can be hard to find a person who will truly appreciate your particular cosplay – unless you go to a convention, where you’re much more likely to run into someone who will recognise the character (or even fusion of characters) you’re playing. The play is about more than just character, though.

Playing with ideas: gender-swapping

On the left, Ezio Auditore da Firenze, lead character from Assassin's Creed II. On the right, The Vixen Gamer's 2012 gender-flipped Ezio cosplay.
On the left, Ezio Auditore da Firenze, lead character from Assassin’s Creed II. On the right, The Vixen Gamer’s 2012 gender-flipped Ezio cosplay.

Though I could touch on some of the crazy character and genre mash-ups cosplayers create (historical versions of contemporary characters, science fiction versions of fantasy characters, steampunk stormtroopers), there’s one idea I want to highlight here.

Even nowadays, the majority of “hero” characters in fiction are male; women still wind up as supporting characters or damsels in distress. While this is changing – it’s a rare game where you can build your own character that doesn’t include options for both genders – popular titles across all media still feature men as the leaders, the fighters, the creators of positive change (even if through violent means).

This means that female players have far fewer options than male players when choosing a badass character to cosplay. But cosplayers are a creative bunch, and one of the most popular trends in the movement involves altering a male character’s costume for a female figure while maintaining the identity of the character.

The Vixen Gamer's revised Assassin's Creed II Ezio costume. Photographer:
The Vixen Gamer’s 2014 revision of her Assassin’s Creed II Ezio costume. Photographer: Mike Bodado, MjB Images.

While this can involve some playful titillation (okay, you, you and you: detention this afternoon), female cosplayers enjoy demonstrating that changing a male action hero’s gender doesn’t take any of its strength or perceived capability away, even when you include (or just swap the gender of) a little sex appeal.

Sadly, we live in a time when the movie studio behind DC Comics struggles with making a Wonder Woman movie (or TV series) and the makers of one of the most famous game franchises of recent times, Assassin’s Creed, state that making female hero character models in addition to male ones is impractical. This means female players may still have more gender-swapping in their future before media makers get the idea.

But in the meantime, their proving the point is creating some awesome results.

What are you doing?

Which character would you love to dress (or have already enjoyed dressing) up as?

What costumes have you made?

Which character would you love to see gender-swapped?

Cosplayers and Groups

The Vixen Gamer

Cairns Cosplay Club

Materials

Official cosplay reference files for the video game Borderlands

Conventions

Sugar City Con

Supanova Pop Culture Expo

PAX (Penny Arcade eXpo) Australia

Credits

Ghostbusters cosplay picture borrowed with thanks from Tokyobling’s web log.

Photos of The Vixen Gamer borrowed with thanks from her Twitter and Facebook profiles.

Image of Ezio from Assassin’s Creed II borrowed without permission from the Assassin’s Creed Wikia.