In simple terms, cosplay is when a fan wears a costume to a convention. Cosplay is a creative way to express one’s admiration/love/obsession for a movie, TV show, comic book, or other pop culture character. It is like wearing a T-shirt with your favorite superhero on it, amplified to the power of your fandom.
What is NOT cosplay?
Although cosplayers are sometimes (rarely) hired to wear their costumes to promote products at conventions, wearing a costume as part of your job (even if you work at a fan convention) is not generally considered “cosplay,” because those costumes are not usually made or worn simply to express one’s fandom or love of pop culture. As such, costumed trade show promotional models (a.k.a. “booth babes”) are not considered “cosplayers,” any more than actors or models are.
Cosplay does not involve acting, role-playing, or pretending to be a character. Simple logic should tell you that, if the guy dressed as Spider-Man was pretending to be Spider-Man, he would be beating up the guy dressed as Dr. Octopus, not standing in line for Stan Lee’s autograph. (Note: You can role-play while cosplaying, but most cosplayers don’t.) Cosplayers don’t generally act like or think they are the character. Thus, the LARP hobby (Live Action Role Playing, in which paticipants play a game similar to Dungeons & Dragons while dressing in costume and acting out the imaginary adventure), and historical re-enactments, are not considered “cosplay.” Neither are department store Santas or the Cinderella you hired to entertain at your kid’s birthday party.
Dressing up for Halloween is generally not considered “cosplay.” In the US, Halloween is a nearly ubiquitous seasonal cultural practice that carries a wide range of associations, from collecting candy from neighbors, to wearing cheaply-made costumes that are ludicrously sexualized versions of licensed characters. Even though one’s motivation for choosing and making a Halloween costume may be identical to one’s motivation for making and wearing a costume to a convention, the term “cosplay” is typically not used, because the attendant cultural associations may cause confusion.
A frequently-used term for a costume contest or competition at a convention is “Masquerade.” Although the majority of cosplayers do not compete or participate in Masquerades, such events are popular at conventions and typically draw large crowds of cosplayers and costume enthusiasts. Masquerades occasionally offer cash prizes, but more frequently the participants enter these Masquerades for the pleasure of performing on stage, the opportunity to showcase their hard work, and “bragging rights.” Cosplayers participate individually or as a group, and typically enter a Masquerade as either a “walk-on,” walking onto the stage to display their costume, or a skit, which may include acting, dancing, and coordinated audio. Those who enter and win Masquerades on a regular basis typically spend months preparing their costumes, props, and skits.
The judges of a Masquerade can vary wildly. Some conventions recruit “celebrities” or other convention guests to judge their Masquerade. Ideally, a Masquerade judge will be an experienced costumer who can understand the effort and skill required to create costumes, and not someone who will be easily impressed by simple, flashy tricks. Some Masquerades award prizes based solely on what the judges see on stage, while others include prizes for craftsmanship, based on an up-close examination of the costumes.
An American Invention
Cosplay began in New York City in 1939, at the very first Worldcon (also known as the World Science Fiction Convention). Myrtle R. Douglas attended the convention in a costume she made, based on the 1933 film “Things To Come,” accompanied by 22 year old Forrest J. Ackerman who wore a “futuristicostume” made by Myrtle that included a green cape and riding breeches. In the decades that followed, the practice of wearing costumes to conventions became common among science fiction fans, though no particular name was given to the hobby. Footage of the first Star Trek convention includes numerous imaginative fan-made costumes.
A Japanese Name
In addition to giving birth to cosplay, Worldcon also played a role in the naming of the hobby. Unlike many fan conventions, Worldcon is a convention that changes location annually. In 1984, Anaheim, California, played host to Worldcon. By this time, many fans showed up to conventions in costume. This fact did not go unnoticed by Japanese journalist Nobuyuki (Nov) Takahashi. At this time, there were media conventions in Japan, but it was uncommon for attendees to dress in costumes. Fascinated by what he saw, Takahashi decided to promote the hobby in his homeland. He understood the importance of branding, even in a non-commercial activity, and endeavored to come up with a name for the unnamed hobby.
With costumes such a staple of media fan conventions, many cons held Masquerades (costume pageants or contests). But in Japan, the word “masquerade” was associated with the stuffy sort of costume ball you’ve seen in the movies. Takahashi needed a name that evoked the fun of dressing in costume and all that it entailed. Thus he created the word “cosplay,” a portmanteau of the English words “costume” and “play.” It is a common misconception that the “play” part of the word “cosplay” refers to play-acting or role-play. In truth, the word “play” was chosen simply to imply fun and whimsy.
The 1990s saw an increase in the popularity of anime (animated films and TV shows from Japan) and manga (Japanese comic books) in the US. The difficulty and expense of obtaining anime and manga tended to filter out casual consumers, but enthusiasts could meet each other and exchange materials at anime conventions. At the time, anime fans were often fans of Japanese pop culture, and as a result, a number of Japanese cultural elements became popularized at anime conventions. These include the chocolate snack Pocky, alternative Japanese street fashion trends such as Elegant Gothic Lolita, and of course cosplay. Cosplay had quickly taken off as a hobby in Japan, where the visual appeal of costumes attracted media coverage. Anime appealed to a young generation of American fans, many of whom had never been to a science ficion or comic book convention. But their exposure to Japanese pop culture exposed them to the “Japanese” hobby that was often ignored by American media.
A textbook example of the power of branding, the term “cosplay” soon became associated with the decades-old, nameless American hobby. “Cosplay” quickly went from being associated solely with Japanese cartoons, comics, and video games to a name for wearing costumes at media fan conventions in general. In Japan, the word “cosplay” is apparently applied to nearly every activity in costume, from a model wearing a costume to promote a new movie, to a woman wearing a business suit to pretend to be an office worker in a porn video. But in America today, the term “cosplay” is typically used only to mean wearing a costume to a media fan convention.
Sex Appeal and Cosplay
For some people outside of the hobby, cosplay is associated with girls in skimpy outfits. Although many cosplayers are women, the industries which create some of the elements of pop culture, such as comic books and video games, have traditionally been and continue to be dominated by men. This is sometimes evident in the design of superheroines and video game characters. It isn’t unusual to see a comic book heroine wearing essentially a bathing suit and go-go boots. Impractically skimpy female “armor” is a trope in fantasy video games. Even the most intrepid and capable video game heroine may be wearing little more than a tank top and booty shorts. For female fans of pop culture who are interested in cosplaying their favorite characters, the costume choices may range from immodest to scandalous.
Many, if not most, attendees of media fan conventions are male. Men are generally more inclined to snap a photo of a provocatively-dressed woman, even if he isn’t a fan of the character she is cosplaying. As a result, photographs of sexy ladies are likely to be disproportionately over-represented. Bloggers add to the situation. In the effort to generate content and carry coverage of more events, many bloggers opt for reposting photos taken by other people rather than reporting from conventions and events in person. This is especially true of the virtually meaningless “Best Cosplay Of The Year” and “Hottest Comic-Con Ladies” posts that do little more than curate one blogger’s favorite photos stolen from the internet. These blogs are one more filter that often tends to over-emphasize traffic-generating photos of scantily-clad women. As a result, it is not unusual to find internet coverage of cosplay that consists of little more than photos of sexy women.
While it is true that attractive women in revealing costumes are a part of cosplay, there are a lot of other kinds of people and different costumes that make up this hobby. The next time you see a convention photo of a sexy cosplay girl, take a glance at the other people in the background. I mean, when you’re finished touching yourself.