I’ve always been interested in the ways different people interact with media they enjoy. Cosplay (a portmanteau of “costume play”) is a community within the larger sense of fandom. As a cosplayer myself, I reached out to a variety of people I know who participate in cosplay and asked them to answer a few questions about their experiences and thoughts on it.
How do you define cosplay and/or explain it to people?
Sarah: I usually define it as dressing up as a character to the best of your ability or in your own style.
Wei: I dress as fictional characters and go to anime conventions.
Conner: Making or buying a costume to dress up as a fictional character that you like to go some kind of gathering, like a comic/anime convention or a meet-up of other cosplayers.
Brendan: Assuming I’m talking to people who don’t know what cosplaying is, I tell them it’s “Dressing up as a character that you like and sometimes trying to stay in character. It’s fun!”
Alicia: When I try to explain cosplay to people, I usually say “It’s like having Halloween multiple times a year. But instead of poorly made Halloween costumes from the store, it’s well made costumes that people make themselves. And instead of candy, you get compliments and pictures taken of you.”
Cass: Depending on the person, I either say very technically that it’s people dressing up as fictional characters that they care about as a way to engage with both the material the character is from and the community of fans of that work, or I say it’s that thing people do at conventions where they run around as Sailor Moon for fun and usually not profit.
Sam: Dressing up as a fictional character. It frequently involves creating components of if not the entire costume. It may be done in groups or individually. It can be pretty fun, and there are some super cool craftspeople who do amazing things
How did you get involved in cosplaying, and how long have you been doing it for?
Sarah: I got involved in cosplay through the Homestuck fandom, particularly after I started getting to know other Homestucks through Tumblr. I wasn’t social about it though until 2012 when I moved to Staten Island from Ohio. I didn’t know anybody and I wanted to make friends with people who loved Homestuck, too, so I sought out the community at New York City cosplay events.
Wei: By accident. I agreed to do it with my friend thinking it would never happen. It did. Since 2007.
Conner: I got involved about 4 years ago when one of my friends was cosplaying Robin and asked me to be his Batman. I’d been interested in it for a while and was friends with a ton of people who did it, but just never had the motivation until then.
Brendan: I got involved almost by accident, really. I was contemplating doing a cosplay for my first con because I thought the idea was fun and then I went for it and had a great time. I’ve been cosplaying for… three-four years I think?
Alicia: I got involved in cosplaying when in 2011 my friend dragged me to a convention because he had no one else to go with. When I got there, I saw all fun that cosplayers were having and how amazing their costumes looked and wanted to try it myself.
Cass: The first time I cosplayed was two years ago. The character I dressed as had a straightforward costume, so it was accessible for a beginner, and I attended an event with a lot of other fans who were also in cosplay.
Sam: Some friends wanted to do a Madoka Magica group, and I joined in; aside from that, I’ve only really done one other costume. The Madoka Magica group was in 2012? Maybe?
How much of your time and resources do you put into cosplay? Do you make your own cosplays, and if not where do you get them?
Sarah: I try not to spend more than $50 total on each cosplay – and even then, I try to make sure I can reuse a lot of the costume pieces and materials. I will put hours and hours into each cosplay, which is why I try to only do a few new cosplays at big events each year since I’ve been in graduate school. I don’t have a sewing machine, so I will often thrift costume pieces or sew embellishments by hand. One time, I did buy a character-specific jacket because it would have been much more expensive and time-consuming to make it myself. Most of the time, though, I like to put my own style into a cosplay. It definitely took the pressure off of being “perfect” and “completely canonical.” The cosplay community can be a little judgmental sometimes, so creating my unique take on a design makes it harder for people to compare you to other cosplayers.
Wei: I buy and sell, buy and sell so I try to lose about $300 per year in total. I’ve made a couple of things but I mostly get them from Taobao.
Conner: Oh man, currently, cosplay takes up a majority of my time and money; partly because it’s pretty much the center of my social life now. At first when I was only going to one convention a year, I’d just buy what I needed. Then I started going to more conventions, doing more costumes and shifted to buying things and modifying them into costumes. Currently, I go to about 6 or 7 conventions a year, and a couple more meetups and spend most of my nights after work sewing and making costumes and props.
Brendan: It depends on the cosplay. Some of them are a lot more complex than others, obviously! I’ve mostly stuck with simpler ones so far, so it’s less time and money expenditure than the really fancy stuff. I tend to make my own cosplays when I can, and I’ve been using it to teach myself to sew and make props. I usually put a pretty big chunk of money into my costumes, and I tend to make them slow so I can’t really give a time estimate of how much time I actually put into them and how much I put into procrastinating them.
Alicia: I put a kind of embarrassing amount of time and effort into making my cosplays sometimes. Let’s just say that cosplay is the reason why I have two jobs. I wish I was kidding.
Cass: I probably spend relatively little time or money on cosplay; I may dress up seriously twice a year, otherwise it’s very casual. An outfit is probably 50 dollars on average – pre-made clothing that is modified plus one homemade prop.
Sam: Not a lot. I did a lot of sewing and some craft stuff for the Madoka Magica one, but for the second one, Newton Geiszler from Pacific Rim, I just borrowed a shirt and tie from friends then spent about 3-5 hours drawing on myself with crayola markers.
For you, what’s the best part of cosplay/ what part of cosplay is most important to you? (ie. making costumes, going to cons and showing off, just wearing the costumes for fun, etc)
Sarah: I love making and putting the cosplays together – it’s actually a huge destressor for me – but community is important to me as well. Creating and wearing a cosplay is, for me, an awesome ice-breaker. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met some awesome people with a conversation that started somewhere along the lines of, “I love your costume!” … “Thanks, I love yours!” It opens up a dialogue about something that you both have in common.
Wei: Going to cons, showing off and meeting people.
Conner: The cons are definitely the most important part to me. I get a rush from making the costumes too now that I can, but being at a con in costume is a crazy experience no matter how many times I do it. It’s pretty much a 3-day party where I get to just act like whatever character I’m dressed as.
Brendan: For me, having the costumes and wearing them for fun is the best part. My favorite cosplay is a Pokemon character and sometimes I wear it around just for fun and to see if anyone notices. It’s also me training myself to be less self-conscious about what other people might think – the fact that I’ve generally gotten ‘that’s really awesome!’ responses from people just makes that more effective.
Alicia: I think one of the best part of cosplay is that moment when you first put it on and look at yourself in the mirror. It’s no longer you staring back at yourself. It’s you staring back at your favorite character and all the hard work that you put into making it happen. Another favorite moment of mine is when I’m at a convention and people will stop me for a picture of me in my cosplay. It makes me feel accomplished, like I did something right. I brought this favorite character of their’s to life and I did a great job in their eyes. I think that makes it all worth it.
Cass: Being automatically recognised as a fan of a series or a member of a group is very fun. It can be a quick and easy way to have start a light conversation at a convention. I don’t actually like seeing my own image so there’s some dissonance there.
Sam: The best part of cosplay is doing it with friends, whether it’s the making of it or going around cons together. Making costumes and props is fun, but can be really boring alone. Having your hard work appreciated is pretty nice too! It’s really the social aspect of cosplay that’s interesting/fun to me.
Related to that, why do you cosplay? What motivates you?
Sarah: I have this theory that people want to be a part of something they love, and that definitely applies to cosplay for me. Portraying a character, no matter how similar or different from me, makes me feel like a part of something I admire. Of course, this is most fun when done with others who are the same way! I think the Homestuck fandom, because of the nature of the webcomic itself, has proven this over and over again. The intensity of the fandom, many of whom are cosplayers, has a very real effect on the webcomic. You become a part of a community centered around something that connected with you on a personal level. There’s something amazing about that.
Wei: I’m vain as heckie deckie and I like meeting people who share my interests.
Conner: Really the whole process of thinking of a cosplay, putting it together, getting into character, and heading into the con just gives me a massive rush. It’s something that’s brought me a lot of happiness and friends. It gives me something to do after work, and it was the catalyst for me losing weight and getting healthier. And as stressful as it can be sometimes, it never gets old.
Brendan: To have fun, to hang out with friends, to be creative, and depending on the costume, to bring different parts of my personality to the forefront. Also, I have a tendency to cosplay things that are uncommonly cosplayed but a lot of people have strong nostalgia for (Blues Clues, Pajama Sam, etc) so I like seeing people get excited about that.
Alicia: I cosplay because of the fun I have in costume and all of the work that goes into it. I think that escaping everyday norms and just having fun as a fictional character for awhile is very refreshing and therapeutic in a lot of ways. Even if the shoes are sometimes too tight.
Cass: Many people I care about are very enthusiastic about the hobby. Being involved with it as well gives us something additional to talk about and do together.
Sam: For fun, mostly. The Newton Geiszler one definitely had some stuff pertaining to racial representation with it, though; I am so tired of white guys everywhere, and thought it would more interesting to have a south korean but american raised scientist help save the world. I have a lot of hang-ups about the way racial dynamics affected me as a kid growing up, and this really informs the way I interact with fandom and pretty much everything else. Like, really, REALLY informs. I’m so salty about race all the time.
To what extent/in what ways do you feel that cosplay is performative? (or do you not feel that it is?)
Sarah: It definitely is for me. I have a background in theatre, so I don’t know whether I enjoy cosplay because I enjoy theatre or if I enjoy them both for the same reason. I think it’s fun when you’re representing a character to put yourself in the mindset and demeanor of that character. It makes the cosplay feel more complete. I’ve seen others react this same way – but sometimes for the worse. Just because your character is obnoxious, villainous, or annoying doesn’t mean you should act this way to other people. Human decency comes before cosplay. Always.
Wei: Depends on the cosplayer.
Conner: That comes down to how performative a cosplayer wants to make it. I like to try and make it more theatrical by acting as much as I can like the character, although to be honest I’m not very good doing that for long. But, some people just enjoy wearing the costume, walking around, posing for pictures. And some people like going all out as if the character stepped into reality. It’s all up to whatever is gonna bring the cosplayer the most enjoyment.
Brendan: I don’t feel that cosplay requires performance – it’s just as valid to cosplay a character purely for the sake of showing off the costume that you like as it is to also be in character – but I won’t deny that there is a performative aspect. Talking on a personal level, when I am in costume, I usually let it influence which parts of my personality are prominent – louder and more garrulous for characters who are the same, even snarkier than usual for snarky characters, especially silly for jokey characters, etc. So there is some performance but it’s for me, not for everyone else.
I also perform in some highly scripted Cosplay Chess shows, which actually are acting, but the quality of that acting… varies.
Alicia: I feel like cosplay is performative in a major way. It’s an opportunity to become a character that you love, hate, or just simply think is cool. It’s a nice chance to step out of your own shoes and into those of a different being for a bit and just have fun with it
Cass: I think everything we do in a community is to some extent performative, and the extent of it will ultimately come down to the attitude of the individual cosplayer. The medium by which a cosplay is shared (gifs online, convention, meetup) may have an effect on this? I’m not involved enough to have an opinion on this for the group as a whole. Just a thought that cosplay photographers can be thought of as part of this community, even if they don’t cosplay themselves.
Sam: Definitely performative, but I’m not sure what the question is asking here? Like, it’s definitely a public performance thing. People are dressing up and frequently heading out into public dressed as characters, deliberately taking on different visual cues to shift how people interact with them, depending on context. Like, on a subway, the average passerby is like “Who’s this nerd?” and at a con people are like “Shit! Awesome! Great job can I take a picture!?” I’m not entirely sure how this affects people who largely like to cosplay within the privacy of their own home, but I have seen a lot of ‘ask this character’ style cosplay blogs online, and that’s super-performative, like, they are taking on this character role to interact with other fans. That’s so fun and so cute, that’s such an awesome, fantastic part of the fandom community.
What would you say the tone of the cosplay community in general is? Are there any particular subgroups you belong to, and do you feel they have a different tone from the rest of the community?
Sarah: I don’t think there is a general tone. That sounds crazy, but in my experience, it’s had such a wide variety of tones that you have to make sure you don’t get involved in the negative ones. I’ve met some of my best friends through cosplay – people who are thoughtful, welcoming, supportive, and open-minded. But there are definitely people I stay away from. Honestly, it’s a hobby that attracts a lot of teenagers who are dealing with their own things. I mean, I’m 24. I’m not “old” but sometimes in certain cosplay communities, I am on the older end, which offers me a sense of perspective and social etiquette that younger fans don’t have yet. There are also people who are MUCH more involved in cosplay than I am, and they are much more judgmental. I do this to have fun and make friends and relax. I don’t need that kind of negativity in my life.
Wei: Again, depends on where you hang out. Most people are nice but there are people who can be assholes, or people who get really immature about it and hyper-competitive.
Conner: Overall, the cosplay community is very open and friendly. It gets a bad rep sometimes from people that are more hostile, or from the hyper-competitiveness you see in things like “Heroes of Cosplay”. But, for the most part it’s just a bunch of people enjoying a hobby. As far as subgroups go, basically every show, comic, game and movie has it’s own subgroup. I’m part of a couple; Homestuck, Disney, Free!, Avatar/Legend of Korra. But all subgroups are kind of just smaller reflections of the larger community. Yeah, you’re gonna have a couple people that mess up the fun for everyone else, but mostly it’s just a group of friendly nerds that like wearing costumes.
Brendan: I‘m not generally directly involved with the cosplay community but I am tangential to a lot of it, and so I feel like I can be a bit unbiased here. The cosplay community can be amazing – it can be friendly, and welcoming, and helpful, and a lot of people can make amazing friends through it.
It can also be terrible. A lot of people who are drawn to cosplay have personality types that tend towards drama in some form or another. This can be due to legitimate mental disorders, depression and anxiety and such – but I have seen a lot of cosplay community meltdowns that are loud, nasty, and end up leaving everyone feeling bad. I won’t say all or even most of the community is like this – but the segment that does suffer from these problems is very loud when they happen, and it can spill over to uninvolved people and turn nasty.
So, really, the cosplay community is people. And overall, I enjoy it – I have a great group of people in the cosplay club up here that I hang out with, and I’m really glad I’m involved in it. It has its downsides, but what doesn’t?
Oh, and an addendum: I am not a woman. I cannot comment on women’s experiences in the cosplay community and at cons as I have never had to deal with it, but I generally subscribe to the policy of ‘show some human decency people’ for most things, this included.
Alicia: From what I’ve experienced, the overall tone of the cosplay community is a very accepting and loving one. We are all nerds and we all have the same hobby. I have really only had positive experiences at conventions, and mostly because of all the people I meet during them. I have also made a multitude of friends through cosplay, and a lot of them are actually some of the best friends I could have asked for. We usually end up cosplaying a group of characters together from one TV show or comic or other form of media that we’ve been consumed by as of late.
Cass: I feel like there are a couple of different ways to categorize. One is experience (tied in with quality), and this comes in tiers. Another is intent – like if you’re there for your image, for your group, or for your desire to be close to this fictional character by dressing as them, and this one is a series of overlaps. There may be tone differences from community to community (maybe linked to age group and outfit complexity?).
Sam: Hard to say? I’m not very active in the cosplay community really. As far as I can tell, there are definitely different areas of the cosplay community, but my overall (and very limited!) experience has been really positive. Everyone is so excited and supportive of each other, and really willing to share tips. I learned the secret to making stubble one time (leftover grease paint and a makeup sponge, but don’t go too heavy or else it’ll look really strange). I think it’s the same with every community: there are great and supportive people and there are awful negative jerks who throw hissy fits when not everything goes THEIR way, and there are people in between. I don’t know too much, though; I would definitely need more information before I could say anything really substantial, haha.