by Phuong Pham
Whether or not you’re a cosplayer, if you’ve ever been to a convention, you’re probably familiar with cosplay in general. Cosplay is the act of dressing up as a well-known character from an intellectual property, be it a television series, comic book, manga, video game, etc. Hit the jump to learn about the history of cosplay and how it differs between genders.
Although the word cosplay may not have been very common or popular until the last ten years, many people may be surprised to find out that cosplay has had an incredibly rich history. Believe it or not, cosplay started in the 1930’s in North America! However, during this time, people didn’t dress up like a specific character from a particular property. Instead, costumes were themed for a genre much like how steampunk is utilized in cosplay today. This all started in 1939 when a con-goer by the name of Forrest J. Ackerman showed up to a science-fiction convention (yes, those existed back then!) dressed in futuristic gear. Thanks to Ackerman, dressing up in costume became a trend and over the years more and more people began to dress up for conventions.
It wasn’t until the late 70’s, roughly forty years after Ackerman made his costuming debut, that Japan later refined cosplay into what we are more familiar with today. Japanese college students started to borrow the North American tradition and began dressing up as characters from the manga, Urusei Yatsura and the television series, Mobile Suit Gundam. The term “cosplay” didn’t come to light until 1984 when Japanese reporter, Nobuyuki Takahashi, in a story regarding a convention he attended in Los Angeles, referred to the practice of dressing up in costume as “cosplay” as he felt the original term, “masquerade” felt outdated and archaic.
Although today we still have “masquerade balls” at our favorite conventions, it’s safe to say that cosplay is a distinctly different practice from masquerade. When someone says, “cosplay” a certain image comes to mind: people dressed as different characters from beloved intellectual properties such as television, film, and video games. Additionally, cosplay is more than just showing up in a costume; it’s becoming the character, themselves. Many cosplayers will not only dress as the character but play the part, as well. If the character is from a foreign land, cosplayers will often adopt their accents or even their mannerisms. This is not unlike character actors at Disneyland, Universal Studios, etc. however, there is one huge difference: cosplayers (especially when starting out) are doing this at an expense to themselves. Unlike the characters paid for by theme parks, cosplayers generally pay out-of-pocket for fabric, makeup, hair, craft supplies, and whatever else they may need. It’s astounding to think that a movie can have a costuming team and then a single person will do comparable work for a fraction of the cost just for the love of that character. This is why I’m so in awe of the costumes I see at conventions, especially Nerd Con this past weekend.
While it was a decidedly smaller con, this made it easier to seek out really well-done cosplays. Possibly my favorite cosplay I saw over the weekend was of Sarah and Jareth from Labyrinth.
The sewing and costume design for both characters was impeccable and I later learned the woman portraying Jareth (yes, woman) single-handedly sewed both costumes, herself. And this tends to be the norm for cosplay: people taking on the roles of seamstresses, leatherworkers, and blacksmiths all on their own in order to realize their visions. Some have even been able to make a living doing cosplay. Well-known cosplayers such as Yaya Han, Lindsay Elyse, Amie Lynn are all able to make money through cosplaying.
Due to their resemblance to characters and the quality of their work, these ladies often get paid to attend events, dressed in their labor of love in order to represent a company. Lynn does this part-time and is now able to pay for her journalism degree.
However, with everything fun, there is a downside. As is the norm with anime, comics, and video games, sometimes the more inspirational female characters can be dressed significantly more risque. Hell, even male characters can show a lot of skin in certain animes and manga. Because of this, some fans of cosplay treat this as an invitation for attention of a sexual nature. This has become a huge problem in the cosplay community and has even started the “Cosplay is not Consent” movement. To be honest, the few times I’ve cosplayed, I have occasionally been treated like some sort of sexual fantasy instead of an enthusiast. In my more svelte years, I used to dress as a gender-crossed Malcolm Reynolds from the show, Firefly with a midriff burgundy shirt. This was not meant to be attention-seeking. I reasoned that given my stature and the size of men’s shirts, a female Mal would probably have it tied up in order to keep it out of the way and work more efficiently on missions. (There were no burgundy dress shirts in women’s sizes. I checked.) However, because of the form-fitting clothes and exposing a bit of skin, my enthusiasm for the fandom sometimes took a backseat to my sexuality. However, unlike some other cosplayers, I was lucky since I only had to deal with the odd lewd comment here and there. Additionally, it also helped that I often have two male friends accompany me to cons.
It’s important to understand that yes, while it is ok to express that someone is attractive, it is not ok to grope, make lewd comments, or generally make someone feel uncomfortable based on what they wear. This should be common sense not just in cosplay but also in life: people shouldn’t be sexually harassed for what they’re wearing nor is what they’re wearing some sort of open invitation. Unless MAYBE someone is wearing a large notarized document saying that they welcome sex with absolutely anyone, there is no reason why someone’s mode of dress should welcome harassment, male or female. I’m sure sexual harassment while cosplaying isn’t just exclusive to women.
However, one difference between men and women cosplayers that I’ve noticed is that men don’t really get grilled about the intellectual property they’re cosplaying as much as women do. While this is slowly changing, I think it’s safe to say that a male cosplayer is less likely to be grilled about the property they’re cosplaying than a woman. A female cosplayer will sometimes have to prove herself more often than a male cosplayer, especially if this is a video game. The whole “gamer girl” meme is a stigma, now and women find themselves in a difficult way with having to constantly prove their “nerd cred.” This is especially difficult for someone like me who is a casual gamer but loves video games. I grew up in poverty and came from a single parent household. I am only now discovering certain classics. Every once in a while, my mom would drive me to my cousin’s house where he had several different consoles he would let me play. I have fond memories of playing Timesplitters, various Super Mario games, Crash Bandicoot, and Grand Theft Auto with him. (Thanks, Khanh!) However, this wasn’t exactly enough to experience the scope of gaming such as with timeless classics like the Legend of Zelda, Mega Man, etc.
Today, I STILL don’t have much time to game because of my busy work schedule and networking to build my brand. Because of this, I’m often labeled a disingenuous nerd because despite being a fan, I haven’t experienced enough of the properties to know all about them. I think the key to cosplaying is embracing all levels and knowledge sets. I keep being badgered (lovingly) by friends to cosplay as Ada Wong from the Resident Evil series because of my striking resemblance. To this day, I’ve still not completed a single Resident Evil game and they all know this. However, if it makes a few people happy to see a character from one of their favorite franchises in reality, I’m willing to give it a shot.