By: Liz Ohanesian
Ginger Burton remembers the first anime convention she attended. It was Anime Expo back in 2007. While Burton knew about anime, she was unfamiliar with cosplay.
Cosplay is when people dress up in costumes, frequently based on pop culture characters, for fan events. Halloween costumes aren’t cosplay, although someone might bust out their Wonder Woman outfit from San Diego Comic-Con for October 31. The history of cosplay goes back decades and is tied to conventions catering to fans of science fiction, fantasy, comic books, etc. As conventions have become more frequent, and more popular, cosplay has blossomed into a popular pastime. Some people make their own costumes. Others buy them. While very few people have become professional cosplayers, most do it as a hobby.
In 2007, cosplay was still relatively unknown outside of the convention scene. “I didn’t know that people dressed up and went to conventions,” Burton says. “It was a whole subculture that I didn’t know existed.”
At first, Burton wasn’t interested in showing up at the convention in costume. She asked her friend if she could just go in regular clothes. “My friend said, people will laugh at you,” Burton recalls, adding, “I think she just said that to get me to dress up.”
Of course, there are plenty of people who show up at convention in day-to-day wear and suffer no consequences. However, that little push led Burton, then a fashion design student, deep into the world of pop culture costumes. She dressed as Link, the hero from the famed video game franchise Legend of Zelda. “Looking back, it wasn’t that great,” says Burton. The fabrics she chose weren’t the best and the collar she made didn’t turn out quite right. None of that mattered though. People still asked for photos with the college student. “They still recognized who I was,” she says.
That year at Anime Expo was more than just a fun outing in costume. “It just kind of motivated me to keep trying new things,” says Burton.
Since then, cosplay has become a major part of Burton’s life. She once organized her own cosplay ball and occasionally runs costume-making competitions at conventions. She is part of the group Chocolate Covered Cosplay and once competed in the World Cosplay Summit. She sits on convention panels and poses for a lot of photos. Plus, as a side job, Burton dresses as costumed characters for children’s birthday parties.
Music fans may often talking about concerts as life-changing experiences. The first concert can often be a time where young people realize that there is a world beyond their neighborhoods, their schools. Suddenly, they’re surrounded by people who share the interests that make them feel like misfits in day-to-day life. Conventions are like that too. People travel from far off locations to make offline connections with others who enjoy the same pastimes. One of those is cosplay.
Of course, the friendships go beyond the initial conversation starter. “It’s not about the costuming or interests,” says Andrew Valenzuela of his convention friends. “They’re just nice people to be around.” A three-year veteran of the cosplay scene, Valenzuela met new pals while seeking out help for his own costumes. The bonds that he has formed are strong; several fellow cosplayers traveled to attend the San Diego resident’s wedding.
Cosplay can bring people together. Take Kit Quinn and Steven Meissner as an example. The Los Angeles-based couple have a photo of their first meeting at San Diego Comic-Con. He was dressed as The Monarch, a villain from The Venture Bros. She was dressed as Dr. Mrs. the Monarch.
Quinn says she feels fortunate to have a hobby that involves socializing with people. “I wonder how I would meet people if I weren’t a cosplayer,” she adds. “I really have no idea how adults make friends when you’re not in school or have a job in an office.”
For Quinn and Meissner, there’s a professional aspect to cosplay as well. Quinn is an actor and recently starred in the cosplay-centric web series, Sweethearts of the Galaxy. Meissner works full-time making commissioned props and accessories for cosplayers. He runs his business through Facebook and most of his customers find him through word-of-mouth. The bulk of his customers are people he has never met. Some of those customers have become friends.
For those who make their costumes, the challenge can be exhilarating. Quinn was just about to start college when she went to San Diego Comic-Con dressed as Sailor Mars, a character from the popular anime Sailor Moon. “I made it as best as I could for my very first year making costumes.” She bought a cheerleading skirt, added some extra stones to a tiara she found and made a bow out of fabric scraps. “It was very beginner,” she says, “but it was awesome.”
Since then, Quinn has been upping the ante on her costumes, choosing outfits that are more difficult to complete and learning new skills along the way. Some of her standouts include Maleficent, which required working with leather, as well as corsetry, and the Baroness from G.I. Joe, Quinn’s first attempt at making a breastplate.
Last summer, Quinn and two friends turned up at Anime Expo as the villainous Amazon Trio from Sailor Moon. Quinn was Fish Eye, complete with a thickly padded light blue suit. On the Monday before the convention, she made a mistake that would require starting over again. “Technically easy, but, still, so labor intensive,” she says. Quinn enlisted friends to pull a couple all-nighters with her as they sewed and padded the costume. At the actual event, the costume proved to be a little too warm for the blazing Los Angeles heat and the crowded convention center. Quinn grew ill. “I wasn’t prepared in the morning for how hot it was going to get and, by the time afternoon hit, it was too late and we were desperately trying to prop me full of $4 bottles of water.”
Quinn says she felt ill for the next day or two. “I looked it good in it, so it’s cool.” she says.
People cosplay for a lot of different reasons. Some like the art of making the costume. For others, the performance aspect that comes with dressing up as heroes and villains is appealing. When people cosplay, sometimes, the characters have a deep, personal significance.
Chris Riley, a 30-year-old from Los Angeles, started out cosplaying his character, Captain Lucky. Since then, he’s gone on to dress up as established characters. He was part of the Amazon Trio at Anime Expo that included Kit Quinn. Riley has worn mash-up costumes, like one that was a cross between Daryl Dixon from The Walking Dead and Peter Pan. He was also recently part of a gender-bent Sailor Moon cosplay group based on a piece of fan art that depicted the sailor scouts as guys. The costume that is most significant for Riley, though, is a gender-bent version of X-Men character Emma Frost.
Riley, who is gay, was frequently bullied during his adolescence. For him, comic books were an escape. One of his favorite characters was Emma Frost and he would draw her repeatedly. “One time, in school, one of the girls was bullying me,” he says. “She was trying to say that she was being harassed by Emma Frost’s image so I got sent to the principal’s office. I literally spent one or two hours in the principal’s office, while he basically convinced me that everything that had to do with comic books and superheroes were evil.”
For Riley, portraying Emma Frost as an adult is a way of reclaiming a part of his identity. “I took my power back,” he says. Riley says that the styles of costumes he has chosen, often skimpy, are a response to the way he was treated as a youngster. “My costumes, my artistic expressions were so hyper-sexualized,” he says of his early work. “Looking back on that, I really think it’s because growing up in those religious schools and being gay, I have had to be become completely desexualized in order to just survive. Otherwise, I would get beaten up again or I would be an embarrassment to my family and hurt them and that’s something that I didn’t want to do.”
Cosplay gives people the chance to express themselves in an environment where they are appreciated. It’s not always a safe space. Recently, there has been a lot of discussion as to how to curb harassment of cosplayers at conventions. Online, trolling and other related bad behavior are problems that cosplayers try to curb within their communities. Still, there’s a camaraderie between cosplayers that withstands the pitfalls of the hobby.
Jarod Nandin started cosplaying at the end of the 1990s. He took a break from the hobby, but returned in full force when he started attending conventions as a minor South Park character known as Jenkins, the Griefer or “that which has no life.” His costume was a hit, both at events and online. “It’s part of an expression of my fandom,” says Nandin. ” It’s always going to be something that I want to do.”
While there may be times where he doesn’t put on a costume and hit up cons, it’s not something that he imagines quitting. “I am never going to stop being a geek, so I will probably never stop cosplaying.”