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Sunday Creature

Maka Albarn (Soul Eater), Spartoi variant (2010)

When I started high school – I was in a magnet program, so I went out of area, new school, completely new people – a new friend there introduced me to manga, and later to the idea of anime cons. We planned to go to Otakon together (ironically, she never ended up going at all, although we tried for years), and so of course we did our research first! We were nerds, in nerd school, research definitely counted as a fun activity. Apparently we weren’t very good at it, though, because we came to the conclusion that everyone cosplayed at anime cons (this was super NOT true at the time) and decided we needed to cosplay, too.

At first I just kinda planned to do it because it seemed like the done thing, really. I did have fun trying to find pieces that would work for the character – I wouldn’t try sewing my own costume until a year later in 2007 – but it was just a part of my excitement about going to my first con. And even though literally no one even realized I was cosplaying (I was Winry Rockbell, but in her “normal” clothes – a black skirt and jacket, white tank top, and combat boots, with my natural hair), it still just felt really cool and fun to kinda imagine myself as one of my favorite characters. And some of my other friends were really intrigued, so the next year I ended up making costumes for myself and a few other people, too. And then I was really hooked – I LOVED making stuff, seeing it all come together from nothing into something fun and cool.

Umi Ryuuzaki (Magic Knight Rayearth), cover art variant 2012

Oh, WILDLY different than now. For one, it was pretty niche even among the also relatively niche hobby that was anime. Certainly there were plenty of cosplayers at con, but it wasn’t nearly as accessible or well known as it is now, so it wasn’t quite as ubiquitous or universally popular. Like, they struggled to get people to watch the cosplay contest walk-across for a long time (though people liked the masquerade). And there really weren’t the kind of resources we have these days! No special cosplay materials (you went to the fabric store or the hardware store and wandered around and improvised), no pre-made props or kits, no specialized patterns or tools, and CERTAINLY you couldn’t just go out and buy a costume! There was only one place that sold wigs (cosplay.com starting to carry wigs was a BIG deal). There weren’t a lot of tutorials or other learning resources either, meaning lots of people were just winging it. This ALSO meant that pretty much every cosplayer was also a crafter/maker, or else they exclusively did closet cosplays. Some people commissioned costumes, but it was expensive, nothing like the costumes you can buy pre-made now. And I guarantee if I said “I cosplay” anywhere aside from an anime con, I’d have had to explain it. Nowadays people tend to be familiar with cosplay even if they aren’t into fandom or anything like that. I’m always amazed that I DON’T have to explain my hobby all the time anymore! And now it’s considered cool – way back when, it was obvious that lots of other people thought it was kind of a weird or embarrassing hobby. But these days, telling people I’m a cosplayer is a good ice breaker!

Miranda Lotto (D.Gray-Man) 2009

There weren’t a whole lot of cosplayers with any significant online presence. Sure, plenty of people posted on cosplay.com forums, or some people posted on the Japanese cosplay sites, but the idea of a cosplayer as an internet personality wasn’t really a big thing yet, at least in the US (tho that was around when some of the first ones were getting started). I only posted on DeviantArt, and not even all that often, really, and I STILL had people recognizing me at cons or hoping to see me, just because there weren’t a lot of people who posted pictures or other cosplay content online at ALL. Outside of the internet, if you wanted to connect with other cosplayers, you went to cons.

My first con was Otakon 2006! It was still in Baltimore then, but already it had been around a long time. I lived close enough that my dad could drive me or I could take the train every day. I remember standing in the long, hot line outside just to get my badge and get in! I don’t think I did Thursday badge pickup my first year. And it was soooo hard to navigate the convention center. In many ways cons are still a lot like they were then – although I feel like celebrities have become more of a thing as nerd culture has become mainstream. Anyways, even back then at my first con, I mainly just hung out with friends (even ones I’d just made there) and didn’t really go to a lot of panels or screenings or anything, although of course there were some things I just COULDN’T miss. I also remember being wowed by the dealer’s hall and artist’s alley. Sooooo much cool stuff, and back then you couldn’t just get it online. I spent a lot of time shopping (and window shopping)! Or standing in line chatting with people (even in 2006 Otakon was already a bit of a Line Con).

I’ve done so many cosplays over the years (it’s well over 30 by this point, probably closer to 40, and that’s just the ones I’ve made for myself, not counting things I made or helped with for other people) it’s always hard for me to decide when I get questions like this. Or when people ask, “What’s your favorite cosplay you’ve done?” Depends how I’m feeling that day! But there are some cosplays I sort of think of as milestones. The first was probably Captain Mary Spencer from Trinity Blood in 2011. She was the first of the two cosplays I won awards for, and the only “major” award I ever won. But more important, I think, is the origin story. Back then I used DeviantArt (I still have an account, though I don’t visit there much anymore), and one time I asked my followers “what’s your dream cosplay?” It was a fun conversation with a lot of people, and one person asked me, well, what about you? I said Captain Mary. And then they asked, well, why haven’t you done it yet? And I didn’t have any answer! So the next year, I made her. Why not? Nothing was holding me back but my own sense that I wasn’t “good enough,” but that’s fake, really. I’ll never be as good now as the more experienced me of the future, so if I wait to become good enough I’ll just never do it. That was a real turning point, after which I stopped worrying about if I was good enough to do the builds I wanted, or to wear the costumes I wanted. And I felt SO cool in that costume. Back then I had a bit of a reputation as a “bamf” (very much NOT my description), and I really felt like it when dressed as Captain Mary. Unfortunately I don’t fit in that outfit anymore, but also I’m WAY more skilled now than I was back then, so I really want to remake her someday.

The next was just 2 years later in 2013. That was Boa Hancock from One Piece. I looooove that cosplay – I legitimately don’t think I could do better today than I did 10 years ago, and it’s held up reasonably well considering its age. But that was also the first really, truly mainstream popular cosplay I did. And I did enjoy the attention, but it could be a bit too much sometimes, especially because some people are really creeps. Up until that point I managed to mostly avoid any kind of cosplay-related sexual harassment. So, ironically, it’s probably also the cosplay that really pushed me towards what these days I call “Arras does obscure cosplay,” ha. And it’s when I realized that “sexy” cosplays just aren’t for me. That’s – probably not coincidentally – also around the time I was really starting to get comfortable with myself as asexual. I’d known for a while that I was ace, but it’s one thing to know and it’s another entirely to really own it, you know? I know lots of aces who love to do sexy cosplay, but boy howdy it just isn’t me. I actually wore Boa again a couple years back – I can tell you, her popularity and the ensuing weirdness hasn’t faded one bit. But I still look amazing as her, even if my legs aren’t quite as nice as they were when I was 22, ha.

Photo by Joseph Fox Photography.

Next is Sister Rosette Christopher from Chrno Crusade in 2018. I wanted to do this costume for years, but was turned off when I was younger because a lot of men did it ironically (in a very transphobic kind of way) because they thought it was funny to be dressed as a “nun with a gun” (this is the name of a trope). But then a friend of mine really wanted to do a Chrno Crusade cosplay and I was like you know what? I’m done letting other people ruin things for me because THEY are jerks. (We come back to this now, in 2023, when I FINALLY got into Trigun, something I avoided back in the aughts because I met one too many jerky Vash cosplayers.) And MAN this is another one I love love love. And I had such a great time with PockyFlowers, my friend who asked me to do it and cosplayed as Chrono. It was also surprisingly popular! I sort of didn’t expect people to know who we were, but a LOT of people did (and tended to burst into tears when they saw us. Oops… Spoiler alert, Chrno Crusade is pretty tragic).

Next is Pidge from Voltron. I tried to make this cosplay once and messed up big time, then shelved it for literally years. Then in 2018 I did a swimsuit version I had designed before FINALLY in 2019 I finished the original one I’d started several years earlier. Pidge was the first “genderqueer” character I’d ever done, and the first time I wore a binder. (I put “genderqueer” in quotes here only because I don’t think the character is explicitly so in the series, but many fans, including me, view her that way.) My mom was very surprised to find out the character is a girl but (perhaps comfortingly) didn’t seem bothered when she’d thought I was dressing up as a boy! In 2021 I did Dr. Johanna Faust from Frau Faust, another (much more explicitly) genderqueer character who often dresses as a man. And then this year I did Vash the Stampede (the manga version, because I gotta make it a little obscure even when I do popular characters…), who actually is a guy! So techically he’s the first time I’ve actually cosplayed a male character, even though I’ve done masculine characters before. I’ve identified as non-binary/genderqueer for a while now but honestly, cosplay has helped me start to become more comfortable with it. I’ve lived in some very conservative areas where it’s legitimately dangerous to be obviously gender non-conforming in public, so cosplay has been kind of a safe place to explore androgyny and masculinity.

Of course, there are a lot more cosplays I really like, but I think those ones are all particularly special to me.

I think my relationship with cosplay has really fluctuated a lot over the years. Early on it meant a lot to me to get attention and recognition from other people. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that! I had pretty bad self esteem when I was younger, and cosplay really helped in some ways. But as I got older – and, frankly, as cosplay became more popular and it started taking a lot of work (which I wasn’t really interested in doing) for any individual cosplayer to get attention – this lead to some frustrating situations. I already really liked crafting and usually did one big, challenging build a year, so I stopped competing regularly and started picking things that just really sang to me regardless of how popular they were and just focused on a fun crafting experience. Around that same time, in many ways cosplay became a kind of self-exploration. That’s hardly unique – many people use cosplay as a way to explore parts of themselves they may have difficulty examining as “themself.” It’s so much easier when you’re in costume, presenting yourself to the world as someone else, maybe figuring out what parts of that character are also parts of you. Then as I got a little older still, and stopped having quite so much time (and money, and energy) for cosplay, I started embracing a more casual approach. I still like to do big complex builds, but I also started doing more closet cosplays or buying costumes (so novel! You couldn’t really do that so much when I started out). It became more of an escape, kind of, a chance to just relax and have fun as a busy adult. And, ironically, I started competing again, but with way less stress – it’s just fun to get up on stage, and who cares if anyone knows who I am or if I win anything? And I’ve started trying to connect with more fellow crafters. It’s nice! Like a slightly niche support group, haha. There’s just so MANY people in the hobby now, it’s easy to find people who like the same kinds of things. It’s really great.

My advice for new cosplayers today is definitely: do it for you. And don’t be afraid! It was a niche hobby within an already niche hobby back when I started, but today it’s mainstream. And this is great! It’s become so accessible. But I also think that newbies feel like they have to live up to some kind of imaginary cosplay ideal, because they see these really “pro” level cosplayers all the time. But it’s supposed to be fun! We’re all just adults playing dress-up. And personally I’ve found that I have the most fun when I don’t really worry about what other people think.

For me this means cosplaying stuff even if I don’t think anyone else will recognize it or care, and – sometimes, but not always – a challenging build, because personally I love to craft. And doing groups with people I love, who I know won’t pressure me about it but will help and support me. But for other people maybe this means just buying something, or doing closet or fashion cosplays, or yeah, even doing the latest popular thing because you just like connecting with lots of other people. As long as you’re not hurting anyone else, there’s no wrong way to do it or standard you have to meet. Whatever brings you joy, that’s the “right” way to cosplay. And even if you’re never “pro” level, you’re still awesome!


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