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Cosplay, short for “costume play,” is the act of donning a costume that represents a fictional character or an idea, usually from well-known anime, television shows, movies, video games or comic books.
The history of cosplay predates the Internet, with the earliest known fantasy costumes attributed to Forrest J Ackerman and his friend Myrtle R. Douglas, who wore “futuristicostumes” (shown below, left) to the first World Science Fiction Convention held in New York in 1939. The costumes, which were inspired by the 1936 British film Things to Come, were designed by Douglas and gave the overall serious convention a “fanciful, imaginary quality.” The following year, a dozen of the approximately 200 attendees came to the convention in costume.
However, the term “cosplay” was not coined until 1984, when the founder of Japanese publishing house Studio Hard Nobuyuki Takahashi attended that year’s Los Angeles Science Fiction WorldCon. A portmanteau of “costume” and “play,” Takahashi used the word in Japanese science fiction magazines (shown above, right) to share his awe of the costumed fans he saw. The coinage reflects a common Japanese method of abbreviation in which the first two moras, phonological units, of a pair of words are used to form an independent compound. Costume becomes kosu (コス), and play becomes pure (プレ), yielding kosupure (コスプレ).
Cosplay in Fandom
Cosplay is closely associated with popular fandoms, with some of the most active communities rooted in Japanese pop culture and internet subcultures such as the Touhou Project, Vocaloids (shown below, left) and Final Fantasy. However, many popular Western fandom cultures including Star Wars, Star Trek (shown below, center), Doctor Who, Homestuck (shown below, right) and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic have large cosplay communities.
Crossplay is cosplay in which the person dresses up as a character of the opposite gender. The term is a portmanteau of crossdressing and cosplay. Many see crossplay as a serious activity (shown below, left and center), loosely associating it with traps due to the amount of effort the player makes to look as convincing as the opposite gender as possible. However, it can also be done jokingly (shown below, right), where players crossplay for the sake of humor and campiness.
Cosplay can be found on numerous sites and places online. Searching for “cosplay” on deviantArt retrieves more than 2.4 million results as of September 2012. There are also many deviantArt communities dedicated to cosplay such as WorldCosplay, GoCrazyCosplay, WorldWideCosplay and CommunityCosplay. Blogspot hosts Let’s Cosplay and Cosplay Holic, LiveJournal has 365 communities and 409 user blogs that list “cosplay” as an interest and Tumblr has an active cosplay tag and a variety of blogs including Cosplay Obsession and Cosplay Delight.
There are a multitude of Facebook fan pages for cosplay, with the three largest having nearly 700,000 likes combined. There have also been numerous articles written about cosplay on sites including Kotaku, CNN and Eustonstation among others. Cosplay magazines such as CosMode and Cosplay Gen are regularly published and sites such as Cosplay.com, Cosplaymagic and CosplaySales are dedicated to sharing and selling cosplay clothing and accessories.
On Tumblr, many players maintain ask blogs for characters they enjoy cosplaying as a form of roleplay. When asked a question, the blogger will either respond with photos or GIFs. While there is no definitive list of these blogs, many of them utilize the Tumblr tags “cosplay ask blog”, “ask cosplay blog” and “ask cosplay” to gain readership.
Cosplay is most commonly found at cultural conventions dedicated to anime, science fiction, comic books, television shows and video games. Across the globe, hundreds of these conventions are held each year. The single largest event of this kind is the semi-annual doujinshi market Comiket (shown below, left), or the Comic Market, which is held in Japan bi-annually during summer and winter. Some of the other large scale events for cosplayers outside Japan include the annual San Diego Comic-Con (shown below, center) in California, U.S.A, Dragon-Con (shown below, right) in Atlanta, Georgia and the London MCM Expo in the United Kingdom. Both Cosplay.com and CosplayLab.com maintain schedules of upcoming cosplay events. Additionally, Vancouver, British Columbia hosts an annual cosplay-specific convention Cos & Effect dedicated to cosplay and alternative fashion..
In Television and Film
Several documentaries about the fandom surrounding cosplay have been produced, including Otaku Unite! in 2004, Cosplayers: The Movie (shown below, left) released online for free in 2009, an episode of MTV’s True Life also in 2009 and the yet to be released My Other Me: A Film About Cosplayers (shown below, right), which was partically funded in an IndieGoGo campaign in May 2012.
Since as early as 2006, there has been a debate over racism, ableism and accurate portrayal of canon characters in cosplay subculture, with some people criticizing cosplayers with non-canonical ethnic backgrounds as “inaccurate” impersonators of the original characters. While most of the criticisms often reflect on the cosplayer’s ethnic background, this can include judging a costume based on the person’s weight or body shape as well as other physical attributes and disabilities.
One of the earliest mentions of criticism based on a person’s race appeared on the Cosplay.com message boards on October 7th, 2006, when user aachan noted that someone on a LiveJournal community insinuated that she “only stick to race appropriate cosplays.” In December 2008, the announcement of the leading cast in the 2010 live action film The Last Airbender triggered a controversy when it was revealed that the director had chosen an all white cast to play the leading roles (shown below), leading to a debate over the issue of whitewashing in Hollywood films as well as boycotts from the Asian American communities. In 2010, the YouTube channel VeryProudAsian began uploading videos which claimed that good anime cosplay is only possible when completed by an Asian cosplayer.
Several single topic Tumblr blogs have been established to highlight these marginalized cosplayers, including Cross-Race Cosplayers, Cosplayers with Color and Fuck Yeah Fat Cosplay. Essays on the topic have appeared on both fandom and social justice blogs, including GPX Gaming, Nerd Caliber, Geek Life and Racialicious. In July 2012, James Joseph-Westcott Hogan submitted a master’s thesis on the topic titled “A Cosplayed Life: Subcultural Influences on Racial and Heteronormative Structures in Everyday Life” to complete his sociology degree from the University of Connecticut.
Jay Maynard, Tron Guy
Jay Maynard, a.k.a. Tron Guy, is an American computer programmer who is known for his homemade electroluminescent costume inspired by the 1982 sci-fi film Tron. Maynard first became a subject of online discussions in April 2004 after uploading pictures of his costume on his website, which quickly spread across tech news sites and humor forums like Slashdot and FARK. Since his rise to stardom as a nerd icon, Maynard has appeared on the late-night talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live and remains a regular attendant in many tech-related conference circuits, particularly in advocacy of network neutrality.
Cardboard Box Gundam
Cardboard Box Gundam is a series of parody costumes and fan-art based on a joking piece of cosplay worn to 2003’s Anime Central convention in Rosemont, Illinois. The man, attempting to represent a Gundam character, donned a cardboard box that read “Gundam”. Due to the lack of its resemblance to the original character, pictures of his costume quickly spread on the Japanese web, spawning more parodies and tributes centered around the concept of using a cardboard box to cosplay.
Randy Constan, Peter Pan Guy
In 2000, Florida-based computer programmer Randy Constan launched a blog at Pixyland.org to showcase his Peter Pan cosplay. After winning a Webby Award in the “Weird” category in 2001, Constan’s website helped him meet his own Tinkerbell in 2006, marrying her three years later.
Man-Faye is the moniker given to Damon Evans, a cosplayer who dresses up as the character Faye Valentine from the 1998 Japanese anime series Cowboy Bebop. His skimpy outfit, hairy body and zany antics made him an early Internet icon and an early influence in crossplay.
Blame It on the Cosplay
“Blame it on the Cosplay” is a fanmade lipdub music video posted by YouTuber and cosplayer JenxtheJinx in May 2010. In the video, which is set to the song “United States of Pop 2009 (Blame it on the Pop)” by DJ Earworm, JenxtheJinx lip-synchs to a number of hit singles while dressed as a variety of cosplay costumes in rotation.
Namiko Moon is a cosplaying character from a Mexican telenovela that appears to be an amalgamation of several different female anime characters. User Tlaloc of the Live Action Protest forums has described Namiko as “the union of Sailor Moon, Athena from Saint Seiya, Miku and guess the girls from Evangelion.” Her sidekick in the show, Hiroshi San, is described as “a mix of Goku and the Saint Seiya series.” The characters have often been mocked on various web forums and have inspired fan art, image macros and parody videos.
The Border House – 1UP’s “20 Worst Cosplayers” feature practices fat-shaming
Nerd Caliber – The Face of Cosplay: Racism and Cosplayers of Color
Racialicious – Race + Fandom: When Defaulting To White Isn’t An Option