what is cosplay
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“Cosplay empowers women”: 3 people reveal why cosplay is so much more than dressing up

Halloween and Comic Con London 2019 are both right around the corner, so it’s time to brush up on your costume skills. But cosplay, the act of recreating and remixing the look of a character, is about a lot more than just dressing up – it’s about freedom and vulnerability. Sarah Shaffi meets three cosplayers to find out more…

We’ve probably all dressed up as a fictional character at one time in our lives, whether that was for World Book Day, Halloween or a fancy dress party.

But for the thousands of people who practice cosplay, dressing up as their favourite character from popular culture is more than just a sporadic occurrence.

What is cosplay? What is the difference between cosplay and costume?

Cosplay – a term coined in the 80s by game designer Takahashi Nobuyuki – is the art of recreating, and sometimes remixing, the look of a fictional character. Cosplayers spend hours perfecting the colour of a coat, making their own leather belt, or cutting the perfect hairstyle into a wig (or even their own hair) to ensure their look is as close to the original character as possible.

Cosplayers dressed as the cast of Mortal Kombat at MCM London Comic Con.
UK cosplay: Cosplayers dressed as the cast of Mortal Kombat at MCM London Comic Con.

Who does cosplay? Where do people cosplay? 

Like many “fannish” activities, like drawing fanart or writing fanfiction, cosplay used to be seen as a fringe activity for geeks. But in recent years it’s emerged into the mainstream, with events like MCM Comic Con London and San Diego Comic Con – attended by actors from many of the world’s most popular TV shows and films – becoming more and more popular.

Fandom expert Dr Nicolle Lamerichs, of the HU University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands, says the change is partly because fandom is now increasingly monetised, and partly because pop culture has changed.

“We love deep stories and world-building these days, and it’s not considered something for a niche audience,” she tells Stylist.

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“Think of the success of Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) – you name it. Many of these stories require the mindset of a fan. If you are not following the MCU closely, for instance, some of the movies and references won’t make sense to you.

“By now fandom is almost entirely embedded in mainstream culture. It’s become a business model in its own right that companies in the creative industries profit from. The industry caters to fans with specific products – new stories, merchandise, webisodes.”

What are the most popular Cosplay costumes? 

The most searched for cosplay costumes online include Harley Quinn, Kim Possible, Lara Croft, Spider Gwen, Wonder Woman and Harry Potter.

Mainstream culture has also now made it easier to cosplay if you’re from a minority, with films such as Black Panther and comics like Ms Marvel giving fans more options when it comes to characters of colour, and movements like #28daysofblackcosplay ensuring that black cosplayers are honoured every February. But there is still a way to go before cosplay is truly inclusive, and that’s partially a problem that needs to be solved by the entertainment industry. “If we want inclusivity in fan creations, it helps if the creative industries themselves also change,” Lammerichs says. “But let’s not forget that cosplay is remix. Fans play with an existing text, add to it and recreate it.”

Cosplay requires both a degree of confidence, and a willingness to be vulnerable. 

“One of the difficult things about many cosplay communities is that fans tend to also police and judge each other,” says Lammerichs. “Fans are vulnerable in cosplay, and highly aware of this. A self-made outfit, your body, your performance – you put it all out there and it can be hard when you are critiqued.

“We should not forget that cosplay is a space and subculture like any other; while the hobby should liberate us, fans are not always tolerant, respectful and kind to each other.”

But cosplay can also be an empowering act, a chance to become someone else and play with conventions of gender and sexuality.

“I think there is a feminist quality to cosplay and how it empowers women,” says Lammerichs. “It is about social change, radical embodiment, and difference.

“Cosplay empowers us.”

Here, three UK cosplayers tell Stylist why they cosplay, and explain the freedoms and difficulties of being part of the community.

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UK cosplay: LD Lapinski

LD Lapinski out of cosplay and in costume as Moist von Lipwig.
UK cosplay: LD Lapinski out of cosplay and in costume as Moist von Lipwig.

Author LD Lapinski has cosplayed as Jillian Holtzmann from Ghostbusters, Viktor Nikiforov from Yuri On Ice!, Captain Marvel, Gwen Stacey from the Spider-Gwen Comics and the 13th Doctor from Doctor Who. She’s currently cosplaying as Crowley from the TV adaptation of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens.

“When I first started cosplaying, I was nervous that my costumes wouldn’t be accurate enough for people, that I wasn’t conventionally attractive enough, or that my photos wouldn’t be good enough for Instagram. I admire a lot of cosplayers and had (and still have) a lot of impostor syndrome, which has turned out to be unnecessary as everyone has been so supportive and nice.

Cosplay: LD Lapinski as Spider-Gwen.
UK cosplay: LD Lapinski as Spider-Gwen.

“To me, cosplay means expressing joy for love for a character and/or a fictional world by wanting to be part of it for a little while. I enjoy building up a costume, trying to find screen-accurate pieces (if applicable), and recreating scenes from the shows or books in photoshoots. It’s also a great way to meet other fans. 

“I think cosplay is just another form of fanart – I can’t draw, but I like dressing up. I think that’s why Moist von Lipwig is one of my favourite cosplays – the gold suit is so recognisable to other people who are Discworld fans and I love meeting them!

Cosplay: LD Lapinski as Captain Marvel.
UK cosplay: LD Lapinski as Captain Marvel.

“Cosplay can be a safe space to play with gender presentation, and to experiment with different looks without committing to anything. I know a lot of ‘crossplayers’ who don’t consider a character’s gender a barrier to cosplaying them – that’s how I think when considering a new cosplay – and some cosplayers deliberately set out to cosplay characters who don’t share their gender.

“I’ve not been cosplaying long, but the biggest ‘change’ I remember is the ‘Cosplay is not Consent’ campaign, which was first run by New York Comic Con in 2014. That message is still around today. 

“The message that cosplay should be about fun is all over social media, and can be a real morale-boost, especially when feeling down about a cosplay you’re anxious about or unsure of. There’s a lot of positivity around different body types and gender expressions on Instagram, and things like ‘shout-out’ memes ensure that more cosplayers outside your own social bubble end up on your feed, which is great for everyone. However, I do think there’s still a lot to be done before cosplay is an entirely inclusive space.

“I think cosplay does have the capacity to be a feminist act, and to be a feminist space. Most cosplay competitions in the UK don’t have gender-separated categories for their prizes, for example, which is fantastic. Things like being well-off and conventionally attractive still have currency in the world of cosplay, but I think that is a wider societal issue rather than being the fault of the cosplay community.”

UK cosplay: Veera aka Sisu

Sisu out of cosplay and in costume as Hatsume Mei from My Hero Academia.
UK cosplay: Sisu out of cosplay and in costume as Hatsume Mei from My Hero Academia.

Veera, who goes by the name Sisu in fandom, first cosplayed in 2013. She’s dressed as a number of characters, with a focus on those from anime and video games, including Ana Amari from Overwatch, Garnet from Steven Universe and Gon from Hunter x Hunter. She’s currently working on a cosplay of Tenten from Naruto Shippuden.

“When I first joined the cosplay community I had no idea what to expect, so I wasn’t nervous. But in my first few years, I became more nervous because it felt that my physical appearance suddenly mattered more than it had ever before. I felt I had to pick characters to cosplay that I resembled, or were so covered up that my own appearance didn’t matter. It was definitely a knock to my confidence, even when the majority of the negativity came from within. It took a few years but I eventually re-found the joy that initially drew me to cosplay.

“A lot of women in fandom spaces will have come across the ‘you’re only pretending to like [character name] because you want impress guys’ comment, especially as we become increasingly more open about our interests. Cosplay lets us show our love for our favourite anime, games or TV, and also lets us express ourselves. Some people may have a type of cosplay that they find most comfortable or the most freeing, and sometimes that leads us to being able to explore our own sexualities or gender identities. Some people like to do sexy versions of their favourite characters and that’s cool. Others may be drawn to LGBT characters that they can relate to.

Sisu as Garnet from Steven Universe.
UK cosplay: Sisu as Garnet from Steven Universe.

“I’ve experienced some fat-shaming and racism from cosplay. The majority of fictional characters are slim, pale and extremely attractive. Some people like to negatively compare the cosplayer to either the source material, or to other people who have cosplayed the same thing but ‘better’. As humans, one negative comment can easily overpower 100 positive ones. I usually deal with any hate by deleting and blocking the commenter, because hateful comments aren’t something I want to focus on.

“Black or darker skinned POC cosplayers are often neglected. Our work is rarely shared online, we don’t make ‘top character cosplayt lists, racist jokes will be made about our cosplays, and some people even think that we should only be allowed to cosplay from the limited character pool that shares our skin tone. But #28daysofblackcosplay has uplifted and celebrated black cosplayers, making us more visible. In recent years there’s been a bigger push to make sure that the cosplay community celebrates black cosplay ALL year round, because we exist in the cosplay community for 365 days a year. I think we have a long way to go in making the cosplay community fully inclusive, but baby steps are being made.

Cosplay: Sisu as Ana from Overwatch.
UK cosplay: Sisu as Ana from Overwatch.

“The amazing thing about cosplay is that no way of cosplaying is ‘wrong’, and that’s what makes it so empowering. The only rules are in the name: cosplay equals costume play. Women in particular can express themselves in ways that may be more frowned upon in normal life. It’s up to us how much skin we choose to show, or not show, in cosplay. I truly believe there’s a space for absolutely anyone in the community; in the end we’re all just dorks in costumes having fun.”

UK cosplay: Rae aka Raven

Raven out of cosplay (left) and in cosplay as Gaige from Borderlands 2.
UK cosplay: Raven out of cosplay (left) and in cosplay as Gaige from Borderlands 2.

Raven first cosplayed in 2007 as a character from anime. Since then they have cosplayed as Raven from Teen Titans, Harley Quinn from Batman and Kylo Ren from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Their most recent cosplay is Tohru from Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid.

“I’m full of nerves whenever trying something completely new. Seeing the treatment of cosplayers of colour online, it did at first make me nervous that I would be laughed at, but I really, really wanted to take part. As one of my strengths lies in being stubborn, I just went along with it, and I’ve loved it ever since.

“I rarely pick characters who look like myself, because honestly there are so few characters who reflect me visually. In the past, when trying to fit in, and when I was in a group cosplay, I would agree to be a character I didn’t like simply to round out the numbers, and this would generally be the one token person of colour in the cast which infuriated me. Now, I like to emulate or celebrate a character I am fond of.

“There are also so few characters of colour within the anime community that we already feel pressured into only cosplaying those characters; when we do cave we are praised for accuracy and how much we are alike to the character in question. When we cosplay white characters, or those outside our skin colour, we are ignored in favour of other whiter or white-passing cosplayers, no matter how accurate our costume is. Often we are called the brown version of a character, which seeks to demean us (sometimes unintentionally), as if we can only ever be the brown version of a character and not the character themselves.

Raven in cosplay as Harley Quinn.
UK cosplay: Raven in cosplay as Harley Quinn.

“In 2013 there was a group of white cosplayers who, to cosplay as characters from a cartoon with no white characters, decided it was appropriate to paint themselves brown to match, to be ‘more accurate’. I posted about how upsetting this was, and was met with a barrage of (white) people lambasting me for ruining their fun and their accuracy. I lost a lot of friends that day because I would not be silent on an issue which deeply affects me.

“But I do my best to uplift other cosplayers of colour when I can and encourage others to cosplay who they wish. I guess despite my pessimistic nature I try to bring a little more optimism into my hobbies where I can!

Cosplay: Raven as Raven from Teen Titans.
UK cosplay: Raven as Raven from Teen Titans.

“Cosplay is definitely far more inclusive than it has ever been, and that is such a fantastic thing. I see so many more people of colour, especially kids, getting the cosplay bug, and more disabled people who feel happier coming to conventions due to increased accessibility and awareness. It’s still far from perfect, and there is so much work left to do to make everyone feel included and welcome, but the more we work at it the better it will become.”

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Images: Getty / images of LD Lapinski by LD Lapinski / cosplay images of Sisu by SonSon Photography / cosplay images of Raven by Neff


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