Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Princess Leia, Wonder Woman, and Super Mario walk into a bar…
There’s actually no punch line there, that’s just a typical night at DragonCon. DragonCon is a genre-crossing convention that brings over 62,000 fans of science fiction, fantasy, comic books, gaming, and pop culture under one roof. Affording participants the opportunity to meet their favorite actors, engage in discussions and panels, and interact with other fans, it’s no wonder that the convention just celebrated its twenty-eighth consecutive year in Atlanta. DragonCon is known for many things, but especially the number of participants who attend in costume, creating a rich and diverse tapestry to experience your fandom on a whole other level. But what you might not realize is that the world of cosplay is a whole lot larger and deeper than most people know. As a group of friends and I journeyed from Savannah to Atlanta this past weekend for the convention, I sought to dive in and find out exactly what’s behind all that spandex and foam rubber.
It’s important to talk a little about terminology. What is ‘cosplay’? Originating with anime and manga characters in Japan, cosplay is a portmanteau for “costume play”: performance art wherein individuals roleplay as characters from games, movies, comic books and other media. For many, cosplay isn’t about just dressing up, it’s about embodying the character’s mannerisms, personality, and confidence. Cosplay looks can range from replicas to adaptations to original characters, but a majority of cosplayers are very dedicated to their craft. You may hear individuals refer to themselves as costumers or LARPers (live-action role players), but ‘cosplayer’ is the most ubiquitous name.
In preparation for DragonCon, my group decided to put together coordinating costumes.
We settled on adapting costumes from the book and television series, Game of Thrones. Comfort was certainly a factor, as was uniqueness. Our group decided on representing various Houses as a rugby team. We sourced the jerseys from the internet, custom printed with names and logos, and we found other coordinating pieces from Amazon. One member of the group even bought clay to sculpt a dragon egg to represent our rugby ball. But as it turned out, the most difficult part was choosing which family to be. When choosing cosplay, sometimes the choice is overwhelming as a fan, and you want to be sure you have at least passable knowledge about those characters. While generally an accepting crowd, there is a subsection of fan that ostracizes those who they believe to be “fake geeks” and are just jumping on a bandwagon. But more commonly, people will be excited by your costume and want to engage you in conversation. You don’t want to awkwardly admit you don’t know anything about the costume you’re wearing.
On Saturday we got into our outfits and headed down to the convention. As a fan, it’s exciting to see cosplayers, because it gives you an instant connection to them when they’re cosplaying as your favorite character. There’s a great acknowledgement of common interest, a certain embrace you find at these conventions full of like-minded people. Early in the day, I spotted Harley Quinn (a sidekick and tragic love interest to the Batman villain, The Joker). In reality, Harley was a young woman named Billie Ray Crawford from Columbia, South Carolina. Why did Billie decide to attend as Harley Quinn? “The first convention I went to, I saw a girl do a version of her, and it just looked so awesome I wanted to know who the character was. And when I actually found out who the character was, I just absolutely fell in love with her.” Conventions aren’t just for fans, sometimes conventions create fans. Billie was proud that she constructed 100% of the costume by herself and was excited by the reception she got, though she did admit frustration when people just snap random pictures, because, “Believe it or not, we do actually think of poses before we come out here!”
A short while later, a decidedly distinguished looking Two-Face and Poison Ivy (from Batman) strolled confidently through the convention center. When I asked them about their costumes, they pointed to Alex Mack, the young woman who designed the costumes for the couple. “We went to Goodwill actually, and we cut an entire suit in half, dyed each of the sides, and I hand painted the animal prints…” She was attracted to creating costumes for cosplay by the idea of wearable art and wants to do some form of costuming in her future career.
You might expect some dichotomy between those “serious” cosplayers who make their own costumes, and those who purchase them. After all, there is a very significant amount of work involved in crafting an original and authentic outfit. I’m sure there are individuals out there who feel negatively about those taking shortcuts, but I didn’t experience that in my time at the convention. In fact, during the “Comics and Cosplay” panel, the presenters addressed that very issue. The general consensus is that it doesn’t necessarily matter where the costume comes from, as long as you respect the artist behind it. They were quick to identify what skills they had and did not have, knowing that sometimes you had to ask other artists to make parts for you. Not everyone can be a blacksmith. A cosplayer on the panel named Riddle noted that when working with an artist, you should accept the costs that come with it. Like any other art, it’s insulting to ask them to lower their price or ask for cheaper material. The artist is representing themselves and knows what’s going to work best for that particular piece. On the flip side, you’re going to be wearing it, so you probably don’t want them to cut corners too much. But even those who are making cosplay costumes professionally had to start somewhere. The panelists described their first costumes and how low quality they were compareed to the ones they make now. Practice and education go a long way toward professional looking pieces, and it’s pretty much guaranteed that you’ll shed a lot of tears, money, and hours along the way.
Riddle and fellow cosplayer Kearstin Faye Nicholson also discussed the importance of the internet for building your own costume. They learned many things by watching Youtube videos, Googling instructions, and asking questions on message boards. Most cosplayers don’t mind answering questions about their costumes and the craft behind specific pieces, but a lot of that information is out there already if you look for it. Some things though, require some pretty significant ingenuity. Riddle described the process of creating an archer’s bow that she wanted to light up: First, she printed images and scaled the bow to her body size, and then began the process of creating a mold. She wanted the bow to be transparent, and didn’t want to lock the LED lights into the finished product, so she inserted a clear tube that would allow her to run the lights through. She also didn’t want a visible battery, so she rigged the lights to only turn on when the bowstring came into contact with pads on her gloves. It was a really impressive demonstration on pushing the boundaries of costuming and technology. Similarly, cosplayer Kevin Spooner excitedly told the audience about the Magneto (X-Men villain) helmet that he had 3-D printed.
It’s clear that cosplay is all about problem solving. It’s often as much industrial design as it is fashion. When an artist draws Batman, they’re not really so concerned about the practicality of where zippers go. How is Bruce Wayne supposed to get in and out that suit? Cosplay creators have to reverse engineer and adapt to develop a costume that makes sense and is comfortable. Direct adaptations don’t always work, and sometimes adjustments need to be made for different body types, the weight and feel of certain materials, or level of comfort in regards to exposing too much skin.
But why cosplay? Many of the folks I spoke with on the convention floor do it for fun or to show their love for certain characters. But for others, it goes beyond just fun. Cosplayer Margie Cox and her husband started cosplaying as part of Heroes Alliance, a non-profit in which cosplayers visit hospitals to cheer up sick children. Margie is the coordinator for the Atlanta area of Heroes Alliance, and has also made a career as a cosplay model and designer, even serving as the model for the DC Comics character Huntress when she was reintroduced in 2011. But all of the cosplayers at the panel agreed about how cosplaying made them feel. The ability to escape into a character and project their confidence was huge, as well as the adrenaline rush they got walking out of their hotel room and the self-confidence that came when fans responded positively to their work . It’s fun, it’s fantasy, but it also requires a lot of work and dedication.
I felt some of the same things described by the panel in my own cosplay. I felt great in my outfit, though I was disappointed that it didn’t get many reactions. Our group was split up for much of the day, so some impact was lost. Like most artistic endeavors, costuming is not a cheap hobby, and it can be upsetting when others don’t take notice of what you thought was a great idea. But by the end of the night, when we were together as a group, we were constantly being stopped for photos and were getting a lot of positive comments about our costumes. There was definitely a sense of vindication that it was a job well done. This may surprise you to learn, but strangers don’t routinely ask to photograph me. It’s a definite confidence boost for your personal and creative energy.
The more time I spent exploring, the more I felt I had to learn. I wanted to know more about building armor and sewing with stretch fabric; I wanted to know more about the subcultures within cosplay and the politics of them. The sheer number of participants signaled to me that the world of conventions and cosplay is starting to change. Within the industry, there’s been a number of stories about negative pushback toward women participants, and issues of harassment. Many conventions have taken steps to combat this, and fans have become more resilient and more confident about themselves and their self-expression. I saw cosplayers of all shapes, sizes, ages, colors, and genders (including a number of men cosplaying as women and vice versa). The cosplay community is working to become more of a safe space for everyone.
But there’s still room to grow. One female audience member at the panel expressed her discomfort over how revealing she perceived many cosplay costumes to be. Admitting that adapting a costume is a personal choice and can be tailored to how you feel most comfortable, the female panelists also pretty much agreed that everyone should do what makes them happy, to feel free to express their personality, confidence, and sexuality how they choose. Don’t worry about other people. It’s not a good way to live and it won’t bring you anything but anxiety.
I think that’s some universally good advice.