A subculture of geekdom is growing into an artistic culture entirely its own. Welcome to cosplay.
A huge chunk of the world has thought, “I want to try cosplay.”
A smaller portion jokes, “Cosplay has sucked up most of my life and has left me an empty shell of a person.”
Generally those remaining wonder, “What is cosplay?”
At its strictest definition, cosplay is a hobby of making and wearing costumes of characters from different media, generally for fan conventions or photo shoots. But cosplay has grown from a fringe hobby to an entire subculture. Thanks to a shift in media attention, being a geek is now a badge of honor instead of something wedgie-worthy. And so cosplaying — an aspect of geek culture worth all the talent and work of a skilled job — has become a very accessible phenomenon.
I’m a self-proclaimed cosplayer who’s been actively making and wearing dumb costumes for about six years. And the place I go to do it is the largest convention on the East Coast: New York Comic Con. I started cosplaying to attend the convention, because I figured it’s just what you do there. I’ve been working on improving and refining my costuming skills for over six years now, so I consider myself somewhere between a casual and a competitive cosplayer.
Rosey and friends at NYCC. Courtesy of Rosey Eikenberry.
To those not versed in the subtle differences of cosplay subcultures, categories are best divided by why a person does cosplay.
A general majority of cosplayers enjoy the hobby because, at its root, it’s for fun. It’s a way to immerse yourself in your favorite things, to exercise creativity and to meet and connect with other fans on a personal level. For these cosplayers, on the whole, it’s not about how skilled you are at making costumes, and it’s not necessarily even about showing off your costumes. It’s about community and having fun. These are casual cosplayers — at a convention, you’ll find them pretty much everywhere but mostly on the show floor buying merchandise and checking out exhibits.
There’s also a smaller group of elite cosplayers who have helped evolve the hobby into an actual high-stakes, high-reward competitive sport. And while dressing up as anime characters may not seem like it has an Olympic-level competitive aspect, competitive cosplay actually does involve global competition that culminates in a Worldwide Cosplay Summit in Japan. The Summit is sponsored by the Japanese government through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and has upward of hundreds of thousands of dollars in prizes, brand deals and celebrity status. At NYCC, competitive cosplayers congregate at the Eastern Championships of Cosplay on Saturday night for the actual competition. They tend to be harder to find at the convention otherwise, because running around on the show floor all day has the potential of ruining the costume they’re competing with. Otherwise, check for them at photo shoot destinations, where professional and amateur photographers are happy to do impromptu shoots with a well-made costume.
Despite the wide assortment of panels, meet-ups, booths and meet-and-greets, for me attending New York Comic Con is primarily about the cosplay. It’s about just loitering in the massive hall just next to the entrance to watch what kinds of incredible cosplayers walk through, and it’s about getting my picture snapped by someone who tells me how much they like the character I’m doing a cosplay of. It’s about trying to vaguely stay in character but failing miserably because I’m just a little too excited to commit.
For me there’s definitely something shamelessly ego-boosting about getting my picture taken while I’m in cosplay, and I hope it’s something shared by others. Getting your picture taken is a silent assurance that you did a good job, that your work paid off and that somebody wants to remember it for a long time because it really meant something to them. It’s not about shameless egotism, but it’s a natural desire to be recognized for your work. Whether it’s a kid taking a personal picture, or a pro photographer picking you out of a crowd, it’s a huge pat on the back. This is something I’m pretty sure all cosplayers share to varying degrees.
There’s one particular place that I think makes that con a beacon for the craft, and regular attendees will vouch for this: when you first enter the New York Comic Con just outside the Javits Center, the massive front lot and the parking overhang just beyond it is the prime location for seeing the real nature of cosplay at NYCC. Because of the natural light, the industrial background and the solid-colored walls, this particular overhang is the prime spot for cosplay photo shoots for professionals and amateurs alike. That means it also has a gravitational pull for all cosplayers, both experienced and aspiring. This little alcove is also the place where, for the last few years, a small train of food trucks park to sell lunch that’s slightly more affordable than what you’d find in the Javits Center food court (which will easily decimate your wallet after a weekend of cosplay). Even cosplayers need food. Especially cosplayers.
In this little oasis, you’ll primarily see hordes of friends in mismatched costumes downing empanadas and Diet Coke, sitting awkwardly on the tiny stoop of concrete meant as a walkway along the road or taking a short rest from a long day of roaming around the con.
And stacked against the wall, you’ll see elaborate camera equipment setups and rows of elite cosplayers having separate but side-by-side photo shoots from pro photographers, posing and just barely adjusting their craft-foam armor pieces and extravagant wigs between shots.
Just beyond them, you’ll probably see other cosplayers: excited, quality cosplayers in less eccentric or recognizable costumes, watching the big photo shoots go off while they quietly hope to get pulled aside next. Usually these cosplayers are scattered around the area posing for amateur photographers or people who just love the character and want to take a picture on their phone to show their friends.
While there’s mostly a clear divide here between the professional and casual cosplayers, I think this little nook is a place where this divide lessens. They’re all in the same place, doing the same thing, with the same goals in mind. They’re all intermingling, getting their pictures taken and taking each other’s pictures out of appreciation for the craft.
And at the very least, the common ground between the sects of these cosplayers is that they’re all really tempted by the food trucks (and did I mention that those empanadas are amazing?).
To a lot of people, cosplay has become more than just a hobby and more than just a competitive sport. It’s now something of an art form. It’s a subculture that people can make businesses around, selling hand-crafted costume pieces and costuming materials. It’s also an entirely different subsection of photography that’s gaining tremendous ground as a new and interesting way to approach the composition of a photo shoot.
Cosplay, while it is a social experience, is at its core about making and wearing costumes. So it’s something that does ultimately rely on artistic talent, in every skill from sewing to designing to acting. So anyone who says this is simply a geeky subculture destined to remain the same thing forever is entirely wrong.
Cosplay has branched out to become more than a subculture of geekdom but really a way of expression and, at points, a culture entirely its own.
And to pretty much every person who cosplays, it’s either a hobby or a sport, but it’s always about community. It’s about taking someone’s picture and saying, “I’ve always wanted to do that cosplay,” and they give you tips and tricks on how they got the pieces done. It’s about going to a meet-up in a costume of your favorite character from your favorite TV show, only to surround yourself with other people doing the same thing. It’s about finding a community of like-minded people, professional and casual alike, who all share their artistic endeavors to create a great community that’s expanding every day.