A Brief History of Cosplay

Cosplay is a fun, wholesome activity for the whole family. In recent years with the rise of social media culture spreading even the most niche fandom to a tight-knit global community, it’s become more popular as well. Sub-cultures such as LARPing have also showed up. With cosplay on the cusp of becoming mainstream, it’s a good time to look at the community’s roots and look at where it’s going.

What Is Cosplay?

That depends on how you define it. It stands for “Costume Play.” At its base, it’s just about role-playing as a character from any media fiction franchise, in broad terms. More specifically, you’d typically attend a convention, fair, party, parade, or whatever festive event representing a specific character. People have gone to gaming conventions dressed as Pokemon, Magic: The Gathering tournaments dressed as Liliana, horror movie events dressed as Michael Myers from the Halloween series, and of course there are the obligatory variations on the Doctor from Doctor Who – time lords get a free pass. Several cosplayers have become extremely popular, verging on celebrities.

But where did it all start? As far back as the Victorian era, costume balls were a popular pastime for the elite classes. Go farther back from that, and you have various world religions with ceremonies where people dress up as various deities in ceremonies and rituals. Of course, there’s also Halloween, when everybody takes a turn at cosplay, albeit sometimes with generic stock characters. Historical societies acting out Civil War reenactments could also count. Narrowing it down to modern cosplay, early science fiction conventions in the 1940s saw members attending as Flash-Gordon-era characters.

However, the true roots of modern cosplay culture could be pinned to two niche cultures. The SCA, Society for Creative Anachronism, was founded in the 1960s. They started the tradition of Renaissance Fairs, with people showing up as knights, knaves, kings, and court jesters to participate in Middle Ages escapism.

The other niche culture is the one centered around the cult movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Starting in 1975, the movie entered into eternal life as the perennial “midnight movie,” and fans took to showing up in character as Riff Raff and Magenta, Brad and Janet, Meat Loaf, and of course Dr. Frank-N-Furter himself. This is the first time a fandom made a concentrated effort to participate in the media. Fans would jump up in front of the movie screen, reciting the dialog and singing the songs right along with the movie.

Cult movies definitely took cosplay into the modern era. For instance, there are conventions just for the Coen Brothers’ 1998 film The Big Lebowski, with fans attending dressed as various characters in the movie right up to The Dude himself, wearing the slacker outfit and toting a white Russian. There’s even a mock religion set up, “Dudeism,” based on Jeffery Lebowski’s laid-back philosophy to life.

What Are Cosplay Conventions?

Typically, cosplay characters turn up at just about any gathering based around a fandom. Comic cons and gaming cons are almost a sure bet to have a cosplay Batman or Sonic the Hedgehog milling about. Sci-Fi conventions see their share of representative fans of popular franchises. The Harry Potter series gets its own conventions, with the obligatory Dumbledores and Hagrids present. And even the aforementioned Renaissance fairs see fan crossover from sword and sorcery franchises, such as the ever-popular Game of Thrones series.

It should be noted that there’s more to cosplay than just the costume. Cosplayers are expected to stay in character and complete the fantasy for spectators. If a Darth Vader and an Obi-Wan Kenobi bump into each other at a sci-fi con, it’s expected they’ll at least square off and act out a few rounds of a lightsaber duel. Come to a Marvel comic con dressed as Deadpool, and you’d best be scampering around chattering and acting as goofy as possible.

Special mention goes to a guy who dressed as Uncle Ben from the Spider-Man franchise and made a point to find a dozen or so Spider-Man players at a comic con so he could plop on the floor and play dead, giving Peter Parker a chance to emote dramatically over his uncle.

There are far too many cosplay conventions to list, but some of the biggest areā€¦

  • Anime Expo – in L.A., California
  • Comic-Con – in San Diego, California, for every kind of comic, though film is becoming more prevalent due to the current abundance of comic-based movies.
  • Gamescon – in Germany, for video games
  • PAX East/West – all over the United States and Australia, for games of every description
  • Sakura-Con – in the Pacific Northwest U.S., devoted to anime and manga

What Is The Future Of Cosplay?

The sky’s the limit! Seeing as how so many people enjoy it and it’s a social-media-friendly activity, cosplay is coming out of the geek fringes of fandom and heading for the mainstream.

Cosplay is becoming an expensive hobby. It’s gotten competitive, with costume contests at conventions. You can’t just home-make a costume as you would for your kids at Halloween. There are even professional cosplayers, who have found a career as Instagram influencers, or sometimes they get paid to hang around vendor booths at events.

So as cosplay gets more exposure, let’s remember not to let its over-commercialization spoil our fun. People tend to be a conservative lot when it comes to their fandoms; already there are arguments out there about the “right” way to cosplay. When it becomes too formal, that’s the time to take cosplay back for the true fans. Maybe paint some cardboard boxes green and attend the next game con as a creeper from Minecraft. They don’t have to talk, they just sneak up behind people and start hissing.