It’s a simple definition: cosplay is a portmanteau of “costume” and “play,” the act of putting on a costume and role-playing its character. But from that simple root springs a broad and complex culture, which has flourished into a worldwide phenomenon.
You could pick just about any point in history and find the roots of cosplay there. Beyond Halloween, Mardi Gras, Christmas, or other holidays where costumes play a role, costumes go further back to the performing arts including ancient traditions of Greek dramas and Japanese kabuki. Even farther back than that, ancient religions had traditions where practitioners would dress up as gods, spirits, or animals and perform traditional dances for ritual purposes. If you want more information on its history, you can look here.
For the modern definition, probably the definitive touchstone of cosplay is the midnight movie showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show popular in the ’70s. Fans went from viewing the movie faithfully to memorizing the lines and heckling the screen, and then to showing up dressed as a character from the movie. On cue, they’d jump in front of the screen to sing and dance along with many of the movie’s musical numbers.
The Internet and Cosplay
Cosplay wouldn’t have been recognized with its own term as much if it hadn’t been for the Internet and especially social media. From the culture of fan conventions from every work of fiction or genre, people took role-playing recreation further into a lifestyle in its own right. The rise of Instagram and YouTube gave us the homemade Internet celebrity, influencers who role-play within a niche subculture or create wacky characters for video productions.
Since cosplay is a visual performance medium, it lends itself well to image-sharing sites. Anything from twitter to IMGUR is perfect for spreading the video clip of a well-accessorized character, which helps spread cosplay’s popularity.
Cosplay fandoms are noted for being one place where you can let your “geek flag” fly, without apology to anyone. It’s attractive to many subcultures which fight for acceptance in the mainstream because when you’re in-character, you’re liberated from the worries of daily life and nobody questions your identity. There’s the fantasy aspect of living in another time and place, perhaps in a universe where aliens or dragons are a common sight.
Cosplayers are heavily tied to the DIY and crafting cultures, since, despite the availability of store-bought outfits, there’s always a niche character that’s hard to find pre-made. Plus it’s more fun to design your own costume, since you get to build the character from the ground up, infusing it with your own imagination. Adam Savage, star of the long-running series Mythbusters, is an avid cosplayer and has even given a TED talk on the subject.
The Appeal of Cosplay
Most cosplay revolves around a work of fiction. But there’s much more to it than just being a fan. Fans wear the T-shirt. Cosplayers are participating to insert themselves into the narrative because they found something in that work or character that speaks to them personally. It’s the act of taking that character and making it belong to you. You do this to connect with something important in your personal experience, and then reveal that aspect of character to others. Cosplayers of such diverse works as The Big Lebowski, Star Trek, Magic: the Gathering, or Avengers Age of Ultron talk about the central message and themes of the fictional work, and how it spoke to their beliefs.
Cosplay is evident at just about any kind of convention, for anime, manga, Marvel and DC comic books, video game franchises, general gaming, film and TV, horror and sci-fi, and everything in-between. Cosplay is also common at places like festivals and fairs. Some of it is just for fun, and others have an educational purpose.
In the end, cosplay is all about the real you. Just the select, realized aspect of you that you don’t get to show in everyday life.