What is Cosplay?

Cosplay is a short for “costume play”, it is a type of performance art in which participants use costumes and accessories to represent a specific character or idea. Cosplayers often interact to create a subculture centered around role playing. A broader use of the term “cosplay” applies to any costumed role play in venues apart from the stage, regardless of the cultural context. The exponential growth in the number of people picking up cosplay as a hobby since 1990 has made the phenomenon influential in popular culture. This is particularly the case in Asia where cosplay influences Japanese street fashion and popular culture.

Favorite sources for cosplay include manga and anime, comic books, video games and films. Any entity from the real or virtual world that lends itself to dramatic interpretation may be taken up as a subject fro cosplay. Inanimate objects are given anthropomorphic forms and it is not unusual to see genders switched, with women playing male roles and vice versa. There is also a subset of cosplay culture centered around sex appeal, with cosplayers specifically choosing characters that are known for their attractiveness and/or revealing (even explicit) costumes.

The term cosplay is a portmanteau of the English words “costume” and “play”. The term Cosplay was coined by Nobuyuki Takahashi of the Japanese studio Studio Hard while attending the 1984 Los Angeles Science Fiction Worldcon. He was impressed by the hall and the costumed fans and reported on both in Japanese science fiction magazines. The coinage reflects a common Japanese method of abbreviation in which the first two moras of a pair of words are used to form an independent compound. Costume becomes kosu, and play becomes pure (kosupure, pronounced “ko-su-pray”).

The cosplayer’s purpose may generally be sorted into one of three categories, or a mix of them, but most cosplayers draw characteristics of all three categories. The first is to express adoration for a character, or in feeling similar to a character in personality, seeking to become that character. This type of cosplayer may be associated with being a fan and is often labelled as an otaku. The second is those people who enjoy the attention that cosplaying a certain character brings. Within the cultures of anime and manga specifically, as well as science fiction and fantasy, there is a certain level of notoriety that is attached to cosplayers. The third is those who enjoy the creative process, and the sense of personal achievement upon completion.

Cosplay costumes vary greatly and can range from simple outfits to highly detailed “mecha” suits. Cosplay is generally considered different from Halloween and Mardi Gras costume wear as the intention is to accurately replicate a specific character, rather than to reflect the culture and symbolism of a holiday event. As such, when in costume, cosplayers will often seek to adopt the affect, mannerisms and body language of the characters they portray. The characters chosen to be cosplayed may be sourced from any movie, TV series, book, comic book, video game or music band but the practice of cosplay is most often associated with replicating anime and manga characters. Most cosplayers create their own outfits, referencing images of the characters in the process. In the creation of the outfits, much time is given to detail and quality, thus the skill of a cosplayer may be measured by how difficult the details of the outfit is and how well they have been replicated.

Almost all cosplayers wear wigs in conjunction with their outfit in order to further improve the resemblance to the character. This is especially necessary for anime and manga characters who often have unnaturally coloured and uniquely styled hair. In order to look more like the character they are portraying many cosplayers also engage in various forms of body modification. Contact lenses that match the color of their character’s eyes are a common form of this, especially in the case of characters with particularly unique eyes as part of their trademark look. Another form of body modification cosplayers engage in is to copy any tattoo or special marking that their character might have.

The popularity of cosplay in Japan encourages the misconception that cosplay is specifically a Japanese or Asian hobby. The term “cosplay”, though Japanese in origin, also describes a phenomenon witnessed in the United States. For many years, costuming has had a widespread following and continues to experience growing popularity in North America and Europe, and has more recently spread throughout South America and Australia. Western cosplay’s origins are based primarily on science fiction and historical fantasy as opposed to animation. It is more common for Western cosplayers to recreate characters from live-action series than it is for Japanese cosplayers. Similarly, animated series may be the origin for many recreations. Western costumers also include subcultures of hobbyists who participate in Renaissance faires or the Society for Creative Anachronism, live action role-playing games, and historical reenactments.


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