Fiction Gets Real: Cosplay
Real Art’s in-house cosplay expert and front-end developer, Shelby White, talks about the magic and maker-skills of this remarkable, imaginative practice.
Cosplay is combination of the words “costume” and “play.” Wikipedia describes it as a genre of performance art but at its most basic, cosplayers dress up as characters. They create elaborate costumes and make special accessories and props that emulate a particular persona.
Cosplay acts as both an escape and a celebration. Everyone needs something to take their mind off of everyday life. For most, I’d say television, movies, books, and games are ideal getaways. Cosplayers take facets of these distractions and bring them to life. Sometimes, people cosplay to escape from a harsh reality. Other times, they use their craft to celebrate one of their favorite characters.
Every cosplayer is different
Some cosplayers are drawn to the acting aspect of cosplay; they really get into their characters. For them, it’s an opportunity to play a role in front of hundreds of people. For example, imagine a man dressed like Captain Jack Sparrow. This man is radiating pirate swagger, “drunkenly” wandering the convention floor just like the real Jack would. Events like fandom conventions offer the perfect environment for these types of cosplayers. Actors, like our Jack Sparrow clone, will get tons of recognition and photos from fans and even clueless bystanders, much like street performers would in Hollywood. I’ve known models and actors alike who are heavily drawn to cosplaying for this reason.
Alternatively, others might feel more comfortable being outside of themselves. When you put on a costume, you can become someone, or something else. Envision a young woman who prefers to keep to herself on a day-to-day basis. As soon as she puts on her Wonder Woman costume, she embodies a new identity and a purpose. Maybe she feels that she can make a difference as Wonder Woman, whereas in her daily life she may lack the confidence or clout. Moreover, the cosplay community and fandom conventions create safe spaces for people to be who they really want to be, with no outside judgment.
What is more, some people love the art of it. Crafting a costume takes a lot of work, and it’s fun seeing what you can do to recreate parts of a fictional universe. To illustrate, let’s look at The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien created a vast universe filled with creatures, costumes, arms, and artifacts. As a costume-creator, one may want to explore some of the detailed objects depicted in Tolkien’s stories, like Sting, an ancient elvish dagger. Or, perhaps, they might simply enjoy the Elven aesthetic. These cosplayers relish in taking what is fictional and making it real. They recreate and reimagine ideals, concepts, and characters from stories—much like Peter Jackson did with his version of The Lord of the Rings.
Fiction as expression
If you asked any of my friends, they’d probably tell you I’m very passionate and slightly obsessive. When I find a new universe I enjoy, I throw myself all in. I want to completely immerse myself in these worlds! Sometimes that means spending hours brushing up on the history of the Dragon Age or listening to extraneous Doctor Who audiobooks. I also love buying trinkets and clothing that show off all the things I revel in. Being so enthusiastic about this stuff helps make cosplaying come naturally. When I decide on a costume, more often than not it’s because the character means something to me. I’m choosing a character that I’ve spent time with, from a world that I can conceptualize as if I were living inside it myself. Sometimes the character resonates with me on a personal level, as if we’ve had similar struggles. Other times, the aesthetic or design of a character is enough to get my attention: “I must wear that!” Incidentally, I believe that making a costume is the ultimate “thank you” to whomever created the character—it’s a way of showing them how much enjoyed their game or movie.
How did I get into cosplay?
Honestly, you could say I’ve been cosplaying since I was a child. I’ve always preferred making my own Halloween costumes, and that’s how I got started. I think my first major custom costume was in middle school. I had been playing American McGee’s Alice and I fell in love with Alice (in American McGee’s version, a knife-wielding Alice is thrown into a macabre but neat Wonderland, with a creepy Cheshire cat as her guide). At the time, they didn’t sell this version of Alice in a store, so I altered a pre-made costume and gathered my own hellish accessories. The next big costume I did was in high school with my best friend: she was Harley Quinn and I was Poison Ivy, both infamous Batman villains. Once again, I altered a costume from a bag. My freshman year of college, however, I decided I would try to make my own costume. I decided to dress up as Zoey from Left 4 Dead, and I was determined to make it from scratch! And I succeeded! Those who were familiar with Left 4 Dead recognized the character immediately, and I was left with an amazing feeling. Ever since then, I’ve been making costumes of higher and higher quality
I was hooked
At first, cosplaying was about showing off my artistic skills. I’m not as experienced as the pros, but, I get around just fine. But once you get into costume, there’s no other feeling like it. Putting on a costume is an instant confidence booster and suddenly you’re outside yourself. It’s not like I’m a different person entirely, but it’s something I can’t really put into words. Putting on costume makeup, lacing up a corset, styling a wig—it’s all very theatrical, while also being extremely personal. Cosplaying and costume-making are things I keep close to me. It’s a hobby that means a lot to me, and most of my friends don’t cosplay on the same level that I do. They wouldn’t consider it a hobby, but more of a once-or-twice a year thing, whereas I strive to make 3+ costumes a year. On top of all that, getting asked for my picture is incredible. While wearing certain costumes, I can’t go a few steps without someone asking to take my photo. In a large convention center, filled with hundreds or thousands of people, and they’re looking at me. It’s incredibly rewarding. Once, a woman dressed like Lara Croft from Tomb Raider came up to me, starry-eyed. I was dressed like Morrigan from Dragon Age: Inquisition. She explained that Dragon Age was her favorite game series, and that Morrigan was her most-loved character. It meant so much to her that someone else felt the same way she did about this character. The sense of community within cosplaying is something to mention, too. Both the cosplay community as a whole (which is very welcoming), and the community of people who cosplay from the same universe as you, come together to form an unconventional family. I cosplay as a femme Tenth Doctor from Doctor Who, and every other Doctor I pass acknowledges me, as I acknowledge them: “Doctor!” There’s nothing quite like gathering with a bunch of people who love a thing as much as you do.
Who am I?
I’ve made several costumes over the years but these are my favorites:
–Vault Dweller from the Fallout series, Fallout 3 — first convention costume, built PipBoy and laser pistol
–Hope Summers from Marvel comics
–Elizabeth (“young” outfit) from BioShock Infinite — first costume that I sewed garments myself and not just altered pieces I’d collected.
–Inara (in her training house dress) from Firefly
–Femme “Genderbent” Tenth Doctor
–Mary Read from Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag
–Morrigan from the Dragon Age series, Dragon Age: Inquisition — most extensive and custom costume I’ve ever made, was built before the game came out (Character Kit)
– Sailor Chibi Moon from Sailor Moon — in progress, will be my first time participating in a group photo shoot
Cosplay and creative work
I don’t think cosplay informs my work directly, though I do draw inspiration from everything I do and see. Cosplay has, however, awarded me several unique opportunities through Real Art. Some of my co-workers have been working on a video game, and to start the process, they needed to film two characters. They asked me to manage the costumes. I came up with the design and created the outfits for the two actors. I applied the wigs and makeup and oversaw the costumes in use, in order to fix anything that might go awry upon “action!” I’ve also been asked to do makeup on a video shoot for a client of ours. I feel very fortunate to have had these opportunities that both allow me to stretch my cosplay muscles and help my company
Learning through making
You can learn SO much from creating your own costumes (or making anything yourself, really). With every new character I bring to life, I learn something: how to work with a certain fabric, how to make my own jewelry, etc. It also requires a ton of patience. Throughout my experience, I’ve realized that costume-making is a lot of trial and error. The first shirt I ever made was a disaster. So you must be patient and do a little problem-solving. Hot glue is my best friend. And ALWAYS buy more materials than you think you need!
Rising to a challenge
Each costume I build takes more and more time and gets more and more elaborate. I grow as a maker each time; I learn new ways of doing things. Plus, I like to push myself.
My most elaborate costume would be my Morrigan costume. Morrigan is a “friendly” witch from BioWare’s Dragon Age series. She made her debut in the first game Dragon Age: Origins in 2009, and has remained a fan favorite. She made a return in the third installment that came out in November —Dragon Age: Inquisiton— but with a new look. This new look really stood out to me. It was gorgeous, bold, and recognizable: A ball gown that somehow perfectly fit her aggressiveness and wit.
The biggest issue with this costume was that I wanted it done before the game itself came out. Typically, I’ll gather every resource I can on an outfit I intend to create. For me, that means replaying or watching the subject and looking up other people’s costumes. I’ll study action figures if there are any, and similar looks. For Morrigan, that was tough because I only had trailers to go off of. Eventually BioWare released character kits with exact details of her outfit, down to the lace pattern used. I lucked out, because now I had every resource I ever needed right in front of me.
Building the costume itself took about two weeks straight. I sewed my own shirt and skirt. I altered and sewed two corsets together to make one long one. I molded a necklace and part of a staff. I sewed gloves. I made almost everything but the crinoline underskirt.
Walking around the convention floor in this costume is incredible. The skirt is huge. I feel so beautiful in it. The corset sucks in any self-confidence issues I might have. The gold contacts I put in my eyes helps me feel like the magical witch I am pretending to be. I’d venture to say it’s my favorite costume I’ve ever made.
Cosplay and pop culture
There’s almost no denying that “geeks” and “nerds” are at the forefront of pop culture in this day and age. It’s cool to be a nerd now. It’s cool to watch epic fantasies like Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. Some of the highest-grossing films are superhero flicks! One survey done by Variety shows that YouTube videogamers and comedians are more popular than red carpet celebrities among the younger generations. We are living in a time of nerd culture: magic, monsters, and new technologies are all the rage.
In fact, I believe that it is because of this rise of nerd culture that conventions are becoming popular within the mainstream. The addition of big-name actors to convention schedules certainly help gain the attention of “normal” (those who wouldn’t identify as a “nerd”) folk. New conventions are popping up all across the world, making them more and more accessible. As conventions become trendy, I expect to see more and more people walking around in costume.
Notably, dressing up at conventions has become so popular that you almost feel out of place when you’re out of costume at a convention, and some companies have taken notice of this. Video game developer BioWare (creator of the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series) has especially taken notice. They released what they call Character Kits– a collection of close-ups and descriptions related to a specific character– for their most recent game, Dragon Age: Inquistion. The kits were released before the game even came out to give cosplayers and fans an inside look into the character’s design. I definitely took advantage of these kits when making my Morrigan costume.
BioWare believes that cosplay is a conversation between developers and fans. Jessica Merizan, BioWare’s new media production coordinator, told Indiewire that, “There are absolutely more pockets in BioWare games now for cosplayers’ cellphones, no joke!” This means that fandoms and those participating in fandom discussions are now heavily impacting the media. BioWare brings in professional cosplayers to consult on character designs. Even the SyFy channel is in the cosplay game, airing shows like Heroes of Cosplay, a reality TV show about professional cosplayers, detailing their struggles and their competitive nature.
In the end, nerd culture is becoming more and more popular. Naturally so is cosplay, whether it’s because of the increase in conventions, the ascent of superhero movies as a genre, the depiction of cosplay on television, or because companies are literally designing characters with cosplayers in mind. It’s all very exciting and I’m thrilled for the future of nerdom and cosplay. The world of cosplay can only go up from here.