We Could Be Heroes: On the History and Trajectory of Cosplay

Spider-Man-Into the Spider-Verse

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a…Superman cosplayer?

Cosplay, as an activity, has been bringing together fan communities worldwide for decades, if not centuries. It’s considered, hands down, one of the best ways to feel connected to one’s favorite characters and the fandom at large.

But what exactly is cosplay? And how did it even come into being? To answer that, we need to go back a decade or two.

Cosplay: A History

Supergirl and Superman Cosplayers
Image Credit: Wiki Commons.

Cosplay, as a term, is derived from two terms costume and play. But what exactly is it?

Cosplay, in its current form, did not exist before the '80s. Sure, you could trace elements of the form in masquerade balls, ritual dressing up as characters from mythical realities, costumed theatre, and even early celebrations of Halloween.

But cosplay, in its current spirit, only took root when Japanese manga fans took to dressing like their favorite characters to relate to them better. It is, thus, not about anonymity. It is not about performance designed to be consumed by an audience (although that can be considered an aspect of it). It is about connections — between the fan and the character(s) they are cosplaying, between the fan and enthusiastic fan communities they belong to.

This is how Frenchy Lunning, in Cosplay: The Fictional Mode of Existence, describes the difference: “The goal in cosplay is not to produce and perform a character to take part in a theatrical narrative designed for an audience to view but for an individual fan subject to embody and identify with an adored character whose persona is real for the fan, actor, and/or creator of the cosplay costume.”

“The creation of the costume is as much a part of the loving and community-based aspect of fandom as the actual performance. This separates the cosplay costume from its roots in costume history,” she adds.

If you delve deeper into the history of cosplay, especially in Japan, Shojo manga fangirls first brought it into prominence. Shojo manga became a fashion haven, with full-body illustrations of characters that fans could recreate and play around with. The trend was mainly started by Shojo artists Yumeji Takehisa — famous for creating his line of manga-inspired clothing and merch — and Junichi Nakahara, who adorned his mangas with detailed full-body illustrations.

In Japan, cosplay is referred to as Kosupure. The term was coined by the founder of Studio Hard, Takahashi Nobuyuki, after he visited Los Angeles for the WorldCon. It was where he came across Trekkie cosplayers. He wrote about the experience extensively after he returned to Japan, using the term Kosupure to describe this “costume play” and encouraging readers and fans to participate in the trend.

In America, it all came to a head when Star Trek lit up screens nationwide in the 1960s. The show sparked conversations and interest in sci-fi in general and in the characters of the universe. Cue the fanzines; fan meets and, eventually, cosplay. Trekkies are known for the first few instances of cosplay at fan conventions. Superhero cosplay soon followed, and the craze spread, opening new doors, creating alternative fan-made timelines and tales, and letting fans finally become one with their favorite fictional characters.

Right now, hundreds, if not thousands, of competitions and fan conventions, are held across the world each year, allowing fans the chance to show off their creativity and connect with others in their fandom and fellow cosplay enthusiasts. The most significant and notable of these would be the WCS or World Cosplay Summit that’s held in Japan every year, filling the streets of the country with neon-hued characters right from the pages of every manga, movie, or media you may have ever encountered.

WCS has been instrumental in promoting and arguably even pioneering cosplay trends across the world. It began in 2003 and has only gotten bigger, brighter, and a little more bonkers ever since.

Current Trends in Cosplay

Lady Deadpool, Wanda Wilson Cosplay
Image Credit: Wiki Commons.

Since its advent, the cosplay industry has seen a massive boom. Today, there are dedicated sellers all over the world who exclusively design and sell clothes, accessories, makeup, and other merch cosplayers can use in their performances. Several cosplay costume companies have reported profits that keep increasing as the trend shows no signs of slowing down.

There are several well-known cosplayers around the world, some of whom have taken it up professionally. Huge international-level cosplay contests have also been on the rise and often invite cosplay influencers to judge their competitions and put on performances.

Cosplayers are known to routinely tweak their cosplays, with gender-bending and alternative storytelling becoming common norms.

There have been discussions about how the focus has moved from handmade to professional-grade costumes and equipment you can buy from stores. Some even have special features, like lighting up and movable wings, making the entire costume more believable. Thankfully, to participate in a cosplay competition, you need to make your costume from scratch.

The Tricky Parts

Anime Bunny Girl Cosplay
Image Credit: Wiki Commons.

There has always been a trend of hyper-sexualization of female characters among anime, manga, and gaming fans. Now that those characters are being embodied and performed by cosplayers, cosplayers are often finding themselves in a tough spot.

There are routine instances of cosplayers getting harassed at conventions, with fans forgetting that there are people with real personal boundaries behind all the makeup and fancy costumes. This becomes incredibly complicated since many professional cosplay influencers earn their keep doing sensual stuff and often own OnlyFans accounts. Their overtly-smitten followers often get caught up in that image and harass the performers at cons and in real life.

There is also the question of accessibility that I brought up once before. Making cosplay costumes is already a financially draining hobby. But the flashy equipment and accessories that businesses are pushing into the market can be even more economically inaccessible for the regular performer.

There is also the argument that cosplay isn’t always disability- or body-image friendly. There already is a shortage of representation of larger and disabled bodies on-screen, and the cosplay merch available on the market often reflects that. The idea of “accurate” representation also clouds people’s visions often, with fans often citing canon to comment on how big-bodied or disabled people cannot accurately represent the characters.

That said, cosplay as a performance and market trend is still growing, despite its long and illustrious history. So, perhaps there is room to hope that it will someday hold space for those now excluded, becoming even more accessible than it currently is and taking over the world stage one Chewbacca cosplay at a time.

Author: Ananyaa Bhowmik

Bio:

Ananyaa Bhowmik is a neurodivergent and queer pop-culture journalist with the Wealth of Geeks. She has previously worked with brands like Sterling Holidays, Myntra, Bajaj, and the Loud Interactive. She is an independent scholar, cat parent, and performance poet. Her areas of research and interest focus on and around digital marketing, Canadian indigenous history, queerness in media, and pop-culture and fandom studies.