Why you should care
Because it’s all about seeing and being seen.
We are in the midst of a cosplay explosion.
Cosplay is the practice of dressing up as characters from films, TV shows, video games, books and comics. It’s vastly different from the dressing up most of us do for Halloween, both in time and resources spent crafting a costumes as well as devotion to inhabiting a character while wearing it. Cosplay has become a main attraction at events like New York Comic Con, where in October legions of fans from all walks of life showed up to pose as sci-fi, fantasy and superhero characters. The rise in cosplay’s popularity in the U.S. has resulted in a reality TV show and a new international cosplay tournament, and has contributed to a passionate online community.
We live with a sense of urgency about the question of what our “real” identities are.Cosplay has been part of fan culture for decades in the U.S., but it’s never been so widely embraced. It’s infectious fun, even for those of us who don’t dress up. After all, it’s a pretty amazing thing to find yourself surrounded by Dr. Who, Captain America and a whole squad from Attack on Titan. As a mode of self-expression, cosplay taps deep into the desire to mold and control our identities. As a spectacle, it brings to life the characters we most admire. Cosplay is all about creating and managing our identities at a time when we are seeing and being seen all the time, in the real world and online.
Dressing up is both escapist fantasy and authentic self-expression. The costumes cosplayers make are at once derivative and highly individualized. For some cosplayers, fidelity to source material is of highest importance. For others, adding a twist — a steampunk Wonder Woman, a genderbend Poison Ivy — conjures a new, personalized version of their favorite characters. What cosplay offers is an equal opportunity for fans to step into imaginary universes they love, and inhabit, for a moment, the heroes and villains they admire. “I like being a role model for other people,” the cosplayer Joker’s Harley told the packed house at a New York Comic Con cosplay panel.
It’s a performance that requires an audience, which we’re more willing than ever to provide. Ask a cosplayer if you can take a photo, and he or she will immediately strike the signature pose of his or her character. When cosplayers from the same fictional universe bump into each other, they pose together by way of greeting. As spectators, we find it irresistible to take a photo. We pose with cosplayers as if they were the characters themselves. There’s so much power in that pose that it’s actually quite difficult to get cosplayers to not pose. (It’s awkward for both you and Batman if you take a photo of him while he’s eating frozen yogurt or having a smoke.)
Cosplay reflects so many of needs that underpin our current culture: the desire to shape and control our image while remaining genuine; the desire to create kinship with others who share the same passions; and the desire to see and be seen as celebrities, superheroes or role models. In social media, we pose all the time. We live with a sense of urgency about the question of what our “real” identities are.
Conventions used to be for geeks, but now geeking out is cool.
We increasingly find our identities in the pop culture tribes to which we belong. People proclaim their love for The Walking Dead, League of Legends or Adventure Time with the same pride that used to be reserved for sports teams. Conventions used to be for geeks, but now geeking out is cool. It’s no wonder, then, that cosplay is finding its way into fashion: Famous cosplayer Jinyo has launched his own online fashion retailer; bridal designer Alfred Angelo recently unveiled a line of Disney princess wedding dresses; and countless clothing design companies have popped up to sell all manner of cosplay-inspired gear like “superhuman streetwear.” Fandom is an increasingly important part of how we define ourselves. And now, more than ever, it’s acceptable to wear that fandom on our sleeves.
Cosplayers bring to life our favorite characters and their epic moments in a series of living pictures. It’s the tableau vivant of our age, and conventions have become pageants of our pop culture icons.
On an early morning at New York Comic Con, I watched two women excitedly approach a man dressed as an anime character to ask him for a photo. He responded by holding up a bag of accessories and saying, apologetically, “I’m not complete.”
Even more fascinating poses from the con below …
Photography by Devin Doyle for OZY