Derived from the words ‘costume’ and ‘play’, cosplay involves dressing up as characters from manga, anime, video games and various other forms of media. It can also involve displaying certain mannerisms of chosen characters. Cosplay has a complex beginning as well as significant importance to those who participate, particularly around the topic of identity.
The occurrence of cosplay has grown in popularity since the 1990s. However, the first instance is argued to have been in 1939 by two science fiction fans – Myrtle Rebecca Douglas and her boyfriend Forrest J. Ackerman. The duo wore outfits inspired by the 1933 film Things to Come at the World Science Fiction Convention in New York. Their cosplay proved to be a success, gaining the attention of many. With time, science fiction proved to be an inspiration for many early cosplayers, with series such as Star Trek inspiring people to dress up. Occurrences of dressing up as characters also became more common within science fiction conventions.
Douglas (right) and Ackerman (left)
The term ‘cosplay’ is believed to have been coined by Nobuyuki Takahashi in 1983. He first used the word in an article for a magazine he and some of his friends were writing for. Their difficulties in translating the word ‘masquerade’ into Japanese led to the creation of a new word to better capture the occurrence of Americans dressing up for the World Science Fiction Convention. They believed that the word ‘masquerade’ sounded ‘too noble and old fashioned’ to use to describe the occurrence. So, in an attempt to find a better way to communicate the phenomenon, the word ‘cosplay’ was created. Takahashi’s reportage of Americans dressing up for the World Science Fiction Convention is also believed to have inspired Japan’s own interest in cosplay. Yet occurrences of wearing costumes at conventions did occur within the country beforehand. Therefore, it is argued that his reportage helped make it more commonplace. Previous instances of cosplay within Japan – before the creation of the term – included COMIKET and Ashicon Japanese Sci-Fi convention.
Magazine article from My Anime written by Nobuyuki Takahashi in 1983.
Academics Garry Crawford and David Hancock (2019) argue that as anime and manga have grown in popularity, so has the number of people dressing as anime, manga or Japanese video game characters at conventions in western countries. They also highlight that this was most evident from the late 1980s and onwards. Such growth could possibly be attributed to the increasing number of imports of Japanese anime. The growth in the USA, for example, could have been influenced by the first US anime import company, Streamline Pictures, which began in 1989. Australia on the other hand has distribution company Madman to thank for anime imports. Madman began in 1996, purely as an anime-only distributor. According to Jason Bainbridge and Craig Norris’ academic article Madman Entertainment: A Case Study In ‘By Fans for Fans’ Media Distribution, Madman owned 98 percent of the market share in anime distribution in 2012. Titles licenced by Madman are extensive with titles including Black Clover, One Punch Man, Naruto, Attack on Titan, Fire Force, and countless more. The distributor also has its hold in the streaming industry with its anime streaming service AnimeLab. Hence, with its strong grasp within Australia’s anime distribution, Madman could take some credit in the cosplay boom. Their efforts in bringing anime to Australia led to greater exposure to Japanese pop culture. From this, interest and dedication grew, leading to cosplay, which has heavy anime themes.
Madman Entertainments logo
Today cosplay is a global phenomenon. Searching ‘cosplay’ on google trends shows that the term has been searched many times within Australia, peaking in 2015. And, maybe unsurprisingly, it is searched more in South Australia than in other states and territories. Seeing cosplayers is a guarantee at any given convention. Fans love to show their dedication to their favourite characters. Cosplayers spend precious time and resources building their outfits – perfecting them to look just like the character they’re cosplaying. AVCon itself holds cosplay competitions, further highlighting the drastic growth in popularity the subculture has had. It holds the largest cosplay competition in South Australia, with six categories contestants can win in. These categories include best female character, best male character, best amateur cosplayer, best experienced cosplayer, best skit performance and best cosplay group. In the social media space, cosplay holds firm. Searching the term on Facebook pops up with countless groups for cosplayers as well as cosplay pages. Other social media platforms such as Instagram, Reddit and Tumblr host a range of cosplay content. You can find endless amounts of content surrounding cosplay, from people sharing photos of their outfits, to tutorials and items for sale.
Cosplay is often not just about replicating a character exactly. Ellen Kirkpatrick (2015, 6.4) suggests that it is a “embodied translation” of a character into a physical form. She believes that cosplay is a means in which fans can “engage with and enact identity” (2015, 1.1). Further academic research into cosplay has highlighted that cosplayers often chose specific characters due to similarities in appearance, relatability or a fondness they have for them (Rahun, Wing-Sun & Cheung 2015). Takashi, the creator of the term ‘cosplay’, stated in an interview that “cosplay is a fan’s expression of his or her love for a favourite character.” Furthermore, he stated that “cosplay is one of those expressions in which fans use their entire bodies.” If you were to ask a cosplayer why they chose to dress as a particular character, they’d most likely tell you about the fondness they have for that character. Maybe they grew up watching Naruto and mimicking the hand movements to perform a jutsu. Or maybe they spent countless hours playing Pokémon games, grinding away to beat the Elite Four with their favourite Pokémon. Whatever the reason, cosplay helps give insight into the person behind the costume. Though it involves changing one’s appearance to mimic that of a character (or person) cosplay can help individuals express their own identity.
With the participation of cosplay comes a community of like-minded people. Cosplay can enable the development of new friends and support groups through a shared common interest. For many, cosplay requires creativity and motivation, highlighting the artistic attributes of the phenomenon. Within cosplay communities, people can find a place of acceptance and guidance. Whether that be from advice for makeup or prop-making, to encouraging and admiring the outfits that could be considered ‘weird’ to those outside the community. Cosplay allows a shared network just like many other hobbies.
So, with the history of cosplay and its significance to identity now explained, maybe you’re interested in giving it a go – or maybe you already cosplay. Whether you want to dress up for fun, compete in a cosplay competition, or even just see some amazing cosplayers in person, AVCon is the place to go.
Bainbridge, N 2012, ‘Madman Entertainment: A Case Study in “by Fans for Fans” Media Distribution’, Media International Australia Incorporating Culture & Policy, vol. 142, no. 1, pp. 5–15.
Crawford, H 2019, Cosplay and the Art of Play: Exploring Sub-Culture Through Art, Cosplay and the Art of Play, Springer International Publishing AG, Cham.
Kirkpatrick, E 2015, ‘Toward New Horizons: Cosplay (Re)Imagined through the Superhero Genre, Authenticity, and Transformation’, Transformative Works and Cultures, vol. 18.
Plunkett, L 2014, Where The Word “Cosplay” Actually Comes From, viewed 9 November 2020, <https://kotaku.com/where-the-word-cosplay-actually-comes-from-1649177711>.
Rahman, W-S 2015, ‘“Cosplay”: Imaginative Self and Performing Identity’, Fashion Theory, vol. 16, no. 3, pp. 317–341.
Runnebaum, A 2019, The Origin of Cosplay, viewed 8 November 2020, <https://japandaily.jp/the-origins-of-cosplay-6598/>.