I think some people are drawn to costumes, often from an early age – Halloween is our gateway drug to cosplay. But for all the people who really don’t care about this year’s obligatory Halloween costume, seeing people – ADULTS – spending time and money to create costumes year round probably looks like some sort of cult. And I fully understand that “It’s fun!” really doesn’t cut it as an explanation. I mean, why would that be fun?! Why do people cosplay?! Too often, I see lists of “Why We …” as a sort of defense against those who would criticize. I don’t believe we need to justify to others why we do the things we love. Instead, I’d like to offer, for those who are baffled by this hobby, as complete an explanation as I can, and for those who looooove cosplay, a celebration of why we do what we do.
- Passion for Our Geekdom
Cosplay is an art that largely functions on the axiom, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” We cannot live in the world of our fantasies, we can’t dive through the screen into our favorite games or shows, or swim through the pages of the stories we love, but we can recreate little pieces of them to hold on to. So we show our love by replicating the props, recreating the costumes – in short, becoming a character, if only for a few hours.
There’s an element of escapism, in which we imagine ourselves in the world of our character and live in accord with all the ideals embodied there. We can be superheroes instead of accountants; mega-villains not project managers; nobility rather than … unemployed. At whatever convention or faire or whatnot we go to, we gather our kin together and make that space a part of the world we dream about and live there for a time, away from day jobs and traffic, bills and election cycles.
Escape can be an enormous relief at times. It’s not only the escape of being a different person or entering a different realm, but the creative process itself. For many people, especially those dealing with depression, anxiety, PTSD, or other issues, that process is calming, healing. The distraction of working out the details of a design and the meditative process of painstakingly assembling it is a wonderfully constructive and effective coping tool.
For a large subset of cosplayers, half the fun is making the Thing – that magical, beautiful Thing that brings you into the world of your geekdom. Whether it’s fabric or thermoplastic, leather or paint, there is a lot of work that goes into creating cosplay. Through these media, we can make something where once there was nothing. We can take two-dimensional pieces of … whatever, and through the alchemy of glue and heating and stitching, make it a three-dimensional shell for a live, moving person. J. R. R. Tolkien coined the term ‘sub-creation’ to refer to the making of an internally consistent, imagined world within an already created world (“On Fairy Stories.” Essays Presented to Charles Williams. Ed. C. S. Lewis. Oxford University Press (Amen House, London), 1947). He looked on this ability of human beings to create something wholly new as semi-divine. Cosplay recreates a small piece of these imagined worlds – consistent with their mythologies, characters, physics, and cultures – within our own.
Such artistry is also a great boost to one’s confidence. After months of tracking down materials, learning techniques, watching tutorials, fitting every last detail together, losing sleep trying to get it all done in time – or, hell, just stitching a seam straight for the first time, or getting that Worbla to hold a proper curve – there is a feeling of great accomplishment. Not only has this work of imagination become reality, but it has done so because of one’s own hard work. Challenging yourself to try a new technique or work with a new material can be daunting, especially if the whole costume depends on it. Having that risk pay off in a cosplay you can be proud of, and having your skill and effort recognized by others, is an incredibly rewarding experience.
I think cosplayers sometimes get an undue amount of criticism for “just doing it for the attention.” First of all, that’s a lot of work to put into “just getting attention” – there are easier ways, so it’s clearly not “just” about that. Second, yes, some part of it is about attention. Humans are social mammals, and, as such, our physical and mental well-being relies in part on getting along with our clan. Among our psychological group needs are the needs for approval, recognition, and positive reinforcement. If a person has spent 200 hours on a costume – hell, if they’ve spent 10 hours – their effort has earned some recognition, as has their talent and creativity. There’s nothing whatsoever wrong with wanting that.
- Finding Kindred Spirits
It is the tacit language of cosplay to know, at a glance, that you have found one of your clan. It’s the glance that says, “I see you are into this thing! I, too, am into this thing!” Whether you both cosplay or not, you have a shared love with a total stranger without needing to say a word. This is especially true at conventions and other cosplay-inclusive events, in which simply being there demonstrates a common interest, and forms a foundation you can easily build on. I know many cosplayers (myself included) who are more introverted people, so the crowds, noise, activity, and large number of strangers at events can be exhausting. Some people seem surprised to find that cosplayers can be introverted, because cosplaying assumes that people will be looking at you, taking photos, interacting with you. I find that cosplaying can make it easier for me to interact with strangers because they’ll often initiate a conversation. Not only does this eliminate the struggle of making myself talk to strangers, but we also already have something in common to discuss. The majority of my circle of friends is now composed of people I’ve met through conventions, either through discussions of costumes, running into them at multiple events, or having discussed a shared fandom.
- Bringing Joy
There is great joy both in forming this connection with others, and in knowing that something you created made another person happy. One of the highlights of any convention for me is when I wear a costume that is a recognizable character, and either 1) adults run up to me, excited to get a picture with a character they love, or 2) kids stare wide-eyed because they’re overwhelmed by having just met their favorite character FOR REAL. Something else I suspect many people outside the cosplay community don’t know is that there are a number of cosplay groups that work with charitable organizations (check out We Are Cosplay http://wearecosplay.com/ http://wearecosplay.com/and Costumers with a Cause http://www.costumerswithacause.org/). These groups do things like fundraising events or children’s hospital visits in character, to help support non-profit organizations.
So the next time you’re wondering about someone’s bizarre hobby, take a moment and ponder the value of that community, of that person’s creations, and of the good they might being doing. And for all you cosplayers, this is a fun, beautiful thing we’re doing! Never doubt that doing what you love is a good thing!