What most of us get to see, cosplay-wise, is the part where a costumed fan stands before the flash of the camera, posing as their favorite characters from movies, comic books and games.
What most of us experience is the ‘product.' The end result. But there is a person underneath that costume. That person has a story, that person has reasons for putting themselves out there for the world to see. And that person likely put in a lot of work to bring a character to life. Turns out, there is a whole lot more to cosplay than just what can be photographed and put into galleries.
To be a cosplayer is to be a fan—the cosplay itself not much different in spirit than writing a fanfiction or hoarding collectibles of your favorite media. "I don't think anyone in their right minds would hot glue N7 armor to their skin for a Mass Effect cosplay or go two days without sleep while sewing Super Sentai suits if they weren't a fan of it," Elizabeth DeLoria, an Australian cosplayer with a fiery attitude explained to me in an interview. "When you're a fan of something, cosplay is like the ultimate homage."
Perhaps not surprisingly, there is also an element of escapism to cosplay. A nerdy outcast can find not only an outlet for their devotion to something, but also a strong community that shares a similar passion.
Such was the case with cosplayer Kat Elisabeth (photographed by Ger Tysk above as Toph from Avatar: The Last Airbender), who was "teased pretty badly" growing up because of her interest in games, anime and sci-fi, she told me on an online chat. That didn't stop her from fostering "a love and connection to [characters]" that was strong enough to want to bring said character into our world. In the face of such obstacles, every convention can feel like a victory, Kat said.
"When you're a fan of something, cosplay is like the ultimate homage."
The issues are not always bullies, though.
"I used it to get away from domestic violence and abuse, my family's terrible financial status, problems at school, and sometimes, myself," Kat revealed. "I cosplay to breathe life into fabric, to get rid of me for a few days, as an escape, and for a love of the culture."
The culture is key component to why cosplay has found such popularity. The social aspect of cosplay is huge; in its most ‘traditional' expression, cosplay is a thing you do with other people, for other people (not to say you can't do it for yourself, too.)
Kat as Rosa from Assassin's Creed
"The vast majority of my friends are cosplayers," DeLoria explained, and entertaining people through your cosplay means "being asked for photos, making passersby smile, watching kids freak out because they're meeting Batman for real."
Of course, as sincere and as earnest as the sentiments fueling cosplay are, they still have to put a costume together. First a character must be chosen. Or, perhaps it might be more accurate to say that the character chooses you. Folks tend to gravitate toward characters that they feel a connection to.
The degree to which a cosplayer might take it upon themselves to create a costume and reach "screen accuracy" is staggering. Sometimes, the efforts require you to go through a crucible of sorts. "There is a lot of pressure, I personally feel, in looking exactly like your character," she explained.
Elizabeth as Thor
Meeting expectations to adopt a character's essence can be grueling. Things go wrong with your sewing machine, your wigs, your props, you run out of money, real life gets in the way, you don't know how to put something together, the paint job went wrong, the glue didn't hold, you didn't lose enough weight—the number of things that can get in the way when doing cosplay is crazy.
Going the extra mile to cosplay can also be expensive, and certainly there are cosplayers who are willing to shell out as much money as it takes to ‘become' a character. As respectable as that dedication to being accurate is, it's not something DeLoria and Kat always have the privilege of doing. They have to regularly improvise and sometimes even rely on individual flair for a costume that's not exactly a recreation.
"I prefer to not worry about screen accuracy," DeLoria said, "because it means I can also add a little bit of artistic license while still keeping it recognizable."
Plus budgeting means having to be creative, which in a way could be seen as a test of how much passion a cosplayer has. When someone figures out how to use $2 plastic bins instead of foam or wonderflex for a part of a costume, it's difficult not to feel awe at their ingenuity.
"What stops me from cutting myself a break due to my economic status and mental issues is that I know someone out there has it worse, and is still doing stellar work."
"Its hard to accept that you WON'T produce amazing, awestriking work without some cash, effort, and time, time time," Kat said, "What stops me from cutting myself a break due to my economic status and mental issues is that I know someone out there has it worse, and is still doing stellar work. And I will find that sonofabitch and throttle them until I learn their secrets."
Wearing something is not all there is to a cosplay though, and this is where things get particularly fascinating. Both Kat and DeLoria have taken up extra hobbies to supplement their cosplays. In researching for Avatar cosplays, for example, Kat came to take up martial arts such as tai chi and kung fu. This allowed her to take up better poses for pictures, as well as be able to assume a character more fully.
Sometimes, this also involves adopting affectations for skits and acts that one puts on whenever they're interacting with fans. If you cosplay as, say, Commander Shepard, for instance, you might like ending conversations with his signature "I should go."
Elizabeth as Bane
"When I put on my Bane mask it's almost impossible for me to not imitate his voice and stride around," DeLoria remarked, "When I'm Mary Jane I call everyone 'tiger.' It's often just little things but if I can get people to laugh or get excited because it feels even a little tiny, itsy bitsy bit real to them, that's a rewarding feeling for me."
DeLoria has also taken up dieting and weight-lifting in the past. Sometimes, what you do to look like a character isn't healthy. DeLoria recalls going on a ‘very intense' exercise kick for a Valkyrie cosplay, along with eating habits that left her in pain. "I have a body type that I'm not comfortable doing a lot of cosplays in" DeLoria divulged, "I have big hips, a large bust, I'm not the most physically fit of people."
Given how much of your body can be on display in cosplay, the extent of stress one feels can be great.
"No amount of working out, creams, lotions, or makeup would leave me satisfied," Kat recalled, when thinking about her earlier cosplay days. "I had poor body image anyways, and an eating disorder slowly creeping up on me before emerging into full static bloom last year that left me crying over my body after hours in the gym when I should've been doing schoolwork."
One's natural body poses more challenges than one might think when it comes to cosplay. Well-meaning cosplayers will tell you that it's not about looking exactly like a character, especially if it's physically impossible, but rather about having fun and engaging with the community.
Kat as Yoko from Gurren Lagann
Still, I've occasionally stumbled on darker parts of the community, who get angry when someone dares to cosplay as someone that's a different gender, race or especially body type. Kat told me about an early cosplay where she was called out for not being the right skin tone, and she's had to "lighten my skin, cover freckles, [and] attempt to color my darkass eyebrows."
Those alterations stem from a desire to recreate a character and she doesn't have a problem doing it. "The effort and experience in the end is more worth it than looking just like them," she assured me. The issue is when other people don't respect a cosplayer simply because they put themselves on display.
Sometimes, accusations of doing a ‘sexy' cosplay merely for attention rise, and here is where the ‘fake geek girl' stuff pop up—is that cosplayer actually clueless about their costume? While unfair, in a twisted sense the insecurities make sense: if some of the cosplay community is made up of defensive outcasts that have rallied together for the communal love of a piece of media, someone not actually being knowledgeable about that media might be seen as ‘threatening.'
But as women, the pressures that both DeLoria and Kat face are tied with the expectation that a woman's body is public domain and they have a responsibility to never subject people to anything less than a hyper-idealized body. Anything else is offensive and a blatant disregard for the poor sensibilities of a hyper-entitled viewer.
When you look toward ‘sexy' cosplay as a means of empowering yourself, as DeLoria does, things get complicated. In a culture that is convinced that a woman can ‘ask for it'-dressing provocatively as, say, Metal Gear Solid's EVA-can cause people to think they are being invited to flirt, touch or harass a cosplayer.
Elizabeth as EVA
"I find it's a hard balance because I am a very sexual person and I enjoy characters like Ivy and Black Cat where I get to play around a little bit with that, but at the same time I know a lot cosplayers aren't like me and I don't want to perpetuate this idea that if you're in a 'sexy' cosplay, you HAVE to be flirtatious and want to flirt. I like getting into character when I cosplay and it's part of why I choose the characters I do, but a lot of cosplayers don't, so sometimes I worry that while I'm prancing around calling everyone 'sweet-heart' and blowing kisses that I'm making some people think it's okay to assume all the other cosplayers at the convention are going to act the same and be okay with that kind of interaction."
Kat has a number of stories of cosplay-community gone wrong when it comes to ‘sexy cosplay.'
But as women, the pressures that both DeLoria and Kat face are tied with the expectation that a woman's body is public domain and they have a responsibility to never subject people to anything less than a hyper-idealized body.
"I don't ask for the comments of 'WHORE/BITCH/SLUT' or 'PUT ON SOME CLOTHES' while I'm trying to get to my hotel, nor do I ask to be glomped/grabbed/have someone try and remove my top/kissed/pulled at/or anything like that. It just makes me feel worse about myself. I can't look exactly like this pale, really oddly proportioned, yellow-eyed bitch on the screen, so obviously I'm just here for people to ridicule, no matter how much I like the character."
There are even instances when, after an assault, depending on what the cosplay was, a cosplayer might be blamed for the incident. "Well, maybe you shouldn't have dressed like that" is a literal thing someone has said to Kat, and there have also been occurrences where people shut down any conversation that brings up an incident of assault.
She's not discouraged, though—the love for cons and cosplay is too great.
"People have a right to feel awesome....I try to make my costumes to the best of my ability, and really have to work on realizing that I can't please everyone/wont always have the right complexion/body type, etc [but it's fine as long as it makes] ME happy."
"For the most part," DeLoria clarifies, "we're a pretty welcoming bunch and watching the uninitiated become one of us over time is something we really enjoy...I firmly believe that if you want to cosplay a character, you should go for it."
And ultimately? Despite the time, dedication and sometimes drama that the cosplay life can create, the camraderie, culture and strength that cosplay gives is worth it.
"I've met most of my best friends and have been introduced to this amazing (though sometimes frustrating) culture," Kat declared. "Totally heartfelt and touchy feely, but fuck it, I'm being honest. I'm not that high schooler running away from herself through wigs anymore..I love the collaboration, the ability to fly my nerd flag, the challenge, the community, the characters I choose, and bringing it all together, through literal blood sweat and tears (and lots of being broke.)"