“Cosplay” is one of those terms that I use on a regular basis without realizing that my listeners sometimes have no clue what I’m talking about (the same happens when I start speaking biochemistry). After having to define “cosplay” to many of my friends and then explain why me wearing a pink wig with a yukata to a festival in Japan didn’t count as cosplay, I decided to write this article. The more you start researching cosplay (and other related activities), the more you realize that every person’s definition is different. This is just how I see things.
Etymology: コスプレ, or cosplay, is a portmanteau of “costume” and “play”. The first word is pretty straightforward: a costume is involved. On the other hand, “play” can refer to a recreational activity or role-play. Those two definitions are not mutually exclusive, as role-playing—acting out a part in a scenario—is a form of recreation.
So WHAT is cosplay? It is the recreational act of wearing an outfit specific to a person, place, occasion, or thing—different from the wearer’s usual identity—and oftentimes adopting the appropriate mannerisms.
WHO cosplays? The short answer is コスプレヤズ, or cosplayers. The long answer is anybody who loves a certain work, individual, or style of dress—in other words, a fan with a penchant for costuming and theatre.
WHERE does one see cosplay? In theory, cosplay can happen anywhere. However, events that attract many cosplayers include conventions (anime, comic book, sci-fi, etc.), movie premieres, book release parties, photoshoots, Harajuku on Sundays, and cosplay cafes.
WHEN did cosplay begin? Mari Kotani claims to be the first cosplayer in Japan, having dressed up at the sci-fi convention Ashicon in 1978 (Thorn 175). The term “cosplay” comes from writer/studio executive Nov Takahashi, who used it to describe the costumed fans at the Los Angeles Science Fiction Worldcon in 1984 (Brooks).
Cosplay vs. Costuming vs. Role-play vs. Fashion
Cosplay is one of those loosely-defined terms, thus making the question of what is cosplay a subject of debate. The lines between cosplay, costuming, role-play, and fashion are blurred and can change with the individual. The existence of other costumed role-play activities, such as theatre, LARPing (live-action role-playing), and historical re-enactment, makes defining cosplay even more complicated.
“Costume” refers to a garment; cosplay incorporates the wearer in terms of make-up, hairstyle, and actions. Cosplay is usually kept distinct from Halloween and theatre because it has the potential to occur anywhere, anytime. For example, a person wearing a costume of Ryoma Echizen from The Prince of Tennis at a convention or even on the street is cosplaying because Ryoma does not exist in the reality of our world (as alien as an anime con might seem, it is still part of the Earth we know it). Halloween, due to its traditions, can be seen as a time when the reality of our world changes. On the other hand, an actor wearing the same uniform in The Prince of Tennis musical is not cosplaying because the stage represents the reality of The Prince of Tennis. Conversely, someone dressed as Titania from A Midsummer Night’s Dream outside of theatre and Halloween can be seen as a cosplayer.
Due to their association with fandoms, cosplay and LARPing are seen as the most similar. Whereas LARPing focuses on acting like a character though, cosplay focuses on looking like a character. Not all LARPers wear detailed costumes, and not all cosplayers act like the character they are dressed as (a big no-no in LARPing). Cosplay actually has more in common with historical re-enactment, which also focuses on clothing construction and incorporates behavior. One can argue that Ren Faires is an instance where reality differs from the normal world and thus people who wear period or fantasy costumes do not count as cosplayers. However, they are not much different from an anime convention; they just have more specific types of costumes (even though I have seen Jedi and ninjas wandering around). This is one of those cases where use of the term falls upon the individual.
Cosplay differs from fashion with the role-playing element. The wearer retains her/his identity with fashion whereas a cosplayer assumes a different persona even if she/he is not dressed as any particular character. That is why there is that divide between fashion Lolitas and cosplay Lolitas even if fashion Lolitas do not dress in those outfits all the time (they probably would if they could). It gets even more complicated with steampunk, a fashion trend/subculture that has many of its members creating alter-egos. Another tricky distinction is between fashion and costuming. If you watch Project Runway, you would think that there is a solid line dividing the two. However, haute couture can be just as impractical as a costume can be functional. It’s really up to the designer (and the critics).
Likewise, defining cosplay is up to the wearer. The general rule is that if one is not pretending to be someone else, one is not cosplaying. However, don’t be surprised if a person proclaims that it’s their Victorian Era alter-ego and not a costume (and don’t be mad if people cannot grasp the fact that you like wearing fancy clothes or vinyl all the time). Perhaps the most important thing in defining cosplay is the other meaning of “play”– that is, what truly matter is that one is having fun.
Brooks, Richard A. “Cosplay Goes Global”. TIME 19 Aug. 2009.
Thorn, Matthew. “Girls And Women Getting Out Of Hand: The Pleasure And Politics Of Japan’s Amateur Comics Community”. Fanning the Flames: Fans and Consumer Culture in Contemporary Japan. Ed. William W. Kelly. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004. 169-186.
Listening to: “Always” by Mika Nakashima