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Why Does Cosplay Matter?

Each month in our “Why Does Nerd Culture Matter?” series, one of our authors takes a look at a different area of nerd culture and answers the question: why should we care?

You’ve probably seen a few people dressed up in costumes from Overwatch or the most recent Marvel movie. Dressing up as a character from your favorite fandom (outside of Halloween) is called cosplay. We’d like to share with you why we love cosplay and why cosplay should matter to you.

How We Got Started in Cosplay

In the mid-2010s we both had the time and the finances to begin attending cons semi-regularly. We saw cosplayers dressed up as some of our favorite characters from Star Wars or from superhero movies. It was incredible to see costumes and characters we loved from film embodied in person, and we decided to try our hands at our own cosplays.

Deanna decided to dress as her favorite Disney princess, Ariel, and make the blue dress she wears when she’s on land with Prince Eric. She had done a tiny bit of sewing when she was younger, so she Googled a bunch of tutorials to help her get started. And used lots of YouTube: the savior of cosplay. She began with the corset top, thinking that if she could complete the most challenging part of the cosplay first, the rest would be a breeze. However, she didn’t realize that the pattern and directions that she found included seam allowance and had added it in, making the piece entirely too big. She ended up removing an entire panel to make it fit correctly! It took a few months for her to figure out what she was doing and correct her mistakes. Her biggest challenge was learning how to use a sewing machine and properly read patterns.

Cameron wanted to dress as adult Avatar Aang from Avatar: The Legend of Korra but he wasn’t confident in his sewing ability, so he commissioned one of the moms of the youth group he led to make his cosplay. She took a Saturday and sewed the pieces based on reference pictures he showed her, and sewed and adjusted while Cameron was a good mannequin. He frequently wears the cosplay and gets compliments on it and passes those along to her since she was the creator.

I Don’t Understand Why You’re Playing Dress-up

One of the most common misconceptions we get from people who don’t profess to be geeky is that anything geeky is super niche. Cameron told someone in his church that he was going to cosplay at a con and they asked him if he was going to be the only one. Playing dress-up is something that only toddlers or actors do, right? Well, no.

We like dressing up for sporting events, too!

How is dressing up as your favorite character from a comic book to celebrate them and show your love of that media different from wearing the jersey of your favorite sports team or player? Fantasy football leagues—even though they include the word “fantasy”—are not considered geeky merely because they are discussions of real-world people instead of make-believe. Everyone is really excited about something, whether it be their favorite sports team or a video game that they’ve been waiting sixteen years for. We all want to express that excitement to those around us, and cosplay is a way that we can choose to do that. Cosplay is about conquering a problem and looking really cool as you represent something more than yourself.

Levels of Cosplay

There are lots of different ways to cosplay. There is no one “right” way to do it. Everyone can find a way to cosplay that works for them. Lots of people get intimidated by huge armor pieces and intricate cosplays, but don’t let that stop you!

You feel like, “I’m representing this character in real life for this kid.” It’s a pretty humbling experience.

If you’re cosplaying, you can make your own outfit from scratch, buy pre-made pieces, or commission someone else to make your cosplay. We’ve done every one of these things, and they’re all viable ways to cosplay. If you decide to make your outfit yourself, get on the internet and find all the resources you can. There are tons of patterns and tutorials out there from the cosplay community. We’re a part of the North Texas Cosplay Facebook group, and they’re really open to people joining and asking questions and helping them out. As long as you’re willing to learn and put in the research, you can teach yourself new things. Start within your ability and do one new thing at a time, and you’ll be able to learn much easier than trying to do a huge project far beyond your ability. If you want something large and intricate, don’t despair. There are a ton of people on Etsy that you can commission to make you a custom cosplay.

Many modern characters have outfits you can assemble from clothes out of your closet, like the Defenders’ clothes. A friend did Peter Parker’s casual clothes with her Spider-Man t-shirt and gloves similar to the ones worn in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Cameron wore a Spider-Man onesie with sweatpants to PAX South this year to cosplay Spider-Man from Into the Spider-Verse. This is called casual cosplay. Many cosplayers do this on chill con days when they don’t want to wear a large or very obvious getup.

Some cosplayers cosplay when they go to cons just for fun, while others cosplay for their livelihood. Sometimes companies will pay a cosplayer to construct a cosplay from their game and wear it and hang out at their booth as promotion. Cosplayers are sometimes special guests at cons and will have a booth and sell and sign pictures and host panels about cosplay or judge competitions. Yaya Han is a particularly successful cosplayer who has her own line at JoAnne’s fabrics and McCall’s patterns that have allowed cosplay to be that much more accessible to people wanting to participate.

Cosplay Community

In cosplay contests at conventions, most of the cosplayers will be in a holding room where you can just chit-chat until it’s your turn to go on stage. A group of friends has formed that usually attends Comicpalooza every year. This year Deanna is cosplaying together with a bunch of them as the princesses from Ralph Breaks The Internet in their lounge outfits. Several of us met by continually doing cosplay contests together, and we’ve formed friendships through that. If you walked past that person at a Starbucks on a typical day, you probably don’t have a reason to talk to them. But when you’re both in cosplay, you do. Even if you don’t know the character, you’re probably like, “Wow, how did you make that prop?” and trade skills and tips.

The cosplay community has become more vocal about their treatment by some fans, with the phrase “Cosplay is not consent” at the forefront of that movement. When a person cosplays, they are dressing up as a character, but they’re still a person underneath the costume and makeup. Just because a character or show would permit certain behaviors does not mean that they are okay for you to do in real life. Always ask permission before touching or taking photos of a person in cosplay. By the same token, some people in cosplay use that character as an excuse to be rude or crude to others. But there’s no excuse for that. Once we saw a really well done Snape who was talking to people in character but still being kind. This is the kind of cosplay that we want to see.

Recently at a convention in LA, a stalker set a cosplayer’s car on fire. That was a dark day, but the larger cosplay community rallied around her and started a GoFundMe for her to help raise money to replace her car. We don’t know this cosplayer, but we’re still connected to her through the hobby, and we want to support her and condemn the behavior of the stalker simply because we’re all cosplayers. They are our family. Similarly, in the Rebel Legion and 501st Legion, when members go through financial difficulties or health issues they will share GoFundMes or prayer requests, or ask that everyone wear pink that day in support of a person. In some ways, it’s much like the Church is supposed to be, where a group of people all have something in common that they believe in, and it makes them a family and they try to protect each other. That human desire to belong and want to feel included and take care of each other against evil is one of the things we love the most about the cosplay community.  

Everyone is really excited about something … We all want to express that excitement to those around us, and cosplay is a way that we can choose to do that.

What We’ve Learned Through Cosplay

One of Deanna’s favorite things about cosplay is interacting with kids while in costume. To that kid, you’re not just a person in a costume—you’re actually that character. Once a mom came up to Deanna with a little girl, and the mom said, “We’ve been looking for Wonder Woman all day! Can we take a picture with you?” Deanna wasn’t trying to be Wonder Woman—she’s just Deanna in cosplay—but she made that kid’s day because she got to meet and take a picture with Wonder Woman. It made her glad to be able to create that moment for a child. Disney characters especially get swarmed by little children. Marvel characters too—kids eat it up like crazy. You feel like, “I’m representing this character in real life for this kid.” It’s a pretty humbling experience.

Cameron loves the conversations he gets to have with people because of cosplay. They’re people who he may not have talked to otherwise that he will because they’re cosplaying a character he likes. There’s now have an entry point to have a conversation about geekdom. It’s the leveled-up version of wearing a t-shirt for a game you love. Even when they’re away from the con and still in cosplay, people will recognize them and start a conversation. We were at a public transit station next to a PAX, and people asked for photos because we were still in cosplay. Someone said, “My brother loves Aang, can I take a picture of you and send it to him?” It’s cool to see in this age of division just how similar people are. We may not all like the same specific character, but even outside of cons, we all enjoy some geeky things. That’s the bond we love to see.

Cosplay Matters

Cosplay is a way for people of like interests to become friends and share their passion and support each other. Some of our best friends we’ve met because of cosplay. Ultimately, cosplay is a method of self-expression that isn’t trying to match other people’s expectations and has a community that celebrates that creativity.

Previous articles in the “Why does Nerd Culture Matter?” series:

Why Does Dungeons & Dragons Matter?

Why Do Board Games Matter?

Why Do Comic Books Matter?

Featured image “Rebel Legion @ Star Wars Celebration Chicago 2019” by Chief Geek Photography (License, cropped and resized).

Cameron is an avid consumer of geek culture and enjoys games of all kinds. He especially loves Kingdom Hearts, PlayStation, and Magic the Gathering. You can find him on his podcast 1 Geek 4:11, writing about Magic for Flipsidegaming.com, and @HUmarWhitill across social media.
Deanna is a lifelong geek, a fan of Disney and Star Wars, a co-host of 1 Geek 4:11 podcast, a co-host of Faith, Trust, and Pixiedust podcast, and is Princess Deanna cosplay.

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