Before this year’s Fan Expo Canada, I never had much of an appreciation for cosplaying.
It used to be that the whole idea of people dressing up as their favourite popular or obscure character from various walks of fandom sounded pretty juvenile to me (I know, that sounds pretty judgemental, doesn’t it?). Yet hundreds of thousands of people around the world do it. The question is: why?
To get a better sense of this emerging art form, I sat down with four career cosplayers at Fan Expo Canada this week to get a sense of why they pursue this pop culture pastime. I think, in the end, I came away with a better sense of what it’s about and a new appreciation for the different levels of enjoyment these professional artists possess.
This evening, Kay was decked out as Wonder Woman but her “go-to” costume is Jessica Rabbit. She sees Jessica as a feminine character who doesn’t have an agenda and who has a funny side that people don’t fully appreciate like when she says in a deadpan manner: “I love my husband. He makes me laugh.”
When I asked Kay what her perspective on cosplaying was, the answer pretty much consisted of unadulterated play.
“It was a way to interact with people on the other side of the country,” Kay related to me. “Being interested in other people’s fandoms got me excited and happy.”
For Pike, cosplay is pure fun. She gets to indulge other people’s fantasies of bringing their favourite characters to life. There’s a sense of personal joy in dressing up and providing entertainment to people in a connected, interactive fashion. Cosplay is simply play in a communal manner with one person as the focal point.
I kind of got that part. But to me, cosplaying seemed like a tremendous amount of effort and energy to provide entertainment for others, even if it did create fun and enjoyment for the cosplayer as well.
I figured there must be some other elements that drove these artists to work so hard so I kept talking to others in the community to get some additional perspectives.
Mexican cosplayer, Nadyasonika (nadyasonika.com / @Nadyasonika) got started in the same sort of social way. Attending a Con in Mexico with high school friends a few years ago, she got that same sort of communal fun experience as well. But for her there was more of a learning curve as she got deeper into the art. There was a shortage of costume shops in Mexico, so she had to develop a sense of craftsmanship and skill in creating her own costumes and self-sourcing her own materials. While that may be true for other cosplayers, the raw materials themselves were also fairly hard to find as well.
For Nadya, challenge was the real draw. Being able to create a costume from the ground up gave her a true sense of satisfaction. While the social draw was also there, the drive to individually create and express herself in this new art form was a major attractive component in the need to cosplay. One of the challenges Nadya embraces is her love of playing male characters. She loves to see the surprise on convention guests’ faces as she reveals her gender to them.
However, as this is a new art form, one of the challenges is its acceptance.
“Sometimes, as a cosplayer, you don’t get the support that you expect,” she says. “Because it’s, like, a culture that is very new. But in the past years… the culture has been growing and thanks to that, it’s been easier to do cosplay.”
Nadya went on to express her appreciation for the support she received from the staff at Fan Expo Canada but also expressed how cold the temperature is compared to her native Mexico! Her next great challenge is the League of Legends finals in Korea where she plans on playing Jinx.
I could begin to see what Nadya was getting at: there is a competitive edge to cosplaying that not only offers a set of external boundaries to break, but there is also the intrinsic sense of competition. As a runner, I get that idea of pushing yourself to break records and limits. So this began to give me more of a wider idea of the appeal of cosplaying. Still, eventually, you get tired of competing with yourself and it’s not like there are a great amount of competitive venues out there for cosplayers – yet.
Ivy Doomkitty was the third cosplayer I spoke to (Facebook fan page / @IvyDoomkitty), and she offered me a completely unexpected perspective on cosplaying. From a personal perspective, she gave me a very impressive level of reflective thoughtfulness. Actually, I have to say, she started to really change my perspective on the whole art form.
Ivy’s entry into cosplaying was a longer process than the other ladies I’d spoken to. She had been going to cons for about nine years.
“I loved the idea of dressing up as your favourite characters… and being able to celebrate your favourite characters from fandom through cosplay, but… it wasn’t something I did immediately. And the reason for that was, I was very afraid.”
Ivy’s entry into cosplay was greeted with some harsh criticism. She told me that she didn’t feel that she had “the typical body shape, as it were” and because of that, she felt that she wasn’t able to handle the name-calling or being picked on.
But something happened a couple of years ago when Ivy decided to take the plunge at San Diego Comic Con and just have fun with it. She designed and made a Star Trek original series redshirt outfit. She discovered a lot of the fun elements and interactivity that the other cosplayers had already related to me but as she cosplayed with the fans, she also discovered a level of acceptance that she hadn’t noticed was there when she was initially thinking about cosplaying.
When the fans asked her about what her favourite episode was, and related to her more in terms of Star Trek the show as opposed to any consideration of her body image or the like, the floodgates opened. “After that, I just started making costume after costume and I got a little bit crazy!”
The appeal of cosplay for Ivy was a personal sense of conquest. She learned to work fabric, operate a sewing machine and went through the whole trial-and error process. While this was a little frustrating, the creative outlet and the sense of expressing herself overrode any sense of fear or concern over her self-image. The results are spectacular. Ivy’s range of costumes range from superheroes to fantasy figures and while she may have an atypical sense of her body image, she has created a truly fantastic and cosplay persona that is not only fun to appreciate but is also a testament to personal courage in demanding acceptance for her artistic expressiveness.
Based out of Los Angeles, Ivy was a guest at Fan Expo last year and was extremely happy to be invited back again. “I love Canadians. They’re just chivalrous and super nice. The Fan Expo staff has been phenomenal.”
Ivy’s schedule has certainly ramped up. Creating under a deadline is a bit of a frustration for her, as she acknowledges that attending show after show in her personas is a little bit of a crunch. But the fact that she is in demand and travels extensively speaks volumes about the level of acceptance she has discovered through cosplaying and obviously her skill at the art.
Her favourite costume is Velma from Scooby Doo. “It’s a classic and kids love it. Everybody was usually Daphne, but I love geeky girls. I can relate to her more. But my “go-to” costume is Doctor Doomkitty – which is a mash-up of Doctor Doom and my name.”
Ivy’s goals include more acceptance for cosplaying. When she started, there wasn’t anyone who stood up for body positive images. “There were a lot of negative comments when I first found my photos online. It hurt… it really did. But for every one negative comment I saw, there were at least twenty or thirty positive ones. So why let that one negative comment affect what you’re doing? And that really stuck with me.”
She still gets negative comments, but she doesn’t let that dictate what she does. She determines her own happiness through cosplay, and really, isn’t that what we should all be doing in our lives?
I really admired her last message: “Walk the floor like you own it”.
Yaya Han was the last cosplayer I spoke to. Probably one of the most prolific cosplayers currently on the scene (yayahan.com / @YayaHan), Yaya got started fifteen years ago back in 1999. She described herself as “a moody kid who didn’t know how to sew but was a huge fan of anime and manga.” No one taught her to sew and she was completely self-taught. She also learned to do everything from the ground up. As cosplay was completely new and undiscovered, she knew this was the way to express her fandom.
Her love of craftsmanship has kept her going all this time. For her this is a very unique blend of craftsmanship that incorporates fan love and expression. It is a very artistic expression that is different from even fan art as it is an interactive art form that you wear and demonstrate. However, she recognizes that there is an extremely practical side to this art form that goes beyond just dressing up and taking pictures.
“If I only loved the glamour side of this, I’d buy costumes.”
Yaya finds that Toronto fans have a really high regard for cosplay. Based out of Atlanta, Georgia, Yaya has always wanted to come to Toronto to experience this community and the love for the art form. She sees that it’s becoming a growing interest and culture and that it really is expressed well in Canada. While the love of glamour is present, there is also a huge appreciation for the craftsmanship that goes into the art form.
Materials, research and keeping to a deadline are the major obstacles to becoming a successful cosplayer, and success is the driving force that keeps Yaya oriented. She has a true passion for the art but she also is a fairly savvy entrepreneur who understands the value of time management.
Yaya espouses the need for organization. Seeing that artists can be “notoriously disorganized,” this is the biggest impediment to a cosplayer’s success. Keeping deadlines is very important. “I’m a business-woman and I keep a business schedule and I have to plan out things when I want to make costumes and then have to make travel arrangements.”
As Yaya states, cosplay is becoming more than just an art form, “It’s becoming an industry now. The face of cosplay is changing.” While cosplaying has become a viable profession and her goal is to keep being creative and keeping true to her creative vision, she also wants to continue giving back to the cosplay community in terms of teaching and motivating other cosplayers to follow the pursuit of their own craft. As Yaya says: “Enjoy the journey. Take your time and revel in the experience of it.”
And so there it is. I have heard four different but interlinked perspectives in the pursuit of my own understanding of this art form here at Fan Expo, and I now have a better appreciation for the different motivations behind this art. They may range from a sense of fun and community to a complex and challenging career path, but any way you look at it, it’s a viable and growing interest that more and more people are adopting.
In short, it’s a part of pop culture that will probably become more mainstream in the near future as it offers so many reasons to be involved. Whether it’s about play, competition, self-improvement or business, I think I have a greater understanding of it and for that I’d like to thank the four cosplayers who took a moment to chat with me and Fan Expo Canada for providing the forum where I could meet them all under one roof.
And if I can learn from all this, maybe some of you out there can too?